“Pitchers and catchers are headed to Clearwater.” As a devout winter hater and baseball lover, this was always one of my favorite sports stories. It meant spring wasn’t far away. It meant summer days listening to broadcasters banter between pitches while washing a car, or performing some other bit of yard work. Baseball always takes me back to peaceful summer nights when I had far less cares about life than I do now. But this year, the first reports of spring training and the pre-season games to follow made me a little wary, and a little sad. I’m sad for a time gone by when the world was a less hurried place and people knew how to relax and soak in a game that was meant to be played all afternoon.
Last year, I posted how I was done being a baseball fan. Things like the universal designated hitter and other rule changes to speed up the pace of the game of baseball had been implemented and they left a bad taste in my mouth. Despite my insistence that I was leaving baseball behind, I got sucked into the season. It was slow at first. Under former manager Joe Girardi, the Phillies floundered near the bottom of the National League East. The team looked disorganized and unenthusiastic. Despite a fairly talented roster on paper, the Phillies just couldn’t seem to win.
On June 3, 2022 the Phillies were 22-29 and 12 games behind the Stinkin’ New York Mets. (Possibly the most hated team of all time at least by this baseball fan.) News broke early that day that the Phillies parted ways with Girardi. The former Yankees skipper was headed for the unemployment office and Rob “Topper” Thomson was named Interim Head Coach (aka Manager) for the Phillies. Thomson had been the bench coach for the Phillies since 2018. I’m not sure exactly what a Bench Coach does but it seems like an easy job. “You there! Utility infielder. Sit there on the bench until you are needed.” I suspect there may be more to it than that but I digress.
Under Thomson the Phillies began a meteoric journey into the playoffs capturing the last National League playoff spot with a win against the Houston Astros in early October. It was an amazing comeback and fun sports to watch. I’ll admit that when the Phillies started tearing off exciting wins and win streaks I got hooked. As much as I hated the implementation of the National League designated hitter, it is unlikely the Phillies would have pulled off their great season without it. Bryce Harper suffered a couple injuries that kept him from playing in the field but kept his fearsome bat in the lineup. With that bat, Harper cut a swath through opposing pitching staffs seeming to always garner a big hit when the Phillies needed it most. Other players contributed too including a group of players nicknamed “The Day Care” because they were all young talent called up from the minor leagues. The Phillies minor league prospects in recent years have not been great, but under Coach Thomson, the Day Care shined!
The euphoria and momentum of the late season rush, carried the Phillies onward through the playoffs where they took down the St. Louis Cardinals, Atlanta Braves, and San Diego Padres on their way to the world series. There they met, once again, the Houston Astros. If you have even vaguely been a baseball fan, you know the Astros developed a following of nationwide hatred after the 2017/2018 seasons when their sign stealing system at home games came to light. Nearly the whole country was rooting for the Phillies in the series. But I knew going in to the series that, unless they could play at a level beyond themselves, it was pretty unlikely for the Phils to beat the ‘Stros. The 2022 Astros were just too talented throughout the organization. Still, the Phillies went on to make a show of it and took the series to 6 games. This was an impressive finish for a team that, a season earlier, wouldn’t have been in the playoffs.
So, one might ask, did I eat a lot of crow after the series since the new rule changes seemed to work out in the Phillies favor? Not really. I’ve eaten crow. For real. It isn’t all that good. Frankly, despite being an enormous Phillies and baseball fan, I was pretty burned out by the time the series rolled around. Honestly, I’d be perfectly happy if the season ended after 162 games and the team with the best record was declared the champion if we must have such a designation. I stand by what I said last year and most have known for a long time. The real reason for extended playoffs is for teams to squeeze as much money as they can out of their fans. The average world series ticket price for the 2022 series was $3,228.00. In my wildest dreams I couldn’t afford half of that to go a baseball game. Yet nearly all the games in both Texas and Pennsylvania were sell-outs. People are crazy. As it was, I’d get up the morning after games and see the scores and highlights. My choice not to stay up and watch had nothing to do with the length of the game but rather the length of the season. November is hunting season. Or football season. Not baseball season.
But 2022 is history and we’ve moved on to 2023. The grapefruit league is in full swing. For this year (and presumably for years to come) the MLB has moved on to a whole new “improvements” to the game to speed things along. Let’s take a look and see what they did.
MLB now has the same pitch clock that was implemented in the minors last year and deemed a success. The clock is 15 seconds when the bases are empty and 20 seconds when there are runners on base. Under pitch clock rules there are also time limits on the batter to get in the box and be ready. If the batter is not ready in 8 seconds, the umpire calls a strike and the clock restarts. If the pitcher doesn’t get the pitch off in the time limit, the umpire calls a ball and the count restarts. MLB touts the fact that game times was reduced an average of 25 minutes in the minors using the pitch clock. Presumably that’s good.
In the first couple spring training games, the timing rules were implemented a number of times costing teams games. By all accounts the players and coaches are adjusting and will adapt to live with it. That’s nice. But I’m not a player. I’m a fan. I’m not tuning in to a hockey or basketball game where there is a time limit but rather a baseball game.
I always look forward to spending a cold winter day watching a spring training game. The games are played mostly in the day time and rebroadcast at night. I’ve tried to tune in to several games and the vibe is noticeably different. Typically, baseball games coverage features some idle banter among the commentators, between pitch scans of the field or fans, the antics of a mascot. Now, the camera goes from the batter stepping in with the pitch clock ticking away, then the focus zooms out to show the pitcher and the pitch clock. Batter. Pitch clock. Pitcher. Tensions rise as slow pitchers work hard to get through their pitch sequence and send the ball toward the plate within the time limit. Gone are the sequence of signals telling the batter what the coach wants them to do. Gone is the interplay between pitcher and catcher . . the cat and mouse of one out waiting the other, stepping off, or calling timeout. Gone is the strategic shaking off of a pitch to keep the batter guessing. Get the ball, get in the box, pitch. Quick! Times a-wasting
Proponents of the pitch clock argue that also gone are the lengthy pre-at bat rituals of adjusting gloves, cups, helmets, and ceremonial tracing of the plate with the bat. Granted, some of that stuff was a bit over the top every single swing, but that was much more a part of the game than a pitch clock.
Batter Time Outs/Step Off/Pick off
Other measures added to speed up the game is to limit batters to one timeout per at bat and limit pitchers to 2 step-offs/pick-offs per batter. A speedy runner simply has to get through 2 attempts by the defense to stop them from running and then he knows he can take off for the next base. In the minors last year, this rule changed increased stolen base attempts by 26%.
According to Major League baseball, these changes reduced games by an average of 25 minutes last year. Well Bully! Wouldn’t it be awesome if you spent over $3000 on a ticket to a world series game and they celebrated because they got it over really fast? Imagine if we applied the same thing to things like music concerts. How ’bout if the band said “Let’s get this thing over as quick as we can”!
Apparently all the “speed up the games” changes has had the desired affect as spring training game times have dropped from around 3 hours to about 2 hours and 40 minutes with some games as short as 2 hours 25 minutes.
It will be interesting to see other areas where these changes affect the dynamic of baseball games. I suspect the days of no-hitters and complete games are behind us. We already saw pitchers with no-hitters through later innings getting yanked last year because that’s what the analytics say to do. I can’t imagine starters going deep into games or being able to hurl no hitters with these sort of time limits between pitches. It’s a shame because there was no more exciting sports event than to watch a no-hitter or perfect game.
As we build momentum for faster sports events here are some other ideas we can do to speed up baseball games.
Get rid of the ceremonial first pitch. That’s a waste of 10 minutes. Get the players out there and “Play Ball!” Chop chop!
B’bye 7th inning stretch. We are only going to be at the ball park for 2.5 hours. No need to stretch and waste time singing “Take me out to the Ballpark”. In fact, maybe we could re-write that:
Take me home from the ballgame Take me home from the crowd! Give me a pitch clock, and fast at bats, There's no time to eat cracker jack! Let me root, root, root for one more run, 'Cause extra innings would be a shame! You get me for less than 2 and a half hours, It's too long a game!
Let’s dispense with that whole thing where we throw the other team’s home run balls back onto the field too. Big time waster there. Fans caught doing so should be ejected from the game and banned from future events.
Curtain calls should go away too. Sure, it’s great to cheer a favorite player when he is outstanding but we’re in a hurry here. No time for all that pesky applause and what not. We gotta wrap this thing up!!
Managerial tirades featuring face to face barking between the manager and the umpires are a huge time waster and question mark. How does that even work with the pitch clock? Does the clock keep running while the manager argues? I picture an assembly line of batters making their way around the bases as the umpire mechanically calls “Ball!” every time the pitch clock expires as he gets yelled at by the manager.
Another idea would be to hire professional bat boys. We could have tryouts and only hire the speediest runners. There is probably potential here to cumulatively knock another 2 minutes off game time.
Mascots need to go too. Whether it be shooting hot dogs or t-shirts into the stands, mascot races, or just the normal harassment of opposing players and fans, the between innings shenanigans almost never end quickly and add valuable minutes to the game. Sorry Phanatic and Chicken but we got not time for your foolishness. We’re obviously here to get this darn game out of the way in a hurry.
Booth reviews: Perhaps some of the above items were in jest (although really good suggestions if we want to speed games up), but this one is for real. I’ll never understand the sports fans that say “They have to get the call right.” Why? Sports lived for decades without the precise review technology we have today. Why are we doing things to speed the game up and are still okay with booth reviews that take 10 minutes or more? Who cares that much!? It’s a freakin’ game! Just play! Good and bad calls balance out for everyone throughout the year. In my opinion, instant replay review has wiped out interest in nearly every major sport. JUST PLAY THE GAME!
It remains to be seen how baseball will fair going forward with the new rules. Hopefully it works out for them. I wonder about things like throwing the ball around the horn after a strikeout. Will that count against the pitch clock? What about the catcher or umpire getting hit by a 97 mph fastball? Do they get a break or do we play on? We’ve already eliminated the unwritten courtesies that were of the game so I’m not sure how the new speed elements will play. But, unlike last year where I caved and tuned in before the season was over, I don’t see that happening this year. I’ve tried to watch a few spring training games and really no longer enjoy what the game has become. Perhaps I’ll tune in for a regular season game. Perhaps I’ll like it more than I think I do, but as a fan of baseball and baseball traditions, that doesn’t seem tremendously likely. Hopefully the new streamlined game picks up the new fans MLB thinks it will but I wouldn’t count on it. Like many sports, they’ve rule-changed their way out of my zone of interest. Good luck baseball! I hope you have a healthy future with your new fan base.
I’ll check in in September if the Fladelphia team is doing well.