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Baseball Has Always Been Too Slow

Long games aren’t keeping MLB from taking in record revenues, but if the league keeps pointing at an imaginary issue, it’s only a matter of time until it becomes a real problem

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Major League Baseball has proposed a change to the intentional walk rule, in which a manager would be able to simply signal for a free pass from the dugout, rather than requiring the pitcher to literally throw four wide ones. The proposal, which would need the approval of the players union before it came into force, is part of a plan to speed up the pace of play, as the average MLB game balloons to three hours in length.

Turning an intentional walk into a signal is definitely in character for MLB, an organization that loves to paper over cracks that are themselves made of paper. Even if pace of play were a critical issue for MLB right now, the new rule wouldn’t do anything to alleviate the problem.

It’s easy to understand why people think pace of play is a problem, because it’s jarring to hear that MLB games have nearly doubled in length over the past 100 years. But that’s not just all dead air; the entertainment industry has changed a lot since the 1920s. Back then, ballgames had to be played briskly so they’d finish before dark. There were no TV commercials, fewer pitching changes, and a more contact-heavy style of play that led to fewer walks, strikeouts, and deep counts. Even so, as playoff games now routinely stretch past midnight on the East Coast and parents have to leave ballgames in the seventh inning so their kids can get to bed on a school night, perhaps you’d want to cut back on some of the dead air.

It’s an article of faith that baseball is slow and/or boring, and it’s not just a recent phenomenon. John Kruk said so in 1992. Thomas Boswell said so in 1995. “Baseball is slow and boring,” says Nog in an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, proving not only was baseball slow in boring in 1993, when the episode was written, it will remain so until 2369, when the episode is set.

But why? Certainly there’s a lot of hurry-up-and-wait in a baseball game, but doesn’t football have that problem, too? An NFL game pads 11 minutes of action with more than three hours of effluvium. NCAA football, in which up-tempo spread offenses often try to run 90 plays a game, is like the extended cut of a Lord of the Rings movie: five hours of guys whose names you never really learn running around in service of goals that a casual fan wouldn’t really understand, punctuated by speeches about sacrifice and self-abnegation. And college football is fun as hell.

Pace of play certainly isn’t a pressing financial problem for MLB. The league took in record revenues for the 14th straight year in 2016 — nearly $10 billion from fans, broadcast partners, and corporate sponsors who clearly don’t seem that bothered by a three-hour runtime.

The problem, as always seems to be the case, is that baseball’s elders, both within the sport and in the media, insist that there’s a problem. Consider how MLB spent a decade rending its garments about PED usage, and compare it with how the NFL escaped unscathed by treating steroids like any other form of cheating and going about its business. Holding a pass rusher is against the rules — if you get caught, you get punished, and we move on — and so is testing positive for PEDs. How many of you know that Mike Piazza — whose sin was hitting for power in the 1990s — had bacne? How many of you remember that Von Miller served a six-game suspension for violating the league’s drug policy in 2013?

A head-in-the-sand approach doesn’t work for every PR crisis, as the NFL is finding out as it grapples with CTE, which could become an existential crisis for the sport. But there’s something to be said for not making life more difficult than it has to be.

It’s worth pointing out that intentional walks aren’t always boring, but while I’m willing to wait 10 years from Miguel Cabrera’s go-ahead single to Pat Light’s game-tying wild pitch, I understand not everyone feels that way. So let’s stipulate that pace of play would still be a problem if MLB stopped talking about it all the time. Streamlining the intentional walk wouldn’t even speed up the game in any way perceptible to the viewer.

If you’re wondering how much time this measure would save, ESPN’s Jayson Stark has already done the math: In 2016, MLB saw an intentional walk once every 2.6 games, and making the process automatic would, in Stark’s estimation, save about a minute per walk.

(If anything, I think Stark is being too generous — challenging an umpire’s call is supposed to be a matter of a hand signal, and it immediately turned into a routine in which a manager strolls out of the dugout, stands around purposelessly with his hands in his waistband, like a Brooklynite in a Nashville line dancing club. I’d be shocked if the hand signal saves more than a few seconds once every few games.)

Even if you accept Stark’s estimate, 932 minutes isn’t a lot when you spread it across 2,430 three-hour regular-season games. Eliminating the intentional walk would save about 23 seconds a game, shortening the season by 0.21 percent, a figure the word “negligible” exaggerates in importance.

MLB could make games last two and a half hours again if it wanted to badly enough, but it doesn’t. Here’s a list of things that take the air out of a baseball game even more than intentional walks do:

  • Pickoff throws
  • Mound visits
  • Pitching changes (which have themselves increased by almost 50 percent in the past 50 years)
  • Songs in the seventh-inning stretch other than “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”
  • The aforementioned Terrence Malick movie that unfolds during every challenge
  • Commercial breaks
  • Pedro Báez and Jonathan Papelbon

While MLB isn’t attempting to curtail any of that, it is proposing to lop off the bottom two inches of the strike zone in attempt to cut down on strikeouts, which are the only thing increasing as steadily as revenue. Changing the strike zone could encourage more contact, or lead to more walks or a host of unforeseen consequences, but it would impact the game. By contrast, the proposed intentional walk rule, according to Stark, is about sending a message, not actually affecting change. So how badly does that message need to be sent, and what message does changing the intentional walk actually send?

You’d shave a minute, tops, off every second or third game, and for years signaled free passes would be followed routinely by a debate in the broadcast booth and on Twitter about the pace of play. It’s the equivalent of popping a zit and showing up for work the next day in a full facial bandage; nobody was going to say anything until you called attention to it.

If MLB actually considered pace of play to be a significant problem, it would take significant action, but instead, it’s trying to win a PR victory with a trivial reaction to an exaggerated problem. In so doing, MLB calls unnecessary attention to its flaws without actually doing anything to fix them. And while baseball’s cultural significance and financial robustness seem secure now, if you keep telling people that your entertainment product is slow and boring, eventually they’ll start to believe you.