Pace of play, my ass

Yesterday Minor League Baseball announced that among other “pace of play” changes to the game in 2018, such as pitch clocks and limited mound visits, that all games tied after 9 innings would then begin each half inning starting with a runner on 2nd base.

For example, if the cleanup batter for the visiting team made the last out in the top of the 9th, he would start the top of the 10th on 2nd base.  A pinch runner may be inserted for him in that case but as under normal rules, the number four batter/runner would then be out of the game.

A few things, in no particular order:

It isn’t really necessary to fix what isn’t broken, is it?  Baseball by any measure you chose to use – gross revenue, attendance, T.V. ratings, T.V. and radio revenue, merchandise sales – has grown exponentially over the past decade and a half.  Without checking to verify, off the top of my head MLB gross revenue was somewhere between $2 and $4 billion at the beginning of this century and is around $12 billion now.

That being said, I get it.  Things change.  You’re worried that the 18-34 demographic doesn’t have the attention span for the current game and you have long term concerns.  I own a business so I understand that a) you need to adapt with the times, and b) if you want to piss people off, just change something.  Invariably customers cool off eventually and all’s forgotten.

That being said, with regards to starting extra innings with a runner on 2nd base, to paraphrase Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove (or was it Blazing Saddles?), I’ve been to a rodeo and a state fair and I’ve never heard anything as shit all stupid as that.

Citing concerns about how long extra-inning games can create safety concerns for pitchers pitching longer than expected to, and/or position players having to pitch, Minor League Baseball President Pat O’Connor said: “Player safety has been an area of growing concern…and the impact that lengthy extra-inning games has on pitchers, position players, and an entire organization was something that needed to be addressed.”

First, I’m assuming Mr. O’Connor has data that suggests that injury rates go up as a result of long extra- inning games.  I’m being sarcastic, because I would bet a large sum of money that no such evidence exists.  Only 1.6% of games go as far as 13 innings so we’re talking about a very rare occurrence.  Frankly, O’Connor’s statement sounds more like whining about missing your flight and/or being tired the next day.  Seriously, the “impact on the entire organization”?!?  What, the owner’s secretary will have to wait an hour before making coffee the next morning because everyone slept in a little?  I’m sure the grounds crew doesn’t mind getting overtime to hang for a little while…(I’ll come back to that.)

(As a side note, the possibility of long overtimes and similar concerns were what worried the NHL when they switched to a shoot out to decide tied games.  See Nate Silver’s work on this.  Abstract:  Long overtime games were very rare and there was no correlation to injuries.  Take that, Mr. O’Connor.)

Even if injuries were a concern, here’s an idea:  Throw the ball over the plate.  The game will end soon.  If you lose, you lose.  Lose the battle if you have to in order to win the war.

But more importantly, color me confused:  This idea doesn’t address the pace of play, it only shortens the overall time of the game (maybe).  Those are two different things.  The average time of a baseball game is still about the same as the average time of a football game, so game length clearly isn’t a problem.  And if it’s the pace you’re worried about, I could argue the change will slow the pace of play down as a result of the sure to come, and quite dumb, “strategy” conversations like “should he bunt here”?

Uugggghhhh….

Let’s get this out of the way before Michael Kay, Paul O’Neill, John Flaherty and the other members of Simpleton Summer Camp beat it to death with a maple bat:

  1. Almost half of all bunt attempts fail to advance a runner. Close to half the time, an out is given away for no reason.
  2. In 2017, run expectancy with a runner on 2nd and nobody out was 1.11. The run expectancy with a runner on 3rd and one out was .93.

If you bunt with a runner on 2nd and no one out you have serious, serious issues with math.

But if it truly is a pace of play problem – again, I don’t think it is, but I’ll play along – why don’t we try this:

Make umpires call pitches that do not cross the strike zone balls.*  I know, crazy idea, right…?

Anyone with the internet and 5 minutes can tell you who the umpires are who continually call pitches off the plate as strikes.  Tell them that they are doing a poor job and that only pitches over the plate and between the knees and letters are to be called strikes.

I’m going to give you a little history lesson:  The strike zone was invented and first implemented in the 19th century to address the exact same issue we’re discussing today: To force the pitcher to throw a pitch that the batter could put into play.  The object was to get the batter to hit the ball.  Somewhere along the line that changed to throwing pitches that were unhittable because they were just off the plate.  That, my friends has slowed the game down because it’s increased strikeouts, walks, home runs and the length of at bats, while reducing the number of balls in play.

Tell the umpires to stop calling pitches outside the strike zone, strikes.  Problem solved, crisis averted.  No need for gimmicks to fix the game.

Or, for the one billionth time:  It’s 2018 – get robot umpires.

This idea to start extra innings with a runner on 2nd makes so little sense, and knowing what we know about baseball owners, I’m sure there’s a financial aspect to this.  During extra innings, stadium staff is paid overtime with no additional income coming in during the game from fans. Fans don’t pay more for baseball past 9 innings and concessions and merchandise sales are next to nil once extra-innings start.  People who run baseball may not understand math when it comes to bunting, but they surely understand “payroll up + income stagnant = bad” math.

As always with baseball owners, in the absence of logic or evidence, follow the money.

*Thanks to Brian Kenny, Jay Jaffe and Baseball Prospectus for doing some of my homework for me.

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