Major League Baseball intends a rule change to speed up the game. But how much time will it save? And is it worth it?
Sports columnist Howard Bryant reported on Tuesday that Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association have agreed to eliminate the physical action of an intentional walk. Instead of a pitcher having to throw four pitches out of the strike zone, the home plate umpire will send a batter to first base on a signal from the defensive team’s manager. Apparently, the rule change resulted from the current efforts to accelerate the pace of play. So, is this a good idea? A bad idea? Or is it altogether meaningless?
Let’s take a look at the rationale for the rule change. Commissioner Rob Manfred has stated on numerous occasions that he hopes to decrease the amount of time it takes for MLB teams to play a game. According to statistics available on Baseball-Reference.com, the average length of a game increased four minutes in the 2016 season, to an even three hours. In that context, what sort of benefit would the new rule provide? I haven’t been able to locate any concrete data on the average time it takes for a pitcher to intentionally walk a batter, but I’ve watched baseball regularly—meaning almost every day during every season—since the age of eight, so I have an idea about this. I also looked at some online videos to confirm my intuition, which suggested to me an upper bound of about 45 seconds. But let’s use a range of between three-quarters of a minute and a full minute. In 2016, according to stats compiled on Baseball-Reference.com, teams issued one intentional base on balls every 2.61 games; in 2015, one IBB per 2.55 games; and in 2014, one IBB per 2.47 games. That means that, over the course of the past three seasons, teams averaged one IBB per 2.55 games. Eliminating the physical act of throwing four intentional balls would therefore have saved between 47 minutes, 49 seconds and 63 minutes, 46 seconds per 162-game season for a single team—which equates to saving between 17.71 seconds and 23.61 seconds per game. That doesn’t seem significant to me, but if you could bundle a dozen or more such time-saving measures across baseball—if such opportunities even exist—you’d start to see several minutes shaved off of each game.
But what would reducing game times in this way cost? For one thing, it would no longer be possible for a batter to swing and make contact during an attempted intentional pass. Such an event occurs rarely; Bill Deane of the Society for American Baseball Research has documented only 16 such incidents in MLB history. But other events can occur during an intentional walk: wild pitches, passed balls, balks, pickoff attempts, and stolen base attempts, so eliminating pitchers having to throw four intentional balls also eliminates any of those possibilities. Such events are uncommon, but isn’t one of the joys of watching a baseball game the very real possibility of seeing something happen that you’ve never seen before? In 2015, San Diego Padres starter Andrew Cashner, facing the New York Mets, did something nobody else had ever done in the modern baseball era (post-1900): he gave up at least ten hits and struck out at least ten batters in a start lasting less than five innings. Yes, that’s a specific sort of record, but we’re still talking about it occurring just once in hundreds of thousands of MLB games. And then, the next night, New York Mets starter Noah Syndergaard, facing those same Padres, accomplished the same feat. Baseball, as Joe Garagiola was fond of saying, is a funny game. My point is that baseball routinely affords fans the opportunity to witness something rare: a perfect game (23 in MLB history), for example, or a four-home-run game (16), or an unassisted triple play (15), or a ten-RBI game (12)—or a batter putting an intentional ball in play. Doing away with physical intentional walks diminishes the game by taking away some of its possibilities. That seems to me a high price to pay for shortening games by just a few seconds.
More than that, I have to ask about the general principle of getting rid of a physical part of a sport. The entire purpose of pitting two teams of athletes against each other is to determine which will best the other. If MLB starts eliminating the physical requirements of baseball—in this case, the ability of a pitcher to throw four intentional balls without throwing a wild pitch or balking, as well as the ability of a catcher to receive those pitches without committing a passed ball—is it then a fair and complete measure of the competition?
Then there’s the question of whether or not reducing the length of MLB games is even necessary. For me, as a baseball fan, the three-hour span of a game is not a problem—especially in this age of Digital Video Recorders. Every season, I watch about 150 of the 162 New York Mets games. I typically go to a ballpark once or twice a year to see a game in person, but most of the time, I watch on television. I usually record a game on my DVR and begin watching it a half hour or so after the first pitch. That way, I can fast-forward through the commercials—the true time-wasters in baseball games: two minutes of ads between half-innings, for a total of at least 32 additional minutes per nine innings (and 34 minutes if the teams play the bottom of the ninth).
I honestly don’t understand Commissioner Manfred’s desire to shorten baseball games at the expense of long-standing parts of the sport—such as the physical issuing of intentional walks. Games currently take about three hours to play. If MLB managed to reduce that time to two hours, forty-five minutes by changing rules that have been in place for 140 years, would that bring new fans to the game? Or would it more likely alienate existing fans? As somebody who loves baseball and watches it regularly, I know how the new rule impacts me: I don’t like it. I suspect I'm not the only one. Unbidden, I offer my advice: let baseball be baseball.
©2017 David R. George III