When I was a kid, my grandfather explained baseball to me by saying, “the best thing about this sport is there is no clock. No time limit. If the game takes three hours on a Saturday afternoon in the summer sunshine, then it takes three hours. None of this ‘beat the clock’ nonsense you get from football or basketball.”
One of baseball’s core attractions is that there is no time limit: The game goes on until one team scores at least one more run than the other – no matter how long that takes. On a warm, sunny summer day the ballpark is an escape from the hustle-bustle of modern life. If a slugfest breaks out and both teams struggle to get 27 outs, the game still continues until the final out is recorded. But the modern era has brought with it the scourge of four-hour nine-inning games. What was once baseball’s most charming feature has become it’s most worrisome bug.
To his credit, Commissioner Rob Manfred seems bound and determined to address common complaints levied by fans: This time, he’s decided to tinker with extra-inning games by implementing one of the sandlot’s time-honored rules – the automatic runner. Whenever a game ran long on the neighborhood diamond, and dinner time was approaching, it was time to put a runner on base in order to hasten the winning run scoring. Manfred and MLB will implement this cheat in two rookie leagues this season, ostensibly to “test” how it would work in a professional context, and be seen as doing something about baseball’s clock management issues.
This idea is doomed, however, both because it will have very little effect on the length of games, and because it is an amateurish response to an aspect of the problem that won’t address the heart of the issue. Perhaps a few extra-inning games will be shortened because the automatic runner at second base scores on a leadoff single. Wooo? No, I mean, who cares? There is no way baseball fans want this time cheat as part of a major league game, and they REALLY wouldn’t want it as part of a playoff baseball game – was it a problem in the World Series that Game Seven was tied after 9 innings?
Per this 538.com piece, the average game length continues to increase – with the games getting longer as the season wears on. The longest games are its most important: The World Series is supposed to be a showcase for what is best about the sport, but as games stretch past midnight on the East Coast, fewer and fewer fans are investing the time to watch every pitch. While baseball is mostly a welcome break from our busy lives, it simply cannot have 1/6th of our day, or 1/4th of our waking lives. That is too much.
Manfred’s stated solution is the “pitch clock.” But no clock is required. The rules already stipulate that a pitch must be delivered in 12 seconds, or an automatic ball is registered if there are no baserunners. However, no umpire enforces this bit of the rulebook – and in the postseason, it would be a major scandal for the rule to be enforced as written. Besides, the time between pitches isn’t what is causing baseball’s temporal issues.
In the past, games regularly finished in under two hours. But that was before the advent of television broadcasts – which require advertising, which requires time. There is a full two-minute break between each half-inning so that commercials and sponsors can promote their products. And often, this mandated break becomes two minutes and some-teen seconds, as umpires are often lax about keeping the various warm-ups of the pitcher and the fielders on schedule.
However, absolutely no one is going to cut the advertising out of a baseball game – if the broadcasters want an extra 30-second spot in the World Series, they’re probably going to get it in the next TV rights contract. Advertising pays the bills. But baseball can absolutely solve its time issues with a couple simple fixes:
- Television and radio commercial breaks take up nearly an hour of time in each game. Yet, players only need 30 seconds – maximum – to transition from hitting to defense. The pitcher needs 8 tosses – not two minutes of entrance music and light stretching. Why not maximize the time and create efficiencies?
Baseball needs ads – it should be using the space on the margins of the TV screen and having each at-bat and event sponsored. “The leadoff hitter is sponsored by Budweiser – enjoy the game with a Bud, everybody.” Boom. Product sold. Advertiser happy. Baseball fans happy. And we’ve saved a 30-second commercial spot.
But the time management problem isn’t just a function of game presentation: There is a ton of wasted time in between the lines that should be addressed. For example – mound visits, especially by pitching coaches, and especially multiple trips have to stop.
- Each team gets one “timeout” per game, where the pitching coach can visit the mound for up to one minute.
The 2016 World Series made a TV star of Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio, who seemingly trudged to the mound once per inning – or twice, depending on if there had been a pitching change – and then had an in-depth conversation with his hurler about candlesticks or which of the four pitches this guy throws to use next. This is a huge waste of time. It is also a deliberate time-wasting strategy: The pitching coach is out there to “settle down” the hurler, but also to buy time for a reliever to warm up, or to quiet the crowd after a big hit.
By limiting the pitching coach to one visit, per game, teams can no longer use him as a delaying tactic. The pace of play will increase and, hopefully, result in increased offense as well. There is no reason the pitching coach cannot have his pow-wows with the hurler between innings; they can discuss the upcoming hitters and what to throw at that time. They can implement signs from the dugout to advise their charges between each pitch. There is no compelling reason that Bosio should be on my TV so much. Pitching changes have become an inexorable part of the game. Pitching coaches visiting the mound several times a game is both unnecessary and a huge waste of time.
Combined with umpires actually enforcing the time-limit between pitches already in the rule book, baseball can cut 30 minutes or more from each game – bringing these tense postseason battles to a more reasonable run time. There’s no need for a clock, Commissioner. Just empower your umpires to enforce the existing rules about time-between-pitches and eliminate the limitless time-wasting trips to the mound by the pitching coach.
So, try this nonsense with the automatic runner on second base and get some silly stories after it finally gets used in a game in the middle of July. The real solutions to your time management problem are staring you in the face. Enforce the pitch clock as already written, limit the number of mound visits, and re-imagine how you present the game on TV while making advertisers more a part of the live action. Use up the dead space on the margins and sell more passive ads. Have announcers do more live reads. And focus on making your game crisp and fast-paced while not interfering with the actual outcome.