Baseball / Sports

Searching ways to pick up the pace

The topic is discussed inside clubhouses and dugouts across baseball, the clearest sign yet that Major League Baseball has a time problem. Players and coaches bemoan the current pace. Rob Manfred, the commissioner-elect, identified it as one of his first priorities when he assumes the office in January.

The Phillies, entering the weekend, were averaging 3 hours and 11 minutes a game, the fourth-longest in the National League. (Their nine-inning average was 3:01, just under baseball's 3:02 overall average.) So opinions and solutions are abundant.

"Make the games seven innings," Phillies centerfielder Ben Revere joked. Real suggestions include a pitch clock, forcing hitters to stay in the batter's box, a limit on mound visits, and restrictions on pitching changes.

"I think there is a rule," Ryne Sandberg said.

The Phillies manager is right. Rule 8.04 states, "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.' " It may be the least-enforced rule in baseball.

The average time between pitches this season is 23 seconds, according to PITCHf/x data. The time between pitches has increased a full second since 2012. It does not seem significant, but the math does not lie.

Take the Phillies, for example. They have used 148 pitches per game this season with a pace of 23.3 seconds between each one. That equates to 57 minutes of dead time for an average Phillies game in 2014. If, say, Rule 8.04 was enforced on all pitches, the time between pitches would be reduced to 30 minutes. A 15-second pause between pitches would make it 37 minutes of dead time -- still a 20-minute reduction.

Pitchers blame hitters for stepping out of the box. Hitters say pitchers cause too many delays by meandering around the mound. A clock would hold both parties accountable; a violation by the pitcher means a ball for the hitter, while a hitter who steps out would accrue a strike.

"We all want games to go quicker," Phillies reliever Justin De Fratus said.

"Without going overboard, just try to tell those guys they take too long," Phillies catcher Wil Nieves said. "It can help a little bit. I don't think it would be that big of a difference."

"Sometimes it's tough for fans to sit and watch it for three hours," Revere said. "I know they'll look for ways to speed up the game. I completely understand. Baseball is a slow game."

The natural concern is a generational one. Technology has shortened society's attention span. The game already has difficulty attracting younger fans; longer games will just exacerbate that issue.

Not everyone is convinced.

"There is a reason there are no clocks in baseball," Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon said.

So, there is no problem?

"Correct," he said.

Pitching coach Bob McClure called the pitch-clock idea "a gimmick." While strikeouts are at an all-time high, batters still work deep counts. The more pitches thrown, the more pitching changes needed, and the longer the game. McClure blamed the umpires.

"The strike zone is smaller, period. Period," McClure said. "The strike zone, the way it is says it is, it's not being enforced. Period. The high pitch is not being called. It's a strike. Not that the players want to throw it there. They don't mean to throw it there. But that means you can't elevate out of the strike zone with two strikes. If they want to quicken up the game, then make the strike zone by the rules.

"The strike zone is like a bread box right now. The other problem is the umpires are being judged. They're being scrutinized. They're being ruled by somebody who is taking a graph."

Whatever changes are made to speed the game's pace must be collectively bargained between MLB and the players' union. A pitch clock may be too extreme, at first, but expect better enforcement of the current rules or more experiments.

The time between pitches is the most obvious area for improvement.

"There are varied times there," Sandberg said. "There are guys who are quick, and that's noticeable. And there are guys who are longer, which is also noticeable. Being a former infielder, I notice the ones who are quick. Those are the ones you want to play defense behind. They keep you on your feet, ready for action."

Revere said he tries to keep one foot in the box for the duration of his at bats. He sees too many pitchers "taking forever" on the mound.

"No one likes that," Revere said. "Everyone hates that."

(c)2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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