Today was the first official day of spring training for most of baseball. Usually, when spring training starts, there are a whole bunch of stories about how some 36 year old is in the best shape of his life, and how some 22 year old is going to be the next Ted Williams, and about how ridiculous it is that some team spent that much money on that guy. This year I had to dig a bit deeper to get to those stories because most of the stories right now are about “pace of play.” Apparently, pace of play is the biggest problem facing the sport of baseball at the current moment. At least that is what the press says. And baseball has listened. They announced a bunch of rule changes today to improve pace of play. They are going to put a pitch clock in the minor leagues this year to improve pace of play. The funny thing is that I’ve never spoken to an actual baseball fan that thinks pace of play is a problem.
In case you’re not a big baseball fan, when they talk about pace of play, they are talking about the time between pitches and the time when a batter steps out of the batter’s box and the time between innings, things like that. They are basically saying that there is too much down time in baseball. The proof they give is that games used to take two hours and forty five minutes when I was a kid and they take three hours and ten minutes now. Then, they point to the fact that football is more popular than baseball and voila, there is a legitimate crisis and pace of play is the cause.
There are myriad problems with this narrative. The biggest reason games take longer now than before has nothing to do with the players. It is because of television. The game has built in a ton of extra time so commercial breaks are longer, the announcers can read their copy, etc. Football, the nation’s most popular sport, has way more down time than baseball. It takes them 3+ hours to play 60 minutes in the NFL. Most of the down time isn’t really down time in baseball. The catcher is relaying signals to the pitcher and infielders. The third base coach is signaling the batter and base runners. The pitcher is trying to hold a runner on first. This is all strategy that makes the game more interesting.
Another general flaw with this narrative is that the game has always gone through phases where the style of play changed. We are currently in a phase that values on base percentage (too much in my opinion, but that’s a different topic), pitch counts, power, strikeouts, shifts and platoons. All of these strategies slow down the game. It will pass when a new strategy takes over.
I alluded to this before, but why is this a problem if the fans don’t think it’s a problem? Jonathan Papelbon is one of the slowest workers I have ever seen. But I’ve never seen a fan disappointed to see him pitch (unless it’s a fan of the opposing team because he’s really good). Only the douchiest of Yankees fans ever had a problem with Nomar’s between pitch ritual. Everyone else found it entertaining.
It’s a problem because of the press. The press has no perspective. It’s somewhat understandable, this is their job. But they completely misrepresent the sport they cover (It’s similar to the way the political press misrepresents politics and politicians). Of course they think there is a pace of play problem. They’ve been traveling for ten days and they just want to go home and sleep in their own beds. While the fans are praying for extra innings, the press is praying for a pop up to the infield to end the game. Just listen to a Yankee game sometime. John Sterling always tells the audience how long the game was. But, it’s never three hours and ten minutes, it’s an excruciating three hours and ten minutes (or interminable or glacial, etc.). I know it’s a joke, but there is clearly something behind the joke.
I just hope baseball listens to the fans and not the press. It’s not perfect, but baseball is a lot of fun. I’d hate to see pitch clocks and over regimentation take that fun away.