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May 23, 2014

Overthinking It

The 12-Second Rule and the Boring-ization of Baseball

by Ben Lindbergh

According to BP’s Game Information report, the length of an average major-league game through Wednesday was 3.14 hours, up by about four minutes and 20 seconds since last season. Also through Wednesday, there had been 336 replay reviews; with an average of .49 replays per game, at an average time of two minutes per review, that’s only 59 extra, exciting seconds per game of umpires on headphones huddled behind home plate. (Nothing like a little arithmetic in your lede.) That means that less than a quarter of the increase comes from expanded instant replay, which isn’t surprising, given that the expansion in game length between 2012 and 2013—without any change to the replay system—was almost exactly as long.

So we can’t blame all of the additional waiting we’re doing on a rule change dictated from the top down. The bulk of the increased length is coming from inside the house. Part of it is more pitching changes. Part of it is how huggable Ryan Braun fans find Derek Jeter. Part of it is more time between plate appearances. (The average time between plate appearances against the same pitcher and in the same inning has risen from 45.1 seconds in 2010 to 49.1 seconds in 2014, although over 70 percent of the increase has come this season, perhaps because of replay.) And, as I noted earlier this year, part of it is more time between pitches.

A number of potential solutions suggest themselves. One could limit the number of pitching changes, or mandate that each pitcher has to face more than one batter. One could reduce the number of permissible mound visits by managers/coaches, or limit the frequency of pitcher-catcher conferences. One could start a timer between plate appearances and penalize any player who postpones the next pitch. Unfortunately, to address those sources of delay, one would have to amend the rules, which is rarely a quick and painless process.

However, there might be one way in which Major League Baseball could crack down without introducing any new codes or covenants. The Official Baseball Rules (.pdf) run 119 pages and, befitting one of the few games not governed by a clock, contain very few time-related regulations. There are rules about the allowable interval between doubleheaders, the time a team has to get the game going after the umpire says “Play,” the time it takes to resume the action after the field is cleared because of a disruption, how long before the game teams have to announce their managers, and how long after the game umpires and official scorers have to review decisions and report rule violations. There’s only one rule, though, that refers to a specific amount of time in which an in-game action must be conducted. That’s rule 8.04, the “12-second rule.”

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.”

The average time between pitches this season—not counting times between the last pitch of one plate appearance and the first pitch of the next one, and also excluding any times that include pickoff attempts or official mound visits—is 18.29 seconds, up roughly one second since 2010:

2010: 17.35
2011: 17.32
2012: 17.95
2013: 18.10
2014: 18.29

Eighteen seconds! That’s a lot longer than 12 seconds! Well, wait a minute:

The 12-second timing starts when the pitcher is in possession of the ball and the batter is in the box, alert to the pitcher. The timing stops when the pitcher releases the ball.

The intent of this rule is to avoid unnecessary delays. The umpire shall insist that the catcher return the ball promptly to the pitcher, and that the pitcher take his position on the rubber promptly. Obvious delay by the pitcher should instantly be penalized by the umpire.”

The twelve seconds regulated by the rule cover only a sub-section of the between-pitches period, which also includes the time it takes for the catcher to throw the ball back and for the batter to gradually get used to the idea of facing another pitch. I watched many pitches thrown on Thursday by both starters and relievers in several games, and I found that on average, the pitcher got the ball back about three seconds after it was caught. (Called pitches tend to be returned in 2-3 seconds; when there’s a foul, it usually takes 4-5.) That accounts for about half of the 6.3-second difference between the 12-second maximum and the actual time between pitches.

The remainder (and more) comes from the time between the pitcher receiving the throw from the catcher and the batter becoming “alert” inside the box. This is much harder to time, both because broadcasts so often cut away during this dead time in an attempt to keep the viewer awake and because it’s hard to pinpoint the precise moment at which alertness is achieved. However, it’s clear that there’s a very wide range: I saw some batters who were ready before the ball got back to the pitcher (thank you, Michael Bourn), and others who took close to 15 seconds to prepare themselves after that point (we don’t have all day, Wilson Ramos). You can get a pretty good idea of who lives on either end of the spectrum with our Batter Pace report.

From what I saw, I think it’s safe to say that most pitchers are coming in under the 12-second limit with at least a few seconds to spare. That’s not to say there aren’t offenders out there, though. For instance, during my one-day MLB.TV travels I came across this 2-2 pitch from Joel Peralta to Alberto Callaspo with no outs in the eighth:

Even if you take a strict-constructionist approach to interpreting “alert to the pitcher” and cut a few frames from the beginning of the clip, it still runs around 13 seconds. Peralta pushed or surpassed the limit repeatedly in his inning of work. And hey, guess who’s at the top of our Pitcher Pace report.

Here, have a histogram. This is the distribution of times between bases-empty pitches this season, with seconds on the x-axis. Times below 10 seconds and above 50 seconds have been discarded as data errors or other sources that could skew the results (mound conferences that don’t include coaches, for instance), although the average barely budges if those restrictions are removed.

With thousands of pitches taking 20–30 seconds without anyone on, there must be a significant number of instances in which the pitcher takes longer than 12 seconds to deliver the ball and/or the umpire fails to enforce rule 6.02, which decrees that “The batter shall take his position in the batter’s box promptly when it is his time at bat” and also states that “the umpire should eliminate hitters walking out of the batter’s box without reason.”(Based on my viewing, batters leave the box between pitches much more often than not.)

Although the 12-second rule is generally regarded as the anti-jaywalking law of the baseball rulebook, routinely flaunted in full view of the officials who are supposed to enforce it, it’s not completely toothless.

“Assessing balls is rarer than issuing letters and having conversations with the players who push the rule (or their managers/front offices),” says MLB spokesman Mike Teevan. “ Letters, conversations and warnings happen routinely…some of these instances have later resulted in fines, if players continued to violate the rule following warnings.”

Even the most serious penalty—charging a pitcher who takes too long with a ball—is inflicted on occasion. In 2005, home-plate umpire Randy Marsh “docked [Erik] Bedard a ball because he was too slow between pitches.” (Bedard still hasn’t learned his lesson; he’s the slowest starter this season.) And in 2007, second-base umpire Doug Eddings charged Rafael Betancourt with balls under rule 8.04 in both the eighth and ninth innings of a tie game between the Indians and the Tigers. (The second-base umpire is normally the one who would make this call, since he’s the ump equipped with a stopwatch.) Indians manager Eric Wedge argued the first ball call “almost to the point of ejection” and defended his setup man further after the game.

"That's the first time that's been called all year, and we're at the All-Star break," Wedge said. "That's ridiculous. [Carlos] Guillen was in and out of the box 10 times. If he's going to do that, every time he steps out, you should start over with the stopwatch."

"Jim [Leyland] didn't have anything to do with it," Wedge said. "Someone gave them a heads-up, and they were ready for it. Who knows why? The important thing is... let 'em play. At that point in the game, talk about getting involved and disrupting the ballgame unnecessarily."

Betancourt used the “others guys take too long, too” defense, saying that he couldn’t be expected to count the seconds between pitches when he was worrying about big-league batters and revealing that he didn’t plan to pitch any faster. He was as good as his word.

The Betancourt incident exposes another big problem with the 12-second rule: calling it selectively might be worse than not calling it at all.

“It wastes more time if you call it than if you don’t call it,” says Jim McKean, who worked as a major-league umpire from 1973–2001 and then served as an MLB umpire supervisor. “Because as soon as you call it you’ve got a full-scale argument.

Nor do the headaches end when the last out is recorded.

“The clubs will complain,” McKean says. “General managers will call up, owners will call up, they’ll say ‘Hey, he called the 12-second rule. That’s ridiculous, it was only 11 ¾ seconds, how can they do that, what are you guys doing there?’ And then [MLB will] tell the umpires, ‘Okay boys, back off a little bit, we don’t want to get all these phone calls.’”

It’s no surprise, then, that the rule isn’t observed more strictly. Neither the umpires nor the league are eager to deal with the blowback that comes with calling rule 8.04, and the players have little incentive to regulate themselves.

“Anytime you get in a conversation with a pitcher about, ‘Let’s speed up, come on guys, we gotta get going,’ their favorite answer is, ‘Oh, where you going? You got a date? You going out to dinner? You in a big rush?’ All that nonsense,” McKean says. “All of these rules are fine if everybody goes along with them and they’re enforced, but…when umpires enforce them, you’ve got to make sure you get the backing 100 percent.”

McKean puts the onus on the players to make improving the pace of play a priority in the next round of collective bargaining. However, he cautions that the objections of a few high-profile players can put the kibosh on any significant rule change, much as the complaints of players like Wade Boggs and George Brett derailed the “high strike” initiative in the late 1980s.

“All these speed-up things have to go through the Players Union, and if it bothers them at all, they don’t make any changes,” McKean says. “If [Miguel Cabrera] says, ‘Listen, I can’t hit unless I tighten my gloves in between every pitch,’ then you can forget it.”

McKean’s suggestions won’t come as a surprise. Make pitchers stay on the 18-foot circle surrounding the rubber. Keep batters in the box after they take a pitch, and don’t let them stroll up the line to receive signs from the third-base coach. Extend the 12-second rule to all pitches, not only those with the bases empty. By expanding and enforcing rules 8.04 and rule 6.02, MLB could create the basis of a system that would make Peralta-slow pitches a thing of the past. But it will take action to put an end to the inaction.

“There are just so many things now that are slowing down the game, I think the least of which is advertisements,” McKean says. “They all want to use that as an excuse, commercials and advertisements. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case—the game itself is slow. I’ve made my life in baseball, and right now, baseball is getting boring. Compared to the other sports…trying to sit and watch nine innings of a baseball game right now is very difficult, unless you’re a real purist.”

Thanks to Harry Pavlidis for research assistance and Nick Wheatley-Schaller for creating the embedded video.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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