Faster play: how pro baseball commissioner hopes to speed up America's pastime

Despite reluctance on the part of the players' union, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred says he is considering rule changes beginning in 2018.

Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY
Detailed view of the pace of play digital pitch clock in the outfield between innings of the game between the Texas Rangers against the San Francisco Giants during a spring training baseball game at Surprise Stadium in Surprise, Arizona, March 6, 2015. Among changes to the game Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred announced on Tuesday is a 20-second pitch clock.

Major League Baseball is considering a series of rule changes beginning in 2018 designed to accelerate game play, commissioner Rob Manfred announced at a press conference on Tuesday. 

Many of the rule changes the MLB is interested in – including implementing a 20-second pitch clock, and forcing the ball into play more rapidly while also limiting visits to the pitcher's mound made by players, coaches, and managers – are geared towards reducing slow moments between action in Major League Baseball.

Mr. Manfred is also contemplating shrinking the size of the strike zone by raising the line to above the knee. Explained by Tom Verducci for Sports Illustrated, the change is understandable “because umpires are calling more low strikes and because pitchers are throwing harder and lower.” He says, "it’s all in the data, which also show that batting average on low pitches is much worse than batting average on high pitches."

The announcement, divisive among fans and critics and panned by players, came just two days after Tony Clark, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), said he saw no need for substantive rule changes in the game of baseball.

“I love our game. I fell in love with our game early on in my career. There are things I respect and have an appreciation for. I could talk baseball all day. Call me a romantic, call me what you want,” said Mr. Clark, a former major-leaguer, as quoted by the Boston Globe.

This is not a new problem. In 2015, new rules were enacted that improved the speed of a baseball game, as Fox Sports reported last May.

The changes helped cut the average game length by 12 minutes, from three hours and eight minutes in 2014 to two hours and 56 minutes a year ago – but baseball games were still more than 20 minutes longer than the average NHL game and 40 minutes longer than the average NBA game.... [but] baseball games are getting longer this season, though. According to ESPN, the length of average MLB game in 2016 has stretched three hours and 26 seconds.

Clark who was voted in unanimously as the head of the MLBPA following the death of prior union chief, Michael Weiner, argued that you don't mess with America's pastime lightly.  “You grew up playing the game a particular way,” Clark continued. "You fall in love with the game a particular way. You appreciate and respect that history.”

“You also are willing to have conversations on ways to improve, and that will continue with understanding and appreciating that you never want to get so far away from the game itself that those who love the game no longer recognize it.”

This appears to be where the disconnect lies between Manfred and the players' union.

Looking to implement a series of rule changes that would quicken the rate of play, Mr. Manfred expressed his frustration with the lack of cooperation he feels from the union.

“I have to admit,’’ Manfred said, according to USA TODAY, “that I’m disappointed we could not even get the MLBPA to agree to modest rule changes.”

Thus, he continued, “unfortunately, it now appears there won’t be any meaningful change for the 2017 season due to a lack of cooperation from the MLBPA.”

Manfred said Tuesday that should the MLBPA continue on its current course, he would activate a provision in the new collective bargaining agreement that allows the commissioner to implement any rule unilaterally after providing one year’s notice.

Clark took issue with Manfred's characterization of these negotiations. "Unless your definition of 'cooperation' is blanket approval, I don't agree that we've failed to cooperate with the commissioner's office on these issues,” he said, quoted by SB Nation.

Stating that regular discussions had been taking place throughout the off-season between the MLB and the players' union, he continued, "I would be surprised if those discussions with MLB don't continue, notwithstanding today's comments about implementation. As I've said, fundamental changes to the game are going to be an uphill battle, but the lines of communication should remain open.”

The two sides reportedly agreed on one change for the 2017 season: no more intentional walks. 

Instead of a pitcher throwing four pitches out of the strike zone, the intentional walk will be awarded by a signal from the dugout, ESPN reported Tuesday. 

But as The Wall Street Journal reported, such walks aren't that common and the change will only shorten the game by an average of 14 seconds

Based on Manfred’s statements on Tuesday, should he feel the players' union remains uncooperative, beginning in 2018 Major League Baseball could see a variety of new rules intended to speed up the pace of play.

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