Column: Pace of play changes we could see next season

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It’s no secret to MLB fans that Rob Manfred is heavily in favor of imposing changes to speed up games. To be fair, the game is slowing down. Games in 2016 averaged about four minutes longer than games in 2015. Today, the 2017 average is five minutes longer than the 2016 average. Yes, this may seem miniscule to us die-hard fans who love spending three hours watching a game, but Manfred has valid concerns.

Baseball fans are getting older, and not enough young people are turning up for the game. Ticket sales, merchandise and even the advertisements that run during games are at risk of taking a hit if a younger generation of fans doesn’t start attending to support their team. Manfred attributes this problem to the length of a game and has several initiatives he wants to implement to change it.

Before I explain the ideas and negotiations, I want to make it clear that the Collective Bargaining Agreement agreed to by the MLBPA at the end of last season gives Manfred the power to make sweeping changes to the game, as long as he gives a one-year notice. Manfred is, at least, trying to negotiate with the MLBPA to make sure players and coaches are prepared to deal with any new changes.

The first big change, and we’ve been hearing about this for years, is a pitch clock. In other words, the time between pitches is no more than 30 seconds. This has several indirect effects. We’ve heard about instituting rules requiring that a pitcher not step off the mound and a batter can’t leave the box. A pitch clock is a way to ensure that those things aren’t happening. The negotiations have also discussed limiting the number of mound visits, not just from coaches to their pitchers, but from catchers as well. A pitch clock makes it difficult for a successful meeting between the two and discourages the activity.

A pitch clock has been instituted in several levels of the minors since the 2015 season. Most players would agree it doesn’t pose much of a nuisance. It’s also important to note that these developing players are adjusting to a new way to play in the minors and most of them don’t readjust once they get to the majors. They’re carrying this “don’t step out of the box” rule with them. They’re pitching faster. Younger players are increasing the speed of the game, so the problem may be as simple as waiting out the veterans who have never had to play by these rules.

The problem the MLBPA is worried about in regard to limiting mound visits is that baseball players are getting younger. Kids are opting to enter the draft instead of going to college. Hitting such a big stage at a young age can make it difficult to effectively communicate with your catcher. When communication is not effective between the two, the catcher is at risk for injury. If the catcher sets up for a curve ball in the dirt and instead is thrown a high fastball, he could take that to his helmet. Yes, he’s wearing a protective mask, but a 95 mph fastball to the head is still capable of causing a severe concussion.

The final problem Manfred sees with regard to pace of play is related to video replay. It’s a relatively recent development in baseball that certain plays are eligible for instant replay. The process involves the umpires getting on headsets and communicating with another team of umpires stationed in MLB headquarters in New York. This second team is responsible for reviewing the play, deciding a call and communicating that back to the umpires. It’s a time consuming process (particularly when an umpire can just look up on the jumbotron and see the play over and over).

The current rule gives managers 30 seconds after a play to request review. The review itself, in 2017, is taking just under a minute and a half (a major improvement from over two minutes a few seasons ago). The change involves forcing managers to decide on a replay immediately, cutting valuable seconds off the game.

There was a meeting in early August between league officials and a few members of the MLBPA. They attempted to negotiate some of the rules discussed here. In terms of a pitch clock, the union suggested that perhaps the clock only operate when there are no runners on base. When a runner is on base, part of the 30 seconds allotted needs to be spent checking the runners and making sure they don’t steal. The belief is that a pitch clock would create more stolen bases, so the MLBPA wants to make the clock conditional.

Additionally, the argument against removing the 30 second time limit for reviewing the play could become messy in later innings. The players have suggested allowing the 30 seconds beginning in the sixth inning, that way close calls that could be the deciding factor of a game are given proper attention.

So far, no conclusions have been reached. My hope, as I understand it, is rule changes will be made by the time we arrive at 2018 Spring Training. This offseason will be full of more negotiating with the intention of giving players the exhibition season to adjust to the new rules. For now, enjoy the game the way it’s currently being played. We may never see this again.


Rachel Schaefer is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at rachel.schaefer@uconn.edu.