We stand on the cusp of the 2018 baseball season, and the excitement is palpable. How invigorating to know this will be the season that Major League Baseball cuts down on all those tedious mound visits and warmup pitches, and games start to move along at a brisk pace, and young people take notice and say, “Hey, this game is pretty fun!” and ratings soar, and flowers bloom in the Wrigley Field ivy and baseball reclaims its place as America’s most popular sport.
And if you buy all that, I have some A’s 2018 playoff tickets to sell you. They’re for Game 3 at the new ballpark at Howard Terminal.
Major League Baseball is an old man with high blood pressure, osteoporosis and a need for double hip replacement, and its doctors just prescribed a mani-pedi.
Let’s be clear. I actually favor the pace-of-play rules that MLB commissioner Rob Manfred announced Monday. They include limiting mound visits to six per team per nine innings, plus one additional visit for every extra inning; a minor speed-up of between-inning breaks; a clock for pitching changes; and direct feed of slow-motion replays to teams’ video rooms, to speed up challenges.
Forget for a moment that the new guidelines leave plenty of room for shady workarounds. MLBers, don’t forget, are the Leonardo da Vincis of bending rules.
The 2018 changes state that when a team is out of visits, the home plate umpire has the discretion to allow an extra mound soiree if he determines that pitcher and catcher “did not have a shared understanding of the location or type of pitch that had been signaled” — the dreaded “cross-up.” Another section says the ump can give a pitcher extra time for warmup pitches if he believes the pitcher “is at a legitimate risk of injury” should he not do so. So get ready for historical highs in cross-ups and at-risk arms.
Whatever. At least Manfred is trying something.
It’s true that MLB contests have begun to drag. Average length of games went from 2 hours and 49 minutes in 2005, to 2:55 in 2007, to 3:00 in 2012, to 3:08 last season. At the same time, attendance per game has decreased in four of the past five seasons (with the one year of gain practically negligible). And local TV ratings declined for 17 of the 29 American teams in 2017. The Giants were down 28 percent (for obvious reasons). The A’s were down 17 percent (for no obvious reason).
MLB looks at the data and sees causation: Slower games are turning people off. So quicken the pace and watch the fans come flooding back.
One problem: The new pace-of-play modifications aren’t likely to have a huge effect on game times. You want to know why baseball games are taking longer? Because specialization is king now, and managers are asking their pitchers to face fewer batters. In 1998, teams used an average of 3.46 pitchers per game. In 2017, they used an average of 4.22. Another problem: rampant strikeouts. Starting in 2008, the league has set a new record for Ks-per-game every single year, climbing from 6.77 in ’08 to 8.25 last season.
Hitters are being more selective and swinging for power. Managers are making more pitching changes. And we’re all begging someone to put a damn ball in play.