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Will Major League Baseball’s rule changes actually do anything to speed up the game?

Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports
A scoreboard operator changing the score during the sixth inning of a preseason game between the Boston Red Sox and the Minnesota Twins in Fort Myers, Florida.

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:

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:

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.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Kenneth Johnson on 03/22/2019 - 06:31 pm.

    It’d be interesting to know how much time is spent for game delays when the umps leave the field for a consultation with an official viewing the game in New York City. I say let the umps on the field do the job they’re hired to do. With super hi-def, super slo-mo video replay we time ad time again where a correct call was made on the field. These guys are professionals and they are human – they will make errors on occasion as do the professional players playing the game.

  2. Submitted by John Helgerson on 03/23/2019 - 10:38 am.

    What’s missing in all of this is the sheer boredom resulting from all the delays — mound visits, commercials, umpire conferences, pitchers strolling around and taking forever to get ready to throw between pitches, batters stepping out to adjust wrist bands and gloves even without taking a cut. The last 3 innings of every game take almost as much time as the first 6. Fans at the ballpark and at home can go out for lunch and not miss a thing. In the days of 2:30 to 2:40 games, you were kept engaged in the game, much more exciting tha today’s nonsense! MLB is losing fans all in self-interest of making more money.

  3. Submitted by Kyle Anderson on 03/23/2019 - 02:11 pm.

    I formerly attended about 10-15 MLB games per year and watched others on TV. In 2018 I did not attend a single game and watched none of the World Series on TV. I now have soccer season tickets. MLS is 38 matches and each lasts just under 2 hours. I would be interested in coming back to MLB but changes would have to be drastic like possibly going to 7 inning games lasting just about 2 hours and reducing the number of games to 140.

  4. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/24/2019 - 11:23 am.

    I really get a kick out of those talking about not making changes so “we don’t change the game.” Guess what, the game has already changed, and it’s for the worse.

    And the lecturing about how the game is just misunderstood and unappreciated by the masses, especially those youngsters. It reminds me of the tendency for soccer aficionados who lecture non-soccer fans that they’re missing a superior game. It’s just not the way to gain fans for any sport.

    When a few NBA teams figured out they could win by holding onto the ball the ball forever, fans didn’t care for it at all. So the league wisely went to a shot clock. No ticket buyers, no league.

  5. Submitted by William Stahl on 03/25/2019 - 11:18 am.

    Baseball-Reference.com has an interesting page that compares game statistics, including average 9-inning game length, number of runs, pitchers, etc. I was surprised to read that the average 9-inning game length is (only) 3 hours. When I grew up in the 1960s the average was about 30 minutes less. Another difference between then and now was the use of about 2 more pitchers per game on average.

    The games certainly seem longer now because, in my view, the interminable commercial messages between innings, batters frequently stepping out of the box, and other things. The additional number of pitchers used now results in several more mound visits and some other slow-down tactics to give relievers time to warm up.

    I don’t think that LaTroy Hawkins is necessarily the best person to assess the length of game issue. The fact is that in big markets there are a great many other things available to do every day than attending a baseball game. Every activity that requires consumer time has to deal with this competitive fact of life.

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