The Game with No Clock

Pace of play

I know today is an NFL day and I realize that this is gonna feel way too early for a baseball column, but it’s closer than you think. Between the 12th and 19th of February all players report to camp and every team will have its first workout by Wednesday the 21st. As the NFL winds down, sports junkies like me start paying more attention to the other goings on and this week the big talk is, once again, about “pace of play.” So we’re all clear on my position, I oppose any and all initiatives aimed at changing the way a Major League Baseball game proceeds.¬†

Pace of play has come to the forefront again because news has broken that Commissioner Rob Manfred is preparing to impose a 20-second pitch clock this season because the Players Union is set to reject a pace of play proposal set forth by MLB. Many were surprised that MLB has the power to unilaterally impose such a major rule change, but reports indicate that possibility has always been there. For more details on the proposal, you can read Yahoo’s Jeff Passan, who got a hold of the memo, but the concern from MLB is that average game time was 3 hours, 8 minutes last year and they believe they can easily shave 10 minutes from that time.

I find the notion that changing average game time to 2 hours, 58 minutes is somehow going to boost TV viewership or ticket sales absolutely laughable. Baseball is, and always has been, a leisure sport, but more importantly, it’s the one game where defense controls the ball and there is no clock. Furthermore, I don’t understand who the beneficiary of shorter MLB games is supposed to be. As a regular attender of Washington Nationals’ games and someone who watches a lot of baseball on TV, I feel confident that they are not doing this with me in mind; they have my money, they have my commitment, and I never complain about how long it takes.

Who else is currently happy with game times? Advertisers probably don’t object to more TV commercials or people spending more time at stadiums. Vendors are probably fine with people being at the yard longer. The players are rejecting the proposal, so this isn’t about them. I am led to believe that we are back to the idea that baseball is waning in general popularity, so I want to take this opportunity to remind you that baseball is doing just fine.¬†Devotees will remember that I wrote about the death of baseball last September as we had another terrific season with a very watchable postseason and a fairytale ending (for the Houston Astros).

But what do the players think?

Anyway, as I mentioned early on, my position on this is firm. The grounds on which the players are rejecting these changes raise some interesting points and some that might be a smoke screen, but let’s have a look:

1- Not all game time “issues” are caused by pace of play as controlled by the players: I find this to be a very valid concern. If we’re so obsessed with slashing game times, let’s get rid of replay and stop going to commercial between innings. Somehow those items never enter the debate. All the pace of play fanatics talk about is what the players are doing or how many visits to the mound there are.

2- Focusing on speeding up the game could lead to injuries: I feel like our society is always fine with hiding behind “player safety” when it comes to the rules so it was probably smart for the players to invoke it here. Realistically, this isn’t an issue for position players, but the concern for pitchers is quite sincere. If you start forcing relievers to compress their warmup routines, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see an uptick in arm injuries.

3- Worrying too much about pace of play robs baseball of tradition: While I agree with this, I find it a little overblown. The game has already changed a lot and will continue to do so. 50 years ago you would never have seen a game where there were a dozen pitchers listed on the scorecard, but that’s how the game is played and coached today. The mound has been moved, park dimensions fluctuate, the strike zone is different, etc.

In closing I will say that I see both sides of this argument and recognize that I am probably on the wrong side of history here. I can’t reasonably tell you that “baseball is fine” and then turn around and say it needs to be protected from change. It seems like change is coming and, as always, the game will be continue to enchant generation after generation of fans. I do think that we need to be careful though. Change for the sake of change is rarely a good idea and I think a lot of dyed in the wool baseball fans agree with me.

If you think pace of play is a legitimate problem for baseball and its popularity, I want to hear from you in the comments below.