Speeding up baseball
As we close in on the 2011 World Series, we're wondering if major-league baseball games have become too long to enjoy? Consider this: The first four games of the National League Championship Series took, on average, 3 hours and 27 minutes. The first four games of the ALCS included two 11-inning games and averaged 3 hours and 40 minutes. Compare that to 40 years ago and the 1971 World Series. The seven games of that series were played in 2:06, 2:55, 2:20, 2:48, 2:16, 2:59 and 2:10.
But here's another comparison that should trouble baseball. The 3 1/2-hour baseball games are longer than practically all NFL, NBA and NHL games. Many of MLB’s playoff games, including all World Series games, begin at close to 8 o'clock Eastern Time. That means many of the marquee games -- the games that are supposed to create generations of fans -- are not ending until close to midnight, long after school children and many working adults go to bed.
So what can be done to speed up games? Here are some suggestions.
Here's a snapshot from last week: During the eighth inning of Game 4 of the ALCS between the Rangers and Tigers, Tigers reliever Joaquin Benoit took 25 to 30 seconds between pitches. Nobody was on base. Some will suggest that Benoit’s slow-motion act was justified because the score was tied in the late innings of a crucial playoff game. But look at it this way: The play clock doesn't get longer in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. The shot clock in the last minute of Game 7 of the NBA Finals is still 24 seconds, just like it is in every game. Studies showed that in 2010, an average major-league baseball game had 292 pitches and each pitch took 21.6 seconds. That accounts for 1 hour and 45 minutes. That doesn't include balls put in play, pitching changes, warmups between innings, throws over to first and so forth. What if MLB created a 15-second pitch clock that gave pitchers 15 seconds to throw, or at least go into the stretch with runners on base, with a ball being called for a time violation. How much time could be saved? Well, 292 pitches at 15 seconds each equals 73 minutes. Based on the 2010 studies' 1:45 of game time for pitches, a 15-second clock would slice 32 minutes from games.
Reduce the number of TV commercials
The biggest reason games have become longer over the past couple of decades is TV commercial breaks have become longer. Cutting just one minute during inning breaks would shave 16 to 17 minutes off the length of games. But don't hold your breath on this one. Networks pay millions in broadcasting rights, so they want all the time they can have to sell ads to make back that money. But if shortening games could increase viewership, the networks could charge more for their spots to make up the difference.
Get ready and go
Watch a hockey game on television and notice that as soon the broadcast comes back from commercials, a linesman drops the puck and play begins. Same with other sports -- the players are ready to go as soon as the commercials are over. But baseball is slow on the trigger.
This season the Montreal Gazette took samples from Sunday night baseball games and noted that, on average, 1 minute, 10 seconds passed from a broadcast's return from commercials to the first pitch. Spread that over a nine-inning game. On inning breaks alone, that adds up to nearly 20 minutes. If players and umpires are ready to go the moment the commercials are over, a game that takes 3 hours and 10 minutes could be cut to 2:50 and nothing about the game or the breaks has to be altered.
Open up the strike zone
No games in baseball are longer than those between the Yankees and Red Sox. Typically, they last at least three hours and often stretch to more than four. The reason many give is that Red Sox and Yankees hitters know how to work the count by taking pitches. They get away with it because the strike zones of umpires have become ridiculously small. Opening up the strike zone -- and what we-re really talking about is calling high strikes around a batter’s chest -- would do wonders to speed up games. Instead of taking pitches, batters would be more inclined to swing. The number of pitches in a game would dramatically go down. Quicker at-bats equals shorter games.
Keep batters in the box
Pitchers are blamed for slowing the pace of the game, but hitters might be more responsible. It's common to see a hitter come up to the plate, adjust his helmet, peel away and then re-attach the Velcro on his batting gloves, take a few practice swings, step into the box, take a pitch, step out of the box and go through the whole rigmarole again, all while the pitcher stands on the mound ready to pitch. If no one is on base, the hitter should be limited to stepping out once during an at-bat unless he gets injured. He wouldn't have to worry about being frozen in the box by the pitcher because the pitcher would have a pitch clock. If runners were on base, the hitter might be given more leeway to check the third-base coach for signs, but he still could be given not-so-gentle reminders by the umpire to move it along.
This is a brainchild of former major-leaguer Keith Hernandez. Last season he told USA Today that if four teams were whacked out of the league, that would eliminate about 40 to 50 pitchers who should be in the minors. Better pitching means fewer walks. Better pitching means fewer hits. Fewer walks and fewer hits mean fewer runs and fewer big innings. That all means shorter games. The players association, of course, would never go for it, and that’s probably a good thing for baseball fans in these parts. Let's face it, if four teams were eliminated right now, the Rays likely would be on the chopping block.