The way I see it, baseball is facing a three-pronged challenge to stay relevant, and they’re all intertwined.
I’m writing this with one hand on the keyboard at all times, to ensure I don’t dilly-dally with excessive trips to the refrigerator. And no verbs longer than two syllables, to hasten the reading process.
Finding ways to accelerate — excuse me, already forgot my two-syllable rule; speed up — baseball games is a little more complex. But it’s the hot topic of the day in MLB.
As well it should be. I love baseball, and always will. But even the hardcore fan can’t deny that MLB games are dragging like never before. The average length of game in 2014 rose for the fifth consecutive year to 3 hours and 8 minutes, the highest since at least 1950 (and undoubtedly ever, though records don’t go back any further).
But it’s not even a time-of-game issue. A taut, three-hour game, filled with non-stop action, would be compelling. The problem is pace, not length. The average contest these days is filled with so much dead time — from delay tactics by the pitcher and hitter, to endless mound visits, to seemingly interminable pitching changes — that the rhythm and flow has been ruined.
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Now, baseball is a cerebral game, renowned for its nuance and subtlety. Sometimes, the anticipation is as sweet as the actual moment. The pauses help frame the strategy, which is part of what we all love.
But that pastoral nature has its limits, even to a zealot. Imagine how the casual fan feels. Heck, even Anthony Rendon, the rising Nationals star, said last year he doesn’t like to watch baseball because it’s “too long and boring.”
If you don’t think it’s changed for the worse, just watch a random game from the 1960s, ’70s or even ’80s on a sports classic channel. Watch how crisp and continuous the action is. That was before what I call the “Nomar-ization” of the game (endless trips out of the box to adjust batting gloves, helmets, etc.), not to mention the Tony La Russa-ization (left-right pitching matchups to the point of near-paralysis in the late innings).
Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated came up with some scary stats last year. His research showed that 29 minutes and 11 seconds of dead time per game has been added in just 10 years. And in that same span, the time in between balls in play has increased 18 percent.
To its credit, baseball is attacking these trends with some rule changes for this season. The time between innings will be monitored much more closely, managers won’t have to leave the dugout for replay challenges and batters will be required to maintain one foot in the batter’s box.
It’s a good start. But what I find most encouraging is that new commissioner Rob Manfred has shown a willingness to consider much more radical changes to pump up the game. Not that all of them should be implemented, mind you. I cringe at the thought of legislating against defensive shifts, as Manfred recently spitballed. But progressive thinking is called for to tweak this sport in the 21st century, and Manfred seems to understand that it can’t just be lip service.
The way I see it, baseball is facing a three-pronged challenge to stay relevant, and they’re all intertwined. Pace of game obviously is one of them. There’s also the alarming decline of offense, with runs-per-game dropping to 4.07 in 2014, lowest since 1981.
And then you have the fight to win over the youth audience, which is increasingly turning to other sports or video games rather than baseball. This obviously is a complex issue, particularly in the inner cities, where the financial burden of travel ball is daunting, as Andrew McCutchen pointed out in a recent essay.
It makes intuitive sense, however, that if you pick up the pace of the game, and increase the offense, baseball would be more appealing to all audiences, but particularly young people.
Yes, I know it sounds counterintuitive to simultaneously strive for a quicker pace and more offense. But it doesn’t have to be. If you cut out dead time and replace it with real action, it’s a win-win.
Ken Rosenthal of Fox came up with one suggestion that tackles both issues: requiring relievers to face more than one batter per appearance. It would both cut down on all those late-game pitching changes and increase the chances that sluggers aren’t stymied by platoon disadvantages so often. Voila, less stoppage time, more runners racing around the bases.
It’s time to throw everything on the table. MLB supposedly is considering shrinking the strike zone next season to induce more offense. Good. Let’s talk about it. There’s going to be a pitch clock in many minor leagues this year. Bring it on. Let’s see how it works.
Let’s keep refining instant replay. Let’s talk about adding the DH to the National League. Let’s kick around the idea of limiting mound visits. Maybe it’s time to lower the mound again. Lets be open-minded and forward-thinking.
Baseball continues to thrive when measured in revenue and attendance. But that trend won’t hold unless MLB finds a way to make the game more vigorous and exciting.
The good news is, they know it, too.