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Minor League Baseball Wants to Speed Things Up

An independent baseball league is trying out some new rules to cut out the lag time in games and move things along.

by Dan McQuade
Aug 5 2014, 1:40pm

Photo via the Atlantic League

This weekend, the Atlantic League—an independent baseball league with teams with nicknames like Revolution, Riversharks, and Skeeters—began experimenting with a series of new rules. The rules, which went into effect on August 1, are intended to speed up games.

According to data the St. Louis Post-Dispatch compiled last year, the average length of a major league baseball game was 2:27 in 1947. In 2013, according to Baseball Prospectus, the average game length was a shade over three hours. Thanks in part to expanded instant replay, games this season are even longer.

Although the replay system has contributed to longer games, baseball has become obsessed with shortening the length of games for the last few decades. "Without a doubt, this is a very high-priority thing," Bud Selig said in 2000. "All we need to do is enforce the rules on the books now." MLB created a committee to study rule changes to experiment with in the minor leagues, but it went nowhere. In 2010, Hall of Famer Frank Robinson was tasked with speeding up MLB games. (Most of the chatter since has been about blaming the Yankees and Red Sox.) But games have only gotten longer since Selig said something needed to be done and the issue has seemingly become less of a priority.

Speaking of rules, it's illegal to hit a batter with a pitch. So quit doing that. Read more.

But the Atlantic League is doing something. The Southern Maryland Blue Crabs' 2-1 victory over the York Revolution on Friday night lasted just 2:34—25 minutes shorter than the average Atlantic League game this season. A league executive told the Wall Street Journal the goal is to shorten games by an average of 15 minutes.

The sweet spot appears to be 2 to 2 ½ hours. The average length of both NHL and NBA games are in this range. A lot of smaller sports—and sports entertainment, a term that came out of pro wrestling—hit this mark, too. Disney on Ice is about two hours. Harlem Globetrotters games are a little over two hours with a 30-minute autograph session afterward, per 'Trotter PR man Eric Nemeth. Non-televised WWE house shows are about two and a half. Despite the high scoring, Arena Football League games are about the same. The only sport that escapes unscathed is football: The average NFL games is longer than three hours and college football games drag on as well, but that's the most popular in the country. Still, some think NFL games could hurry it up a little.

Which leaves baseball. The day after the Atlantic League's 2:34 game, the Blue Crabs played the Lancaster Barnstormers. The Crabs' 12-9 win took 3:31. The new rules aren't magic. (The easiest way to speed up games is for teams to score fewer runs—not exactly something baseball management wants to encourage.) The players seem to hate the new rules: "It seemed very high school," York pitcher Beau Vaughn told USA Today. "For the credibility of this league and what I've heard about this league and the standards it has," fellow Revolution pitcher Alain Quijano told the York Dispatch, "why would you do that when this league is supposed to be the best league in all of independent baseball?"

In that column for the Dispatch, John Walk writes the league has already sped up play this season by encouraging umpires to call the high strike and encouraging teams to limit promotions between innings to 90 seconds. As a result, York's game times have plummeted: 3:03 in nine inning games last year became 2:42 this season.

But maybe some of the rules are solid. Here, then is a countdown of the six rule changes announced by the Atlantic League for August 1st—in order from smartest to stupidest.

Automatic Intentional Walks. If a team wants to intentionally walk a batter, it just gets to award him the base. There's no need to throw four balls to the catcher standing up. Once in a thousand intentional walks does a player end up swinging at it. Usually, they end after four pointless pitches. Simply issuing a free base is a harmless way to speed up the game. 

As funny as it was when the Somerset Patriots score on a wild pitch on an intentional walk in 2007, the new rule doesn't really change the game all that much. A thumbs up!

Directing Umpires to Apply and Enforce Rule 6.02 and Rule 8.04. Rule 6.02 tells batters they can't simply step in and out of the box however often they want. Rule 8.04 tells pitchers to throw a pitch within 12 seconds when there's nobody on base.

These rules are widely ignored In the majors (and, since umpires are being reminded to enforce them, in the Atlantic League as well). Pitchers take closer to 20 seconds to deliver a pitch with no one on base in the majors. It gets worse: When an umpire calls a ball on a pitcher for failing to deliver a pitch in time, more often than not, it leads to an argument that slows down the game even more.

Atlantic League players don't quite have the clout major league ones do. It's understandable that baseball players want more time to pitch or hit—baseball is a precision sport after all. But it's a minor league game played in York or Camden or Sugar Land (yes, the Atlantic League has one team in Texas). Baseball isn't golf. Pitch within 12 seconds, please.

Reduced Number of Warm-Up Pitches. Pitchers get six warm-up pitches instead of eight. This will save, what, 30 seconds a game? Every second counts, but this seems like the most pointless of the new set of rules.

Directing Umpires to Control the Pace of Play. Wait, this is the most pointless of the rules. One of the new rules simply reminds umpires to control the pace of the game. Really, that's it. The league might as well have a rule that tells pitchers to throw hard and batters to run around the bases counter-clockwise.

Limited Timeouts. Teams will be limited to three meetings on the mound per game. Catchers do go to the mound too often. (In retirement, Jorge Posada is going to the mound every other pitch while playing MLB 14: The Show.) But three seems a little low, even if pitching changes don't count as timeouts? "Now we're in the eighth inning and I got my reliever out there and they're putting a pinch-hitter in and I can't go to the mound?" Revolution manager Mark Mason told the Dispatch. "I can't give my pitcher a scouting report on this guy?" He has a point. Allowing for extra visits after a pinch hitter wouldn't save as much time, but it would make things more fair.

The "Substitute Runner for the Catcher" Rule. When a catcher gets a hit, he would be substituted for a pinch runner so he could get his catching gear on for the next inning. This is absolutely ridiculous. This isn't a situation like soccer, where many have called for a temporary substitute rule after a suspected concussion. This is a rule that completely overturns a general rule of baseball—once you're out of a game, you're out of a game—in the hopes of speeding up play a minute or so a game. There's no need to give catchers a designated runner! Fortunately, this rule is so stupid the league scrapped it before the new rules went into effect. Catchers will have to run the basepaths after all.

There's one thing these rules all have in common: They don't really speed up the game that much. Even 15 minutes isn't that much. The Journal says groups often come to Atlantic League games and exit early due to the length. Yes, three hours is longer than a lot of people want to watch minor league baseball. But there's not much the league can do—people leave events early all the time, and the length of a baseball game is likely to be around three hours even with these changes.

"We are excited to put these new efforts in place and observe how they impact the pace of play," Atlantic League president Rick White said. "We hope that these measures, along with others being considered, not only enhance the game for the Atlantic League but serve as a model for other leagues." The new rules certainly got the Atlantic League a lot of attention, and MLB would be silly to not monitor how the rules have changed the game. But here's guessing they won't find much to emulate.

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