The purists are reaching out for their pitchforks.
The notion of starting an inning with a runner on second base is as repugnant to diehard baseball fans as adding a clock to the game, which also happens to be on the table.
These are just two of the possible changes under discussion as baseball seeks to address its ongoing issues with pace of play and length of games. Commissioner Rob Manfred has made the topic a central part of his two-year-old tenure, and for good reason.
Several studies have shown baseball’s audience skews older, with the average age of its TV viewers over 50. MLB officials reason that to attract younger fans in the digital age, the game needs to provide more action and fewer lulls.
But achieving that without alienating the core of the fan base – those mature folks who represent a sizeable percentage of the 73.2 million in attendance last year – represents a huge challenge, especially considering MLB can’t implement changes in the big leagues without consulting first with the players union.
The latest and most drastic alteration, as reported by Yahoo Sports, comes in the form of a rule that will be tested this summer in two rookie-level leagues, where every extra inning will begin with a runner on second. This spring’s World Baseball Classic will employ that same rule, but starting in the 11th inning.
There would be some clear benefits to this artificial way of generating offense, chief among them the quicker ending of games that go past regulation, thereby saving pitchers’ arms and reducing the added stress on players already taxed by a grueling season.
“Let’s see what it looks like,’’ Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre, now MLB’s Chief Baseball Officer, told Yahoo Sports. “It’s not fun to watch when you go through your whole pitching staff and wind up bringing a utility infielder in to pitch. …
“It’s baseball. I’m just trying to get back to that, where this is the game that people come to watch.’’
The irony here, of course, if that baseball’s TV ratings typically pick up when games go into extra innings, both in the regular season and playoffs.
Regardless, there are valid reasons for MLB to explore ways to keep the games moving. After trimming six minutes of idle time following the implementation of pace-of-game rules in 2015, baseball regressed again last season, going from an average time of 2:56:15 to 3:00:42.
The difference wasn’t huge, but it went in the wrong direction. And playoff games – which have longer commercial breaks – lasted 24 minutes more on the average than regular-season ones.
There has been no scarcity of suggestions for how to speed up games, from limiting mound visits to doing away with warm-up pitches for incoming relievers. Current proposals include faster replay review, intentional walks with no pitches thrown and raising the lower part of the strike zone, which in theory would lead to fewer strikeouts and more balls put in play.
Manfred has acknowledged that last proposal may be at odds with the desire to shorten the time of games, but it’s likely to increase the action.
He’s also a strong proponent of implementing a pitch clock, as was done two years ago at the Class AA and AAA levels, resulting in games lasting 12 fewer minutes, down to 2:42. In the International League, time of games shrank by 16 minutes.
But at the big league level, those kind of modifications would have to be approved by the players association, which takes a very cautious approach to any changes that might impact work conditions.
Union executive director Tony Clark, who played 15 years in the majors, has pointed out that what works in the minors doesn’t necessarily translate to the game’s highest level, where the stakes are higher and the scrutiny much more intense.
The topic of pitch clocks, for example, has been a non-starter with the union, and the idea of raising the strike zone is likely to result in a split vote between pitchers (against) and position players (in favor), although more will be known when players are canvassed in the spring.
So, except for perhaps quicker replay reviews, don’t expect any immediate changes in a game that has long moved at a languid pace. That may not please those hoping baseball will get going, but it should at least keep the pitchforks in the shed.