Column: It’s up to MLB’s players to speed up the game

By Michael Cunningham - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

MIAMI — Lots of people think there’s nothing wrong with the pace of play in baseball. They believe the game is meant to saunter along at its own tempo. Some like it, some don’t, but any radical attempts to change that will make it something other than baseball.

I’m not one of those people — the games are just too dang slow — but I understand the sentiment. I’m sure MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred gets it, too. But he must make his product more appealing to those (mostly younger) people who view baseball as just one entertainment option among many and not some romanticized ritual.

That point was apparent during Manfred’s “town hall” event with fans during All-Star week in Miami. He was peppered with questions about exactly how he plans to speed up the game. The games are longer than ever, and the customers are noticing.

“I think for us, our current focus is on dead time in the game, things like limiting mound visits, pitch clock to make sure that pitchers deliver the ball quickly and keep the game moving,” Manfred said. “And we like those sorts of changes because we believe they don’t have a fundamental impact on the competition or on the history or tradition of the game.”

This is Manfred acknowledging his dual constituencies. For better or worse, no sport is more beholden to tradition and history than baseball. Therefore no commissioner must be as mindful about not turning off customers reluctant to move forward for fear of losing something of the game’s past.

But I think players will be the trickier sell on speeding play. Among professional leagues, baseball cedes the most leeway to its participants when it comes to the rules. Players take their time, and umpires allow it to happen because players have always set the agenda.

Remember those times MLB tried to expand the strike zone, which really just means enforce it the way it’s described in the rules book? It inevitably reverts back to the depends-on-the-umpire system because that’s the way it’s always been and players were accustomed to it.

The same will happen with pace-of-play rules — unless Manfred can find a way to take enforcement out of umps’ hands so they aren’t beholden to the whims of the players. He has an opening.

A new labor agreement with players is expected soon, to begin for the 2018 season. The CBA appears to give baseball unilateral authority to change the rules of the game. Tony Clark, head of the players’ association, said in Miami that his group is willing to find “common ground” with management on pace-of-play rules.

Before this season, baseball proposed the changes Manfred mentioned: a 20-second pitch clock and limits on mound visits by catchers. MLB also wanted to raise the bottom of the strike zone. But, in a sign of player resistance to rules that make them play quicker, the only change adopted was to allow intentional walks without throwing pitches.

The changes don’t seem to be having any effect on pace of play. MLB games this season are lasting an average of 3:09, according to Baseball Reference data. If that rate lasts, that would be the longest average game time on record, surpassing the 3:07 time in 2014. The past five seasons all had average game times of at least three hours after there were no such seasons on record before.

MLB thought it made progress when pace-of-play rules adopted in 2015 helped knock seven minutes off the average game time. Then the game times increased by four minutes on average in 2016 and they are even longer so far this season.

I suspect the games are longer because the players are making them longer. They want to step out of the box, adjust their batting gloves and take a couple of cuts. They want to step off the mound, circle it and pick up the rosin bag.

You can understand why players, from their perspective, want to take their sweet time. Baseball is a hard game. There’s more money at stake than ever. Why would they rush things?

But, like Manfred, players have to think about the people who will turn away from baseball in favor of entertainment that moves along faster. Players can play at their own pace or attract new fans, but it’s doubtful they can do both.


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By Michael Cunningham

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution