Major League Baseball today announced that it will implement four rule changes (or, in at least one case, the sudden reinforcement of a long existing rule) aimed at speeding up the pace of games. The reason is obvious. Too many fans (and non-fans) think baseball is too slow, i.e., the games take too long. History supports that belief. The average game last season lasted a record 3 hours, 2 minutes. That’s a half-hour longer than the average game 23 years ago.
The most significant “change,” is the rule (never enforced before) that a batter keep at least one foot in the batter’s box throughout his at bat, except following swings, or if the hitter is brushed back by the pitch. Will this, and other less significant changes actually make much of a difference? That remains to be seen, but the foot-in-the-box rule, if enforced, will be interesting to watch. Any serious baseball fan is well familiar with the all-too-common practice by most players of stepping out of the box after every pitch to adjust their batting gloves at the very least. It’s annoying, it’s unnecessary and it’s time-consuming. Simply banning this practice alone would put a serious dent in the length of games.
NPR did a story this morning on this, and included a video of ex-Giant Pablo Sandoval’s personal ritual, which he may be required to curtail, or face a fine and/or an automatic strike (penalties will be assessed beginning in May): At the beginning of each at bat, Pablo steps into the box, does a side-step out of the box in the direction of the pitcher, faces the pitcher, taps his spikes with his bat, taps his helmet with his bat, returns to the box, steps out of the box, adjust his batting gloves, and steps back in. This sort of dance has become so routine in baseball that I, for one, have seen Sandoval play countless times over the years, and yet never remembered the specifics of his routine until NPR prompted me to watch it more closely, at which point I said to myself, “Oh, yeah, of course, it’s Pablo!” It’s extraordinary. It’s also part of the reason why the 2 ½ hour games of 23 years ago now last three hours, because so many players have similar rituals that they are going to be loathe to surrender.
I applaud the new commissioner Rob Manfred for doing what he can to speed up games. But I am also concerned about his repeated assertions that we need more scoring in baseball. More scoring? Really? I thought the balance between pitcher and hitter had finally been restored, after two decades of rampant illegal steroid use that turned guys like Bonds, McGwire and Sosa into cartoon characters.
Manfred suggests banning the defensive shift, i.e., the shift many teams use effectively to deal with lefthanded pull hitters, where the second-baseman becomes an additional outfielder, the shortstop moves to the spot vacated by the second-baseman, and the third-baseman moves to the shortstop side of second, just across the bag. It’s often effective. Of course, the lefthanded pull hitter could offset this by learning how to hit to left field and left-center, except that Manfred wants to make it easy on him by banning the shift altogether.