In its ongoing efforts to quicken the pace of play, Major League Baseball will announce it will implement several changes: (1) managers must initiate replay challenges from the dugout; (2) batters must keep one foot in the box, except for an “established exception;” (3) play will begin promptly following a commercial break; and (4) pitching changes will be subject to a time limit.
The first and third options shouldn’t create many headaches. I don’t think anyone enjoyed seeing managers dither with umpires while waiting for a clubhouse attendant to tell them whether to initiate a challenge. Most folks won’t strenuously object to play beginning immediately following a commercial, although I think we’re somewhat accustomed to a transition from scripted commercial to a pitch from the announcers to play.
The second option—keeping batters in the box—should improve the pace of game play by limiting human rain delays. At the same time, MLB may be glossing over some significant safety concerns in implementing this step. Generally, I want hitters facing mid to upper-90’s heat to be focused on the task at hand. If a hitter has problem focusing in between pitches, I want him to be able to step out and clear his thoughts. Hitters have enough problems avoiding high and tight fastballs. A distracted hitter may be less able to avoid those wayward (or not so wayward) pitches. So as long batters don’t suffer additional injuries, the proposal makes sense. Along these lines, I feel better that the MLBPA signed off on the proposals.
Some of the “established exceptions” may swallow the rule. According to Rosenthal and Morosi, the exceptions used in the 2014 Arizona Fall League included foul balls, foul tips, time being granted by the umpire, and wild pitches. How often do umpires grant time upon request? More importantly, how often do umpires deny a hitter’s request for timeout? Will umpires stop granting timeouts? Should batters have a finite number of timeouts during an at-bat?
I’m curious to see how the league enforces these new rules. MLB plans to assess minimal fines instead of penalizing players within a game (for example, balls or strikes). How minimal are the fines? Will MLB use a sliding scale based on player salaries? I’m also curious to see how this filters down into the minors and amateur ball, where hitters develop their at-bat habits. MLB needs MiLB and the NCAA to implement similar steps in order to make this policy work in the long-term.
As for timed pitching changes, I’m for anything that revives the bullpen cart.
While these changes may help on the margins, I think the explosion in strikeouts has slowed the pace of play more than anything else. MLB’s other potential initiative—eliminating the called strike below the knees—may ultimately be of greater significance. Dayn Perry and Joe Sheehan have made this point more eloquently, but the explosion in strikeouts is killing pace of play. Shifts are something of a red herring. BABIP has remained roughly constant over the last few years, notwithstanding the increase in defensive shifts. We’re just seeing fewer balls in play and less action in the field. That slows the game—what we think of as the game, anyway—to a crawl. MLB needs to fix the strikeout problem to fix the pace of play problem.