MLB Implements Pace Of Play Rules

by Douglas Fox | Posted on Saturday, February 21st, 2015
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Major League baseball, in an attempt to speed up the game, which has ballooned from an average time of  just over 2 1/2 hours in 1981, to a record average of 3:02 last year, has legislated a number of rules designed to try to attack some of the causes of this slowdown.

The new rules include:

-Managers must now remain in the dugout and signal to the umpires when they wish to review a call;

-hitters must keep one foot in the batter’s box during an at bat (with multiple exceptions);

-a prompt return to play once a game has returned from a commercial break:

-timed pitching changes.

MLB experimented with a pitch clock in the Arizona Fall League, no-pitch intentional walks, and a limit of three mound conferences per game, in addition to the rules about the batter’s box and inning breaks.  The experiment shaved an average of ten minutes off of games played in Salt River in the AFL in 2014.  

MLB needed the approval of the Players’ Association to proceed with these rule changes.  Players in violation of the rules will first receive a warning, with repeat offenders facing a series of fines of up to $500.  The rules take effect in Spring Training, but fines won’t be levied until May at the earliest, as MLB tries to give players a chance to speed up the pace of their routines.

It’s hard to say the extent of the impact these rule changes will have.  Certainly, the video challenge system had to be changed.  It became quite farcical as a manager would wait to saunter out to the crew chief, strategically positioning himself to get the thumbs up or down from the dugout, wasting everyone’s time in the process.

And batters constantly stepping out of the box doesn’t help the pace of play, nor does pitchers who need multiple looks at their catcher’s signs before starting their windup.  But are these the real culprits that have slowed the game to a relative crawl?

The most telling statistic related to pace of play has to be the number of pitches per game, which has been on a steady increase:

Simply put, there has been an 8% increase in the number of pitches per game over the last quarter century.

Why has this happened?  For two reasons, primarily:  as more and more video of pitchers has become available, some hitters have become “pitch hunters,” becoming increasingly selective and waiting for their pitch.  At the other end of the spectrum are players who have embraced the “all or nothing” approach, which has led to steadily increasing strikeout totals.  Of the top 20 all time single season strikeout totals, 19 have been recorded since 2002.   Help fuelling this has been the trend of MLB teams eschewing ground ball-type relievers in favour of strikeout accumulating power arms. The 8% more pitches thrown per game since 1988 works out to at least 10 more minutes per game.

On top of that, the number of innings pitched by starting pitchers has steadily declined.  Relief appearances have steadily increased, up 67% from 1988 to 2009.  A middle of an inning pitching change can take an average of over three minutes, depending on how long a manager takes to signal for a reliever, and how long it takes that reliever to get to the mound from the bullpen.  With the expansion of bullpens to include 7th inning pitchers, left-handed (and sometimes right-handed) one-out specialists, set up men and closers, teams now typically use almost four relievers per game, compared to just over 2.5 a half century ago.  Double that by two teams per game, and we now have an average of 8 relief pitchers per game.  Certainly, some of those relievers start innings, but at least half come in during the middle of the inning.  Do the math, and that’s about 24 minutes per game, on top of the 10 minutes from above.

Certainly, there is a lot of wasted time during an MLB game.  The Wall Street Journal took a stopwatch to three MLB games in 2013, and found that there was about 17 minutes of “action” in a three hour game.   Certainly, 30 years ago, hitters did not saunter up to the plate in a leisurely way while their walk-up music played, and pitchers and catchers did not have multiple conferences to go over signals or how to pitch a hitter.  But many of the rule changes MLB is implementing seem to be cosmetic only, and will only take a few minutes off of each game.

Of course, there have been multiple suggestions on how to speed up the pace of the game.  Some have called for umpires actually enforcing Rule 8.04, which says that:

When the bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives the ball. Each time the pitcher delays the game by violating this rule, the umpire shall call “Ball.””

And that rarely, if ever happens.  The Blue Jays’ Mark Buehrle may be the patron saint of fast-working pitchers, but the average time between pitches has increased steadily, and was over 23 seconds last year.

Others have suggested limiting the number of relief pitchers a manager can use in a game, which is an outside-the-box idea, but might actually force managers to return to using pitch-economizing, groundball-throwing relievers.

There’s also the pitch clock, which was used in Arizona and will be used in the minors this year, and some may be inevitable.

For hard-core baseball fans, MLB seems to have overlooked, the pace of the game is just fine.  We could do without some of the time wasters we identified above.  And maybe it’s time to bring back the bullpen cart.

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Douglas Fox
About the Author

Doug Fox has played, watched, studied, and generally obsessed about baseball for decades, and once played in the Toronto Star Pee-Wee Baseball tournament. He writes about Blue Jays prospects and minor league baseball at Follow him on Twitter @Clutchlings77.

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