Game Changers: Picking up the game's pace
Focus, some say, should be on changing on-field habits
Much of baseball's essence is wrapped in its timelessness. The game has stood through three centuries, two world wars, an ever-changing society, and, unlike most other major sports, a clock doesn't determine when a game is complete.
Ironically, it's the element of time that has become one of Major League Baseball's prominent subjects of discussion in recent years.
For many reasons -- including changes in strategy and current national-television coverage -- the average time to complete a nine-inning baseball game has gradually increased over the years. But while Commissioner Bud Selig has stressed that he wants games to feel like they're going by quicker, it isn't necessarily the time he's concerned about.
Rather, it's the pace.
"I think Bud, the Commissioner, is very sensitive about improving the pace of the game -- not necessarily shortening the game, but the pace of the game," said Dodgers manager Joe Torre, who was named to Selig's special committee to review on-field matters like these in December. "I agree with it, and I can understand his frustration with it."
The average time to complete a nine-inning game in the 1970s -- not including on-field delays -- was two hours and 30 minutes. That increased to an average of 2:57 in the 10-year span from 2000-09. Through Thursday, this year's league average was 2:51, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
In the playoffs, game times have been longer. Last season, nine-inning regular-season games lasted an average of 2:52, while in the postseason, that number jumped to 3:30, according to STATS LLC.
But, as Selig said during the Target Field opener in Minneapolis on April 12, "It isn't the time of the game, it's the pace of the game. That's the point."
Among several factors, the increased use of relievers is a significant contributor to the time increase. Instant replay, which counts as part of the time of a game when used to review home runs, is a lesser factor, but could become a bigger one if the use is expanded in future seasons.
Those things are part of the evolution of the game, however.
So MLB is trying to target less-constructive evolutions like the between-pitch routines that some believe have become longer and more time-consuming as the years go by.
"The games have become longer, in part because of good baseball," said journalist George Will, a Pulitzer Prize winner who has written two best-selling baseball books and is also part of Selig's 14-member committee.
"The running game has made a bit of a comeback, there's more throwing over to first base; teams ... understand that batters going deeper into the count will wear down the starting pitcher and get into the other team's middle relief sooner. These are all good baseball reasons, but there are also other reasons. Particularly, too much time between pitches, which is sometimes a fault of the pitcher and sometimes a fault of the batters stepping out of the batter's box."
Pace of game
The culture of slow mannerisms and routines is among the things that MLB would like to change.
"These mannerisms tend to trickle down all the way to Little League," Will said. "And I think if managers communicate to their players that this is happening and it's not necessary, it would help."
Torre and Hall of Famer Hank Aaron have told Selig about how they barely ever stepped out of the batter's box when they played, and if you watch games from their era, you'll see they weren't the exception. Now, though, there are many, like Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval and Rockies reliever Rafael Betancourt, who are notorious for long, between-pitch habits. Reds first baseman Joey Votto, who barely moves his feet at the plate, is an exception.
"From a starting-pitcher standpoint, I think that's an advantage, to work quicker throughout a game and have the pace of the game go up," Marlins left-hander Nate Robertson said. "I just think it flows better. It's just more beneficial for a more quality baseball game. There's certain guys, whether it's up there in the box or up on the mound, [where] it's ridiculous. You can prepare yourself in a shorter amount of time to throw a pitch or focus with your approach at the plate."
Speeding up the pace of games has been an issue in baseball for about a half-decade. But it was brought to light again at the beginning of the season when umpire Joe West was critical of two of the game's most recognizable teams, the Red Sox and Yankees, for their slow pace in their opening series, calling them "a disgrace to baseball."
Because their games are so often on national TV -- leading to longer commercial breaks -- and because their games frequently come down to the wire and many of their hitters are patient, taking more pitches than most teams, the average time for Yankees-Red Sox games has been longer than the league average by at least seven minutes -- and up to 40 minutes -- every year since 2000.
Last season, according to Elias, the Yankees were first in pitches seen by batters with 25,066, and the Red Sox were second at 25,005. The league average was 23,894.
"You have two organizations that really focus on hitters that work the count," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said in the wake of West's comments, "and when you have six starters that go an average of five innings and throw 100 pitches, the game is going to move slow."
But many are uneasy about the league's pace as a whole, not just these two American League East rivals.
For now, though, Will doesn't expect new rules to be adopted in hopes of curtailing the time of games.
"Not at the moment," Will said. "I think we'd all like to do it by changing the culture."
If that is the case, then raising the mound, disallowing timeouts, expanding the strike zone, limiting throws to first base, shortening the time between innings or any other suggestions that have been tossed around probably won't be coming to the forefront anytime soon.
That would mean baseball might simply rely on memorandums, like the one Dodgers reliever George Sherrill received in May for taking too long to warm up; pace-conscious umpires, several of whom are being more stingy with granting hitters timeouts; and the enforcement of often-overlooked rules, like the one that says pitchers have 12 seconds to throw each pitch with no runners on base.
"You can't really control pace of games," veteran umpire Jerry Crawford said. "The players control pace of games. If they play with enthusiasm, they run to their positions, that helps control pace of game."
But the cooperation needs to come from both sides, and, as Crawford added, "I don't know that ... there's any urgency for the players to play the game faster. ... They don't care."
Some players say the pace relates to habits.
"They think we need to always be thinking about this and this and this, which, we've been around baseball so long, our bodies and minds are trained to do certain things," Marlins infielder Wes Helms said. "And now you're trying to change it, [and] it's hard to. Not that we do it out of spite, that's just the way it is. Our bodies are used to doing one thing."
As Padres closer Heath Bell noted, "Every generation is going to emulate the last 10 years."
But is the time that could end up being saved worth the trouble?
"When I played, since then, everything in life has speeded up, it seems," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "I don't know if 15 minutes makes that much of a difference. I think the quality of the games are more important than the time of the games, that people get to see good plays, competitive games."
Many agree that shortening the lag time between pitches is beneficial, while others -- like Piniella -- don't believe it's a cause for concern.
But almost everyone is cautious about tinkering too much with a game that has been so relevant for so long.
"The game has changed," Padres utility man Jerry Hairston Jr. said. "A lot is good, and obviously, a lot may not be so good. But I think, as a whole, the game is extremely healthy, and it's really cool to see the fans supporting the game of baseball."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.