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Want To Fix Pace of Play, MLB? Don’t Raise The Strike Zone

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Here’s another really bad proposal, because it’d likely have negative unintended consequences.

Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Major League Baseball has made some pretty awful proposals for rule changes this winter and early spring, and now I’m going to tell you about and rip apart another one.

It’s the proposal to raise the strike zone. Currently the rule book strike zone (like it’s ever called that way) has its bottom at the bottom of the knee. MLB is proposing to raise the lower level of the zone to the top of the knee. This would shave about two or three inches off the zone.

SI.com’s Tom Verducci explains why they’re thinking about doing this:

Baseball does not have a time of game problem. It has a pace of action problem.

The problem is this: People are being asked to watch games that are getting longer while the ball is put in play less. It’s the antithesis of modern culture, in which technology retrains our brains to demand visual and mental stimulation in shorter bursts.

Now you know why Major League Baseball is trying to reach an agreement with the players' association to raise the bottom of the strike zone in time for Opening Day. It is not about shaving a few minutes off the time of game. It’s about putting the ball in play more frequently.

The theory is that taking away the lowest of low strikes will reduce strikeouts and create more hittable pitches.

(Emphasis in the above quote added by me.)

This is what I’ve been talking about for quite some time: pace of play rather than the absolute length of the game. Verducci’s article — and I commend you all to read it — goes on to explain the issue, which boils down to: there’s a lot more time between pitches than there was 10, 20, 30 or more years ago. Example: Compared to 40 years ago, 1976, a graph in the article shows that the average time between balls in play that year was about 152 seconds (two and a half minutes). In 2016, that same gap was 205.2 seconds, or about three and a half minutes.

So that’s an extra minute in between each ball put in play, on average, for each game in 2016 compared to games 40 years ago. Here’s how Verducci breaks it down:

• There were 9,287 fewer balls in play last year than just 10 years ago.

• The ball is not in play for 30.8% of plate appearances, up from 27.1% just 10 years ago, and 22.8% 40 years ago.

• Since 1976 the average game has six fewer balls in play but takes 31 minutes longer.

That last bullet point is the problem, right there. Players are taking more walks and there are a lot more strikeouts now than there were decades ago. The reasons for that are pretty obvious — more players swinging for the fences now than in years gone by, and more 95+ fastballers, along with bullpen guys who can throw harder than that piling up the Ks in the later innings.

Here are more important paragraphs from Verducci’s article, and I realize I’m quoting quite a bit here but this is how the issue boils down:

Time of game is an issue as old as baseball. As Bill James has pointed out, the romantic notion that baseball is played without a clock is a myth: before night games the clock was the setting sun. Without night games, umpires moved the game along so it could be completed before darkness.

As night games became prevalent, and then in the 1980s as more games were televised, “moving the game along” lost its place. In the last decade, as information has grown and the number of batters each pitcher faces has shrunk, more effort and thought goes into every pitch.

Peter Morris, writing 10 years ago in A Game of Inches, Volume 1 about the growth of timeouts, said, “It is important to recognize the shift from a game in which time was rarely out and in which the action was virtually continuous to one in which timeouts are frequent has removed one of the features that initially distinguished baseball.”

This is what I’ve been trying to explain in the articles I’ve written here about pace of play. I hope it makes more sense now. Baseball’s trying to get more action into the same amount of time by picking up the pace of the game and getting more baseballs put in play.

That’s all well and good, but raising the bottom of the strike zone is probably absolutely the worst way to do it. Even if we assumed that umpires are actually going to call the rule-book strike, which in practice rarely happens, if you shrink the zone and take away the low strike, it’s not going to put more baseballs in play. It might reduce strikeouts, sure, but it’s also going to result in more walks. If hitters know they can lay off the low pitch even more than they do now and they can still get on base — especially in an era when on-base percentage is prized — they’ll do it.

The answer to the pace-of-play issue is really blindingly simple: Enforce the rules already on the books. Make the hitters stay in the batter’s box; if they don’t, start calling strikes. Put a pitch clock on pitchers to enforce the 12-second rule; if they don’t throw by the time the clock expires, start calling balls. I wrote much the same thing just two days ago in discussing some other proposed rule changes.

These things would stop happening pretty quickly if the umpires actually had the authority to move the game along, which Verducci says they don’t, and the game sets itself up to be slow-paced:

Now it encourages dawdling, because it does not enforce the 12-second rule between pitches, it does not enforce the one-foot-in-the-box rule, it does not empower umpires to “move the game along” and it allows players to call as many timeouts as they want whenever they want and for whatever trivial reason. Players play Major League Baseball at a slower pace than how they played baseball on every other level their whole lives.

As someone who’s watched baseball in person and on TV since the 1960s, I can tell you that games 40 and 50 years ago moved much faster than they do now. Batters didn’t step out. Pitchers worked quickly. Even as recently as the 1990s when Cubs starter Steve Trachsel had a reputation as a guy who worked slowly, the game moved faster than it does today. In Trachsel’s first stint with the Cubs, from 1993-99, he made 186 starts. 76 of those 186 games (40.9 percent) lasted three hours or longer. Comparison point to 2017: Jake Arrieta, who doesn’t have a reputation as being either particularly fast or slow as a starting pitcher, has made 98 starts as a Cub. 56 of those have gone three hours or longer, 57.1 percent, a significant increase. You’d likely find similar numbers in looking at other starting pitchers from “back then” compared to now.

My message to MLB moguls is simple: Stop messing with rules with changes that will likely have bad unintended consequences. If you want to pick up the pace of play, enforce the rules that already exist. You’d likely be surprised at how well that would work.