Baseball can be mesmerizing and maddening at the same time. At least to those of us who treasure how it won our hearts.
Take the Twins’ dramatic, 10-inning, 11-7 victory Sunday over Tampa Bay. It took 4 hours and 18 minutes to play the first nine innings, and 4:38 for the whole deal. Long, excruciating games have become too common in baseball and especially for the Twins, who entered the All-Star Break leading Major League Baseball in average time-of-game, at 3 hours and 13 minutes. That’s one minute longer than the Red Sox, whose games seem to drag on for days. (Ten years ago, Twins games took 2:53; in 2004, it was 2:48, per baseballreference.com.)
And yet, across the street at the Target Center, a bunch of us watched the final innings on a flatscreen television in the media room before the Lynx faced the Connecticut Sun. Others stood around another TV down the hall at the security station, engrossed. Almost all were men over 40.
Between the wise-guy remarks and the strategy questions (“Who’s Tampa Bay’s closer?” which nobody knew), it was captivating in an exasperating way. Brian Dozier’s game-winning grand slam against a five-man infield, on Tampa Bay’s 196th pitch of the day from its ninth pitcher, sums up every that’s wrong — and right — with the game.
Baseball lost its standing as the national pastime to the NFL in the 1960s, and it’s been playing catch-up ever since. Though today’s players are bigger, faster and more skilled than their predecessors, the sport itself has regressed. Games take too long. Batters take too many pitches, and pitchers take an eternity to deliver them. And MLB lags behind the NBA in promoting and marketing its stars. Average attendance across baseball is down about 4,000 per game from its peak in 2007.
In the first few days of July, in the middle of baseball season, two things dominated the national sports conversation: NBA free agency, and soccer’s World Cup. That’s troubling for baseball.
Except for lowering the mound in 1968 and finally cracking down on performance-enhancing drugs in the early 2000s, baseball hasn’t done enough to counter competitive trends that turned too many games into ponderous slogs. It chased every dollar from fans and TV networks instead of asking tough questions about where the game was heading. Fortunately, Commissioner Rob Manfred seems willing to listen and do something about it.
I’ve covered MLB since 1988 — starting in Boston, coincidently — and I’ve never encountered so many people within the game as worried about its future. During the first half of the season, I talked to dozens of players, managers, club executives and broadcasters, trying to figure out how to save baseball from itself while preserving what makes it fascinating and unique. Toronto outfielder Curtis Granderson, for one, was so engaged we continued our conversation over two days.
Faster-paced and better-played games would help.
So could some small changes. But there’s no need to tear apart the rulebook to engage more fans. Here’s how to do it:
1. Shorten the breaks between half-innings. By a lot.
At a press conference the day before the 2014 All-Star Game at Target Field, someone asked retiring Commissioner Bud Selig about his legacy. The first thing he mentioned: MLB’s increased revenue. Baseball needed firmer financial footing, certainly. But the pursuit of TV money led to one of the major contributors to baseball’s pace predicament — ever-widening breaks between half-innings for TV commercials.
Breaks were about a minute until the mid-to-late 1970s, when they increased to one minute 40 seconds. Eventually, they stretched to two minutes 25 seconds before MLB cut back to 2:05 in 2016. In the postseason, breaks are nearly three minutes. Naturally, game times lengthened accordingly, from 2 hours 30 minutes in 1978 to a record 3 hours 8 minutes last year. (This year it’s down to 3:04.)
Television technological advances offer an easy fix: Limit breaks to one minute, and use a split screen to show a second minute of commercials while monitoring the action. It works for auto racing and the NFL. Cutting one minute off each break, times 16 breaks — 17 if the home team bats — can bring most game times back under three hours.
Also: Begin games no later than five minutes past the hour. Games used to start at five past before local networks pushed them back to 10 or 15 minutes past to run more commercials and pre-game fluff. It’s a small thing, but important to fans with young kids who note the time, not the scoreboard, when deciding to leave night games. With split-screens and graphics, plus half-hour pre-game shows, there’s no reason to delay the first pitch much beyond the top of the hour.
2. Impose a twenty-second clock between pitches
Expect MLB to adopt some version of this for the 2019 season. Once the pitcher receives the ball on the mound, he has 20 seconds to begin his windup, come set with men on base, make a pickoff throw, or step off the rubber. If the pitcher fails, a ball is assessed; if the batter lollygags, it’s a strike.
Shaving off seconds between pitches adds up. Per FanGraphs.com, all but 24 of the 428 pitchers throwing at least 20 innings this season averaged 21 seconds or more between pitches. Boston’s David Price (27.4) and Houston’s Justin Verlander (26.9) are among the slowest-working starters; Jose Berrios is the fastest Twins starter at 22.8. Many relievers take even longer.
Nothing slows a game down more than a pitcher fiddling around instead of toeing the rubber, getting a sign and throwing. Fielders love playing behind fast workers because it keeps them alert and sharp. “We all know a game with pace is going to bode well for the defense,” said Twins manager Paul Molitor, a Hall of Fame infielder.
So why don’t more pitching coaches demand it?
“I haven’t been around a pitching coach that doesn’t stress that,” said Baltimore manager Buck Showalter, one of four current or former managers on MLB’s competition committee examining pace-of-play. “I can’t think of a one. I’m sure it seems like to you and people who watch baseball that we must teach take your time, work slow and go deep in counts.”
Showalter thinks a pitch clock is inevitable. He would also love to see MLB limit mound visits even more, from six per game to perhaps four.
3. Limit replay reviews and defensive shifts
Baseball instituted replay reviews in 2014 to correct the rare egregious mistake by an umpire. Now reviews happen too frequently and take too long, with managers stalling up to 30 seconds while the club’s video guy decides whether there’s enough evidence to challenge the play. Nothing kills a crowd vibe like standing around for three minutes waiting for a replay official to determine if Max Kepler made a diving catch or trapped the ball.
Enough. One challenge per team per game, period. If the New York office spots something, they can electronically alert the crew chief to halt play and straighten it out.
And shifts? Enough of those, too. Two infielders must be on the infield dirt on either side of second base when the pitcher begins his delivery.
4. Increase rosters from 25 to 28, with 25 active per game
Teams routinely carry 12 or 13 pitchers. Through the early 1990s, they usually carried 10. More pitchers means fewer bench players and fewer managerial moves that don’t involve pitching changes. Not good.
Here’s the thing: Typically, a manager has only 23 players at his disposal. Yesterday’s starting pitcher isn’t available, and neither is the starter from the day before. Maybe there’s a reliever who worked the last three days and can’t pitch either. So why let them take up roster space? Designate three players inactive for the day, leaving 25 who could actually play, with a maximum of 10 pitchers. This also allows a team to keep a pinch-hitting specialist or a one-position backup, traditional reserves that clubs with two- or three-man benches can’t afford anymore.
That also sets up baseball for other improvements.
5. Reconfigure the leagues and balance the schedule
Granderson, who grew up near Chicago and played for the Tigers, Yankees, Mets and Dodgers before joining the Blue Jays, spent much of our interview posing questions of his own. Why, he asked, does baseball play its most important games (postseason) in its worst weather? Why are NBA players like LeBron James more well-known than baseball’s biggest stars? And why can’t fans in every city see Mike Trout every year, as NBA fans do with LeBron?
ESPN annually ranks the world’s 100 most famous athletes, based partly on endorsements and social media popularity. This year, not a single baseball player made the list.
Baseball remains too regional and needs better marketing. You know your team and a handful of stars within the division, but how many Red Sox, Angels or Dodgers can you name? Mookie Betts and Scooter Gennett could walk down Nicollet Mall without being recognized, but Kevin Durant and LeBron wouldn’t make it ten feet. (Betts and Gennett lead the AL and NL, respectively, in batting.)
One solution: Reconfigure the leagues geographically and try to balance the schedule. It’s not feasible for every team to visit every city every year, but it may be workable more frequently than it is now. Expansion would only make this harder.
“I’ve always been a big fan of inter-league play,” Granderson said. “If we’re trying to make (the game) more popular and more exciting, wouldn’t you want to see, up close and personal, the players everybody’s talking about?”
One possible realignment:
American League: New York Yankees, New York Mets, Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Atlanta, Miami, Tampa Bay, Washington.
National League: Minnesota, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Toronto.
Continental League: Los Angeles Dodgers, Giants, Los Angeles Angels, Arizona, Seattle, Colorado, San Diego, Oakland, Texas, Houston.
Each team plays 108 games within its league (12 vs each opponent), and the remaining 54 outside.
“I’d love one day to see everybody play everybody,” Dozier said. “It would be good for our fans to see Bryce Harper every year, or see the Padres every year, even if it’s just for a two or three-game set, rather than play, say, the Detroit Tigers 21 times. I’m not complaining by any means, but I think it would be good for a game as a whole and grow the game.”
A few other scheduling fixes: Designate four doubleheader days, each game lasting seven innings — common practice in the minors — followed by a mandatory off-day. And the final game of every series, on “getaway day,” must be a day game. Nothing guarantees sloppy play more than a team getting to the next city at 3 a.m. or later after a night game. So no more Sunday Night Baseball, which everybody except ESPN hates.
“In some cities where they give us a getaway night game because they might draw 400 more people… at that point you want to start maybe taking into consideration the players in a long season,” said former Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, another member of the competition committee.
6. Allow a universal designated hitter — with a twist
Here’s the twist: The DH can bat three times in a game, anywhere in the lineup, without the player he’s hitting for coming out of the game. Maybe the DH bats three times for the pitcher. Maybe you sent him up the light-hitting shortstop with two on and two out. Manager’s choice. (One caveat: Can’t bat more than once per inning.) With the fourth at-bat, he has to stay in the game batting for the pitcher.
Why this way? It adds strategy. It allows a starting pitcher who can handle a bat, like Madison Bumgarner, to take his hacks without putting the manager in a bind later in the game. And it’s an intriguing compromise to one of baseball’s most polarizing issues.
7. Encourage individuality
More bat flips. More fist pumps. More celebrations. More spontaneity and less suppression of emotions. Let players be players. Nothing wrong with spicing up the old game up a little.