MLB Seeks “Baseball’s Best Form” By Picking Up The Pace

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By Webdesk

Baseball has been struggling with a number of nagging complaints for years.

With games regularly lasting longer than three hours and protracted confrontations between pitchers and batters becoming the norm, many began to wonder: Was “America’s pastime” becoming too slow, too boring, and too out of touch with what modern fans want? ?

So when Major League Baseball (MLB) announced it was implementing changes Commissioner Robert Manfred promised would help “bring back the best form of baseball” this year, American sports pundit Randy Roberts said he wasn’t surprised. .

“Baseball has a history of changing rules. The rules were never set in stone. They didn’t come from Mount Sinai,” said Roberts, a distinguished professor of history at Purdue University.

“You will always have the kind of baseball purists who think the game should never change,” he told Al Jazeera. “But the game is changing and evolving.

“Overall I think speeding up the game and creating more action are good things.”

The changes

“Creating more action” in a sport whose roots in the United States date back to the 18th century prompted the series of changes the MLB introduced for the 2023 season, which officially began in late March.

“It’s our duty to provide our fans with the best version of the game,” Manfred said at the end of last season, adding that the league had “boundless optimism” for baseball’s future.

The MLB, made up of 29 teams in the US and one in Canada, has expanded the bases and placed restrictions on how defensive players can be fielded (so-called “shift limits”) in an effort to put more balls in play. and encourage stealing.

The most notable difference, however, is the use of a so-called “pitch clock” to speed up the time between pitches – a system one manager described as “probably the biggest change made to baseball in most of our lives.” “.

MLB pitchers now have 20 seconds to get their pitches off if the offensive team has runners on base and 15 seconds if they don’t. Previously there was no fixed limit; pitchers could wave off their catcher’s pitch calls—or throw the ball to a base to “check” a runner—as many times as they liked, extending at bats.

Now, if a pitch exceeds the allotted time, a ball is awarded to the batter, who must also follow new, time-related rules at the plate, including the ability to call only one timeout per at-bat.

Manfred told reporters in September that the changes came after extensive research into what the baseball audience hopes to see: “Number one, fans want faster-paced games. Second, fans want more action, more balls in the game. And number three, fans want to see more of our great players’ athleticism.”

Business of baseball

Tim DeSchriver, an associate professor of sports management at the University of Delaware, said the push to make baseball more attractive is because the game is “at best [its] own, but not growing’ in the US like other sports, such as American football, basketball and soccer.

The goal, he said, is “to make it a more marketable product,” especially among younger fans. The league also hoped to encourage more people to watch games on television, as national and local broadcast deals account for a large portion of MLB revenue.

“I definitely think it wasn’t just, ‘We have to make it more fun for the fans sitting in the seats,’ but also for the TV audience,” DeSchriver told Al Jazeera. “There were World Series games that ended at 12:30 am, 1 am. It’s hard to win over young fans when they’re asleep.”

Other professional sports leagues have made rule changes in the past to try to attract larger audiences as well.

The National Football League (NFL) banned defensive players from interfering with wide receivers — a rule that encouraged more exciting pitches in the field, DeSchriver said by way of example. And referees in the National Basketball Association (NBA) are quick to call fouls, giving the league’s stars a chance to move and score more freely.

“In recent years, we’ve seen a significant increase in points scored per game in the NBA,” he said. “Someone would rather see a 115-110 game than an 80-75 game.”

Houston Astros relief pitcher Ryan Pressly (55) argues a pitch clock violation against the Minnesota Twins in the ninth inning at Target Field
Houston Astros relief pitcher Ryan Pressly argues a pitch clock violation [Matt Blewett/USA TODAY Sports]

‘New normal’

But in a sport so closely tied to American culture, changes in baseball have often been met with resistance and even disdain. Still, most fans seemed to have welcomed the MLB’s changes this season, despite some early hiccups.

An unforeseen consequence of faster games is a decline in stadium beer sales, US media reported, prompting some teams to extend sales past their typical seventh-inning cutoff.

And those most affected by the pitch clock – the pitchers themselves – have admitted that they are on a learning curve. Some have complained of wind and rushing pitches to avoid an offense in the early weeks of the season, leading them to worry about the potential for injury.

But most said it was a matter of getting used to the timer.

“I think one of the best things that’s happened to baseball is to adapt it, make it a little more exciting, make it a little faster,” Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch told local sports radio station 97.1 in early April. The Ticket about the changes.

“We need to get a little bit more athletic to take advantage of the base-stealing component, but I believe it’s good for the game – if only we can come to terms with the fact that this is our new normal.” and not like it used to be,” Hinch said.

This isn’t the first time the MLB has tweaked the game, either.

Last year, for the first time, decades after the American League first began using DHs, National League MLB teams were allowed to use designated hitters (DHs) — players who bat in place of a pitcher but don’t take the field to play. to defend . And as of 2020, teams have started each extra inning with a player (the “automatic runner”) on second base in another effort to speed up the games.

How does the game change?

According to DeSchriver, it was too early to say how the new rules would affect visitor numbers and TV ratings. “April is always a tough month for baseball, especially because of the weather in the more northern cities. I think by the end of May or sometime in June we will probably know more about whether it really impacts fan interest,” he told Al Jazeera.

Still, Jeremy Losak, an assistant professor of sports analysis at Syracuse University, said that while data remains limited this early in the new season, the changes already seemed to change the game itself.

“We’re seeing an almost 20 percent reduction in dead time between pitches,” he told Al Jazeera, with playing time falling from an average of over three hours to “somewhere between two and a half hours.” to three o’clock”.

An umpire calls a pitch clock violation during a baseball game at New York's Yankee Stadium
An umpire calls a pitch clock violation during a game at Yankee Stadium [Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports]

A nine-inning MLB game lasted an average of three hours and four minutes in 2022, and that has dropped to two hours and 37 minutes so far this season, according to data released by the league on April 21.

Stolen base attempts were up 30 percent, Losak said, while 80 percent of these attempts were successful — a “drastic” increase of about 40 percent. Walks have also increased, but he said this is likely partly due to pitchers being more rushed with the pitch clock.

“I think there will be a lot more diversity in terms of the type of gameplay we see. In the 2010s, we saw a huge shift to the player with ‘three real outcomes’: players who strike out, walk or hit home runs,” Losak said.

“With these rules, there should now be an incentive to encourage more bachelors, and just get down to basics in general.”

That was echoed by Roberts, who said the changes will increase the prospect of singles and inventive defensive and on-base plays — elements of baseball that he said are some of the most exciting historically.

“I can think of field plays that were much more exciting than home runs in some ways,” he said, pointing to the catch Willie Mays made over his shoulder during the 1954 World Series as the “best example” of that.

“It’s just an evolution of the game,” Roberts added of the new rules. “And if it’s popular, if it means more people showing up, if it creates more action, then it stays.”

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