FORT MYERS Fla. — Baseball, our timeless national pastime, has a time problem. A rash of rule changes announced last week by Major League Baseball included several intended to keep things moving. The most controversial: Beginning in 2020, relief pitchers must face at least three batters unless the side is retired or an injury occurs.
It’s a dramatic attempt to reduce relentless mid-inning pitching changes that crept into the game in recent years. That’s not the main reason games take well over three hours — we’ll get to that in a moment — but it doesn’t help. Too often we’ve seen managers use four relievers to get three outs in the seventh inning with a four-run lead, bringing the proceedings to a halt and sending sleepy moms, dads and their children staggering for the exits. To many of us, pulling a reliever who retired a batter on one or two pitches seemed a waste of manpower. Why take out a guy who’s doing his job?
We applaud Commissioner Rob Manfred and his staff for trying to speed things up. This being baseball, opposition has been fierce. Pitchers hate this rule. And whether it actually goes into effect remains to be seen; the players union vowed to talk MLB out of it. “I think there’s a lot of time between now and next year,” Players Association Executive Director Tony Clark told reporters in Tampa last weekend.
MLB considered imposing the minimum rule this season, but instead went with two other changes: Reducing mound visits from six to five, and shortening the breaks between half-innings. Twins player representative Kyle Gibson is glad MLB delayed it.
“I’m not a big fan of that one,” he said. “I think the home fans just want their team to win. If that means a couple of extra pitching changes, I don’t think they’ll care.”
Former Oakland pitcher and current SiriusXM radio host Dallas Braden (@DallasBraden209) was less diplomatic, cheekily tweeting:
CLEAN. IT. UP!
3 batter minimum? Y’all really tryin’ to change the game to capture the attention of a demographic that was just eating Tide Pods for fun. Is this because there’s no “Initiate game experience strategy” button on the calculator? Tighten it up!
— Dallas Braden (@DALLASBRADEN209) March 14, 2019
And former Twins reliever LaTroy Hawkins (@LaTroyHawkins32) is right there with Braden. He doesn’t care how long a game takes and isn’t interested in indulging casual fans. Among his tweets:
Funny how things are changing to speed up the game and Garner attention from a generation that doesn’t have the attention span to watch a full game if it were 1:30 every night.. https://t.co/vfWNZy86y5
— LaTroy Hawkins (@LaTroyHawkins32) March 15, 2019
Insulting potential customers probably isn’t the best call. And by the way: Most players I talk to understand baseball games lasting deep into the night are a problem. Last season the average Twins game took three hours and ten minutes, 17 minutes longer than 2008 and tied for the fourth-longest in baseball. Target Field usually starts emptying out around 9:30 p.m. no matter what the score, which is why the Twins will start some night games this season at 6:40 p.m., a half hour earlier than normal.
MLB did this to itself by relentlessly chasing revenue. You wonder why all World Series game are at night? That’s why.
As much as anything, lengthy breaks between half-innings — MLB’s concession to television to squeeze in more commercials — created this mess. Breaks expanded from one minute in the 1970s to 2:25 for locally-televised games (2:45 for national games) by 2017, with even longer breaks in post-season. No wonder some games lasted until almost midnight.
Shaving 20 seconds off breaks last season cut game times by four minutes, from a record three hours eight minutes to three hours four minutes. This year breaks will be reduced even further, to two minutes in all games provided MLB’s broadcast partners go along. Manfred could drop it one minute 55 seconds in 2020. That’s a good start.
Twins assistant player rep Jason Castro would love to see one-minute breaks, with commercials shown on a split screen for the first minute or so of each half-inning.
“Some of stuff were seeing in football and golf with some of the split-screen ads could be very beneficial,” Castro said. “It’s a way to not get rid of commercials and have a loss of revenue. We can even end inning-break clocks and start when we’re ready if we have both screens up at the same time. That’s a way to streamline games a little bit further.”
Other changes for 2019 include a more hard-and-fast July 31 trade deadline, revamped All-Star Game voting procedures, and a $1 million bonus to the All-Star Home Run Derby winner.
In 2020 rosters increase to 26 players until August 31 but are limited to 28 in September, when teams used to carry up to 40. That allows some September minor-league callups while ensuring roughly equal manpower in both dugouts. Former Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin and former manager Bobby Valentine, among others, complained for years about baseball going by one set of roster rules for five months and a different set in September when races were being decided.
“Just making sure you put every team on equal footing is a big part of that change,” said Twins Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey.