"Much of baseball's popularity," said The Sporting News in March 1956, "depends on its allergy to change." Baseball fans know this allergy well. Any proposed tinkering with the game usually is greeted with a parade of boos and hisses.
But careful fans also know that changes to the game are as old as the game itself. Just as baseball didn't spring fully formed from the brow of Abner Doubleday, there's never been a set of rules fixed in the firmament. To the contrary, the rules of the game have changed, and changed back, and changed again, from baseball's very beginnings.
Several of those rules directly relate to the hazy concept of "pace of play." Hell, the called strike itself resulted from the need to move along the game. In his excellent book, A Game of Inches, Peter Morris recounts an interview given by an early ballplayer in 1884, who claimed that before called strikes, "forty, fifty and sixty balls were considered nothing for a pitcher before the batsman got suited." Henry Chadwick witnessed a game in 1855 that took over two hours to play just three innings because of the number of pitches. And it wasn't even a Yankees-Red Sox game.
Why the history lesson? Because baseball's new pace-of-play rules announced last week, and the off-season talk of other modifications, aren't a radical reinvention of the grand old game. They're just another episode in the ever-changing nature of baseball.
So what are these new rules, and how likely will they speed up the game? Here's a summary:
First, MLB is promoting the "batter's box rule" to major league games. Already in place in the minor leagues, Rule 6.02(d) requires all batters to keep a foot in the box, barring a recognized exception. Those exceptions are generally what you'd expect (e.g., swings at the preceding pitch, a wild pitch).
Unlike Rule 6.02(d), umpires will not call automatic strikes if the batter leaves the box without permission. Instead, MLB will fine players for repeated offenses, up to $500.
The rule itself is a welcome change. The average length of time between pitches last year was 23 seconds, and some notable players (cough, Troy Tulowitzki) blew the doors off that average. Tulo took 27.9 seconds between pitches last year. Add up the number of pitches he saw (1,418), and that's nearly two hours of additional adjusting and fidgeting.
Even a modest change could have appreciable results. If the "batter's box rule" reduces the time between pitches by three seconds, the time savings could easily push the average game to under three hours. Say you reduce the average length between pitches to 20 seconds. In a typical game with 300 pitches, that'd be 15 minutes saved over last year's average.
The problem, however, is that a rule is only as good as its penalty. I'm not persuaded that a $500 fine will change many habits. If MLB is serious about speeding up the game, it's going to take more than a slap on the wrist.
Second, MLB plans to limit the dead space between the return from a commercial break at the end of a half inning and the resumption of play. The league seems to want this gap in action to be no more than 40 seconds.
This is a great concept, and one that's likely to have an immediate positive effect. During a game between the Rockies and Marlins last season, the average length of the gap after a return from commercial break was 50 seconds. There's no need for this. Shaving off some time from these post-commercial inactions would be a benefit, although 40 seconds isn't nearly ambitious enough.
As part of this rule, MLB is imposing additional requirements on pitchers and hitters to get ready to resume play. Pitchers must finish their warmups within 10 seconds of the return from commercial break, and batters will be encouraged to be in the box 10 seconds after that last warmup pitch. This granularity in time-keeping is a little cumbersome, but if it leads to a quicker return to play, then so be it.
Third, MLB is eliminating the need for managers to leave the dugout to challenge a call on the field. In fact, the only situation where a manager will leave the dugout for a challenge is if the call ended the inning, so that the defensive team knows to stay on the field. Otherwise, the manager can signal the home plate umpire from the dugout that he's considering a challenge, then communicate his decision "verbally or with a hand signal."
I have my own hand signal for instant replay in baseball. But regardless of how you feel about replay, ending the striptease of the manager walking on the field to buy time for the video review is a good thing.
Aside from these pace-of-play rules, MLB is fine-tuning instant replay, expanding challenges to whether runners left the base early or touched a base on a tag-up, allowing managers to retain challenges after every overturned call, and increasing the number of challenges in the postseason (and regular season tiebreakers) to two per game. What fun.
Grumbling over replay aside, the new guidelines on pace-of-play are a good start to taking some of the dead time out of the ballgame. MLB undoubtedly will consider other changes (decreasing the time between batters would be welcome), but for now, the rules adopted for 2015 are steps in the right direction, addressing areas where the game lags, without changing its fundamental character. Even fans who're most allergic to change can't sneeze at that.