In 2016 America the culture of impatience is growing at an unrelenting rate, leading the country down a dangerous path demanding nothing but instant gratification. Many people feel lost, disconnected, and disinterested when their attention is not preoccupied with the latest 140-character news Tweet, games on social media sites, “crying Jordan” memes, or mind-numbingly scrolling through countless apps.
People are no longer enjoying their immediate environment and seeking constant satisfaction through external media. The ability to easily access what we cannot see and what we cannot touch in the virtual world prevents many from enjoying mental solitude in natural breaks from action.
Over the last several years, this culture shift has impacted the way casual fans enjoy baseball games. Baseball is not like football, basketball, hockey, soccer, or boxing . Sure, football has a 40-second play clock, countless penalties that can deter a team’s progress down the field, and strategic timeouts to ice the kicker before a field goal. Basketball utilizes the dreadful Hack-a-Shaq strategy to put an opposing team’s worst free throw shooter at the charity strike. Hockey’s in-game breaks are usually filled with entertaining fights (though decreasingly so in recent years). Soccer players flop and fake injuries to gain free kicks or better. All of these respective instances increase game time, and can lead viewers to become disinterested in the game.
But the pace of play in baseball is more like the pace of play in golf – though most downtime in golf is spent walking or reading the green contours, or wind speed and direction. Baseball is a sport that requires ample time between pitches to make personnel changes, call pitches and read signs, shift the defense, and rest and recover.
Much debate over the last decade has focused on the pace of play in Major League Baseball. Talks to increase the pace of play and reduce the duration of games continue to be centered around instituting no-pitch intentional walks, adhering to a 20-second pitch clock (already implemented in higher level minor leagues), reducing time between innings, forcing batters to keep at least one foot in the box at all times, and limiting time allowed for mound visits.
While some of these measures are great ideas to keep the game moving, baseball purists, like myself, enjoy the nuances of the baseball and can still appreciate every play without worrying about the length of the game.
My attention is focused on noting how certain players or teams shift their defense based on who’s at the plate because it reveals the hitter tendencies. I enjoy pitching coaches stalling on the mound to give their bullpen more time to get ready because I know a pitching change is coming soon. I’m perfectly fine with a pitcher attempting a pick-off play six times in a row, or holding the ball for 20 seconds from the stretch in an effort to shutdown the running game. I enjoy complex, lengthy pre-pitch routines, like that of the retired Nomar Garciaparra, because it’s unique. I encourage pitchers to take as much time as they need between pitches to gather their thoughts because it reinforces the fact that baseball is the toughest mental game. I actually enjoy pitchers intentionally throwing four consecutive balls nowhere near the strike zone because a the pitcher may throw a wild pitch, or the batter can flick his wrists and shoot the ball to the opposite field if the pitch leaks close to the plate. It happens! Changing these traditional rules would forever change the game as we know it.
The average game length in MLB is back over three hours this season. It was reduced from three hours and two minutes in 2014 to two hours and fifty-six minutes in 2015. This has sparked intense rumors that MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred is growing increasingly in favor of enforcing a 20-second pitch clock.
Pitchers who work quickly – such as Marcus Stroman, who is averaging 19.4 seconds between pitches in 2016 – might adjust to such a change very easily. The vast majority of pitchers work at a much slower pace and would have a harder time adjusting to throwing a pitch every 20 seconds.
A study published earlier this year in the Journal of Sports Science looked at muscle fatigue in relation to pace of play. The researchers at McMaster University concluded that reducing time between pitches reduces recovery times and increases the risk of injury. In ergonomics, the risk of injury is a factor of force, repetition, posture, and duration. Obviously, when evaluating the impact of a pitch clock the first three parameters remain unchanged, and duration between pitches decreases. The study found that for a pitcher who averages 25 seconds between pitches, his muscle fatigue in a given inning would rise from 7.2% to 8.7% if he was forced to throw a pitch every 20 seconds.
This is a dangerous proposition at a time in which arm injuries in baseball are increasing at every level. While players in the minors are learning to pick up the pace, they are simultaneously doing unnecessary harm to their arms. While pitch counts are starting to be managed more appropriately at every level, the importance of recovery time between pitches has yet to defeat the pitch clock.
Yes, games can be slow; but that does not mean they are boring. The prospect of speeding up the pace of play has dangerous consequences not just for the game of baseball, but also for the health and welfare of the players that entertain us.
Players enjoy and need a break in the action to recover. Five seconds to you may be the difference in swiping left or right, but five seconds to a player can be the difference between the chance to make his best pitch, or the career-ending injury that prevents him from playing ever again.
The problem is not the pace of play. The problem is us.
Stats courtesy of FanGraphs
Michael W. L. Sonne and Peter J. Keir. “Major League Baseball pace-of-play rules and their influence on predicted muscle fatigue during simulated baseball games.” Journal of Sports Science. 2016.