February 15, 2017
A Day of Rest
Word on the street is that Major League Baseball, in its infinite wisdom, and with its spotless track record of measured, smart reforms that anticipate the many possible consequences, is ready to make fairly radical changes to the game itself in the name of improving pace of play. Starting extra innings with a runner on second base is on the table. A change to the strike zone (specifically, a raising of it) is on the table. The four-toss intentional walk is all but doomed.
The first and third of those reforms are aimed at decreasing the sheer length of games, which is not really the primary problem the league is trying to solve. Games take longer than they did even 10 years ago, and the frequency of games ending in under two hours and 45 minutes has fallen by nearly half during that time, but there hasn’t been nearly that degree of increase in games lasting longer than three-and-a-half hours.
More importantly, the main driver of increased game length has nothing to do with the game on the field. It’s more and longer commercial breaks. Every break takes a full minute longer than the equivalent break in the early 1990s. If the average game length has increased by 30 minutes over the last 25 years, you can reasonably assign about two-thirds of that to extra beer ads. If MLB is serious about making games shorter from end to end, they’ll give back some TV money and shorten those interruptions in the action. (They aren’t serious about it and won’t do that.)
The real issue pace-of-play hawks are and should be focused on is the pace of action, and that’s what the proposed reshaping of the strike zone gestures toward fixing. The theory behind it is that raising the zone will increase hitters’ willingness to swing and increase their rate of contact when they do swing. Whether or not that would work, we’ll probably never know, because the players are overwhelmingly unlikely to accept this idea. What I feel sure of is that the league has not undertaken a serious study, or even a sufficiently rigorous thought exercise, to determine what unforeseen consequences that kind of change might have.
I feel less sure, but am willing to speculate, that it would ameliorate the particular problem it ostensibly stands to address much less than some believe. The modern game is centered on velocity and power. Changing the shape or size of the strike zone might change the run environment drastically, but I doubt that it would significantly decrease the global (strikeouts plus walks) rate, shorten plate appearances, or increase the number of interesting balls in play.
I have a different proposal. I’m by no means more certain of its efficacy, and there could be unforeseen consequences here, too. Still, I think it’s a more measured (and perhaps a more broadly useful) step. It’s also pretty simple. Here’s the rule: no pitcher can pitch on back-to-back days.
Pitching on zero days’ rest is bad for your arm. That’s a fact with which we’re all pretty comfortable, right? Relievers who pitch two, three, or even four days in a row inevitably look tired and usually lose effectiveness, and the risk of injury increases when they do that with any consistency. That alone is almost reason enough for the players to approve this kind of change. Sure, the rule would cut into the ability of closers to rack up saves, and that would marginally affect their pre-free agency earning potential, but they'd probably make back whatever they lost in that regard by being healthier and more likely to reach free agency without a cadaver’s UCL in their arms.
Obviously, however, the change wouldn't be primarily about limiting pitcher injuries. It'd be aimed at improving the pace of play during late innings. This rule would decrease the frequency of pitching changes after the starter’s departure. It would encourage more relievers to pitch multiple innings, forcing them to consider their own stamina, focus more on throwing strikes, and focus less on striking batters out. It would mean fresher pitchers in the game during the final few innings of most contests, which would probably lead to less time between pitches.
There's really no reason why a pitcher ought to pitch on consecutive days, other than the fact that it's always been done that way. That’s not to mention that it used to be done that way a whole lot less often than it is now. In 2016, 6.7 percent of all batters faced were faced by pitchers appearing in at least their second straight game. In 1996, that number was 5.8 percent. In 1986, it was 5.5 percent. In 1976, it was 4.8 percent. The increased tendency to call upon pitchers who are tired and might not have their best stuff, and then to replace them with another such pitcher as soon as a batter against whom they lose the platoon advantage comes to the plate, is a factor in the perceptibly slower pace of taut games.
I’m not in favor of explicitly limiting pitching changes within a game or inning. That level of artifice would be felt too deeply, would change the way baseball works at the most crucial points of so many games. This rule would do that too, but in a smaller way, and (this, I think, is important) in a way we already know how to conceptualize and talk about. Responsible teams consider certain relievers “down” on many nights throughout the season, protecting them from overuse by making them unavailable if they’ve recently been worked hard. This rule would just take the ambiguity out of that decision-making process.
It often seems to me that the hardest thing for those who spend a lot of time seeking pace-of-game fixes to accept is that their ideal version of the game is irretrievably lost, forever. We’re not going back to games that routinely come in around two-and-a-half hours, absent radical changes to baseball that hardly anyone could stomach. Expertly played baseball, between teams loaded with expensively developed, intricate and valuable information, by exceptional athletes who put full effort into every pitch and play, is a fast and exciting game. It’s just that that speed and excitement is confined to the time between the lifting of the pitcher’s stride leg and the end of the play (sometimes less than a second, and hardly ever more than 15 seconds).
In between pitches and batters, there’s a little more recovery and reset time required in the modern game. A delivered pitch takes a bit more out of the body, and planning out the next one takes a bit more methodical work. A good, hard swing requires a half-step out of the box, a stretch of the muscles so perfectly coordinated to maximize bat speed, and a minute exercise done to refocus the eyes. These are the marks of players who have honed their craft and tuned their bodies to ensure that they never give away a pitch, never give the opponent an inch. They take a bit more time than past generations’ less scientific, less complex, less explosive ways of doing things.
That can’t be undone. What we can do, instead, is to respond to that shift in the game in small ways, inviting players and teams to train themselves as much as possible to play a clean, energetic game, and discouraging small pieces of strategy or brinksmanship that cost more in time and hassle than they yield in win probability. The effects will be small, but positive. Better that than large effects of undetermined valence and unpredictable magnitude.