Speed up the Game? Do this:

MLB announced recently that it reached an agreement with the independent Atlantic League wherein the Atlantic League will implement a series of rules and logistical changes designed to improve the pace of play.  MLB will then monitor the results to see if it would like to implement the changes on the big league level at some point.

As has been written here before, I’m not sure the premise of the entire discussion is a valid one.  MLB’s gross revenues are in the 11 figures and profits are at an all-time high.  Personally, and I know I have David Cone on my side among many others, I think today’s players are better and therefore more fun to watch that at any point in my lifetime.  I’m wondering if MLB is trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.  (Ironic, considering actual problems are generally dismissed by the Commissioner’s office, but that’s for a different blog.)

But there are still two and a half weeks to go before the games begin for real, so I’ll bite.  We do, however, need to back up a little…

Let’s all remind ourselves that the strike zone was invented after the Emancipation Proclamation was written in order to speed up the game and improve the pace of play.  No, one had nothing to do with the other. I’m just illustrating how long this “pace of play” conversation has been going on.  Prior to that, batters could simply wait indefinitely for a pitch they liked.  And pitchers, with no penalty for throwing a wayward pitch, were in no rush to give the batter what he wanted.  As a result…

  • Billy McKeever of the Mutuals once took 68 pitches in a single at-bat.
  • Henry Chadwick wrote: “It took the players over two hours to play three innings, so great was the number of balls the pitcher had to deliver before the batsmen was suited.”
  • The “habit of waiting at the bat is tedious and useless.” was written in The New York Clipper, on 8/24/61.  (That would be eighteen sixty-one.)

As a result, the strike zone was invented which penalized pitchers for not throwing hittable pitches and batters for not swinging at hittable pitches.  As a result, pitchers then threw more hittable pitches.  Batters swung at those hittable pitches.  More balls were put in play and more action was the result.

High-level math, this is not.

Flash forward to today:

More and more of today’s batters in an effort to maximize hard contact, are more likely to take a pitch a quarter inch off the plate, even with two strikes, than to swing.  Swinging at a pitch like that will almost always result in either a swing and miss or weak contact.  Taking your chances that the umpire will call it a ball (and you’ll get a better pitch to swing at or an eventual base on balls) is a 50/50 proposition.  50/50 is a much better percentage than the chances of doing anything meaningful with a pitch like that.

Let’s be clear:  This is a philosophy that is not new.  Aaron Judge and Joey Votto didn’t invent this approach.  Go back to Ruth, Williams, Mantle, Musial, Bonds, on and on and on – a ton of home runs and a ton of walks almost always go hand in hand.

Make them get the ball over.  Play the game that way and you’ll be playing the percentage.  The percentage will be with you.”  – Ted Williams.

The difference with today’s game is that pitchers throw harder with nastier breaking balls than ever before.  As a result, that pitch right on or off the black is unhittable.  Much more so than pitches just on or off the black were in any other era.

The result?  More pitches are taken, for both balls and strikes, resulting in both more walks and called third strikes – and more home runs due to this and other factors.  This is what the kids call “three true outcomes”, a term I will never understand or use regularly.  It sounds like something NFL personnel would say, which trust me, is not a compliment.

So here’s what you do MLB, you have two choices:

One:  Shrink the strike zone.  Make the umpires call those 50/50 pitches on or near the black, balls.  Force the pitcher, as was the point a century and a half ago, to throw hittable pitches.  Jordan Hicks and Aroldis Chapman didn’t exist in any other era so we didn’t need to adjust – now we do.  What might have been hittable pitches on or near the corner decades ago are no longer as they are coming in with velocity and movement to an extent that hasn’t been seen before.  The problem, however, as currently constituted, is that we’re asking middle-aged men to determine whether or not a small ball traveling over 100 mph that’s changing planes and levels went through an invisible box within milliseconds.  This, needless to say, is a tough ask.  Shrinking the zone slightly will at least have the umpires missed calls err on the side of more hittable pitches.  An increased frequency and quantity of hittable pitches results in…wait for it…more balls hit.  More batted balls into play means more action.

Two:  Utilize, learn from, and improve upon the “home plate umpire assisted in calling balls and strikes by radar” idea that the Atlantic League is going to implement.  Then when kinks have been worked out, go full robot umpire in the big leagues.  This is the only logistical or rule change that will be used in the Atlantic League this season that will help the issue without making unwelcome changes to the game itself.  You need not concern yourself with the mound height or pitch clocks.  New rules will not be necessary if effective identification of hittable and unhittable pitches is put into place.  With the power and velocity that exist in today’s game, this isn’t possible with human eyes.  For some perspective, according to ESPN Stats & Info, Mark Wegner and Will Little are the most accurate strike calling umps in the game, and they both get more than 7% of pitches wrong.

Which is why, again, as has been written here before, the sooner we get to robot umpires, the better the game will be.

You’re welcome.

Thanks to Rob Neyer for the Williams quote and Rob Bauer for the 19th-century material.

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