Baseball games are too long.
I love baseball, but this has become almost inarguable. Here are the lengths of every playoff game so far in 2017, through the Divisional Series (according to Baseball Reference):
The median length, then, of an MLB playoff game is 3 hours and 38 minutes long. (Median is better than average, because of extra-inning games.) That’s longer than any other major sport’s games. People (self included) have argued for years that baseball is different: it’s a sport without a clock and we should respect that. But baseball games never used to be this long, and the rules of the game are roughly what they were. And part of preserving tradition is to preserve the way something felt. Baseball games felt quick and crisp even a couple of decades ago, except for interminable Yankees/Red Sox games. Now all the games seem to plod along.
Therefore I suggest that MLB adopt what I call the 9:30 Project, with a goal of making a “typical” night game end by 9:30 PM local time. That essentially suggests that baseball needs to get its median game length down to 2:25. Playoff games are longer than regular season games, which clocked in at 3:05 on average. But there is still a long, long way to go.
So MLB needs to have smart people that love the game try to figure out how to preserve the essence of baseball while also reducing the length of the game. So we’re not going to consider things like reducing the number of innings in a game or the number of players, but we will consider ways to speed things along. I’ll offer a few suggestions to start:
1. Pitch clock. This needs to happen, sadly. Here’s how I would implement it.
— If the bases are empty, the pitcher gets 20 seconds from the return of the ball to the mound to make a pitch.
— If the bases are not empty, the pitcher gets 20 seconds from the return of the ball to the mound to either throw a pitch or throw to a base.
— If a batter steps out of the box the clock resets.
— Violations are automatic balls.
2. The batters’ box rule. Barring an emergency, per the home plate umpire’s discretion, if the batter steps out of the box without having swung at the previous pitch, the batter is automatically assessed a strike. The batter may step out on swings and misses or foul balls, but once they return to the box, they may not leave until after the next pitch.
3. A two-batter rule for pitching changes. If a pitcher is taken out of the game before remaining on the field for a minimum of two batters, they are ineligible to pitch for the next four games. Teams can replace them on the roster for those four games with another pitcher from the minors, but the goal is to limit pitching changes organically. You need to allow pitchers to come out in the event of an injury they sustain while facing their first batter, but if they do they go on the 4-day list. A simple restriction on pitching changes with an injury exemption leaves the rule open to abuse. This is the largest change proposed, because it makes the most extreme lefty one-out guys (LOOGYs) much less valuable. But the constant pitching changes have become a drag on the game, and this would encourage teams to structure their bullpens differently.
4. The end of challenges. Challenges are terrible for the game, the way they are administered now. Right now a challenge becomes an opportunity for frame-by-frame review of contact with a base, rather than a way to ensure that a tag was placed by a fielder that was at the base prior to the runner returning to the base (the spirit of the rule, if not the letter). The current system makes stolen bases, caught stealings, and pick-off plays much less exciting, as a “safe” call is always vulnerable to the Zapruder film-level analysis of individual frames of video.
It should be simpler. Replay is designed to make sure that obvious calls are gotten right. MLB should restructure its replay rule with this in mind. Instead of allowing challenges, it should have a fifth umpire in the booth at every game. This umpire’s sole responsibility is to watch the game (on mute) and determine if a play looks like it was obviously wrong. The umpire would signal down to the crew chief that a play looks wrong. At this point the umpire would have exactly one minute to determine if a play should be overturned. If the ump cannot make the determination within 60 seconds of consideration, the play stands, period. Overturns should be based on obvious missed calls, not on marginal plays that could go either way at full speed.
So we’ve added 15 new umpire jobs. In exchange, we have the technology to eliminate one of baseball’s biggest bugaboos: the inconsistent strike zone. The home plate umpire should now rely on a computerized system to determine balls and strikes. This would allow umps to spend more time focused on rules pertaining to plays in the field.
5. Shrink the strike zone and deaden the ball
. We need to encourage pitchers to throw more strikes. Many don’t because they have to pitch so carefully to avoid giving up homers. This is in part due to the way that the baseball is currently constructed
. MLB needs to deaden the ball slightly, to increase drag on flyballs and encourage pitchers to pound the strike zone more.
On the other hand, it needs to shrink the strike zone to give hitters more of a chance to put the ball in play against the amazing hard-throwers that tower over the hitters today. I recommend raising the strike zone to the top of the knee, rather than the bottom, as it is often called now. The goal of this combination of fixes would be shorter at bats and more balls in play, resulting in more opportunities for quick outs.
These are just five possible avenues for length-of-game reduction, and I’m sure there are other good ideas floating around. It’s imperative that MLB consider its options carefully. Baseball is different than the other sports, and changes should be made with an eye on preserving the things about baseball that are great. But the length of the game is now a crisis, and MLB should treat it as such.