Sheehan: The pace-of-play problem began in 1884

From Joe Sheehan at FanGraphs on April 13, 2017:

Two pieces ran at FanGraphs earlier this week that addressed critical issues facing Major League Baseball. Dave Cameron pointed out that, with walk rates ticking back up in the season’s early days, that the Three True Outcomes (walks, strikeouts, home runs) accounted for over a third of all plate appearances. Jeff Sullivan then wrote that early-season games were averaging a snappy 3:11, with lag time between pitches jumping by more than a second.

Scores of smart people have taken aim at both issues raised by the Wonder Twins of FanGraphs. Pace of play has replaced PEDs as Baseball’s Big Issue. What I’m not sure we’ve discussed sufficiently is how those two things — TTO baseball and lag time between pitches — are correlated, and how the style of baseball being played in 2017 directly affects the pace at which baseball is being played in 2017.

Let’s back up. Baseball, as evolved from various stick-and-ball games in the 19th century, was originally a contest in which the pitcher’s role was similar to that of a slow-pitch softball hurler. His job was to kick things off by offering up a ball that the batter could whack into the field of play, where the real business of playing baseball happened: running and throwing and fielding and even throwing the ball at a baserunner to record an out. The pitcher was the least important player on the field in the game’s early days. There were, in fact, no mechanisms to force the pitcher to give the batter hittable pitches; it was just considered his job to do so. Batters were even able to request high or low pitches, the better to fit their swing.

As the game became professionalized and more competitive at the highest levels, pitchers started trying to exercise more control over their deliveries so as to keep the batter from making solid, or even any, contact. This led to the creation of the strike zone and, subsequently, walks. Pitchers pushed the rules that mandated underhand deliveries, so as to generate more speed on the ball, and pushed them some more, until the game gave up and let pitchers throw overhand in 1884. This was a key moment in the evolution of baseball, the moment the game stopped being a battle between the batter and the defense, and became a battle between the pitcher and the batter.

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Originally published: April 13, 2017. Last Updated: April 13, 2017.