Major League Baseball has a pace-of-play problem, but not in the way you’re probably thinking.
In efforts to reduce downtime during games, MLB implemented rule changes last season requiring batters to keep one foot in the batter’s box after taking a pitch.
Each team also installed clocks to make sure innings started immediately after commercial breaks. The average time of games dropped from 3:02 in 2014 to 2:56 in 2015, so, these rule changes worked.
Now, according to Joel Sherman of the New York Post, more pace-of-play rules might be coming in 2016. Specifically, managers will need to make in-game pitching changes quicker instead of strolling to the mound as a stall tactic.
Also, 20 seconds would come off the between-inning clock in non-nationally televised games.
As we draw closer to the new season, the pace-of-play discussion is constant fodder for the media and fans as if it’s crucial to the game.
But, here’s the thing: It’s not.
Sure, cutting down time spent standing around during baseball games is a plus. MLB is attempting to keep the pace moving and the action coming, which any fan can appreciate.
But, the league is asking the wrong question.
Instead of wondering how to pick up the pace during games, MLB should be trying to figure out how to make the league more popular.
After all, isn’t the objective to make MLB a bigger draw both on television and at ballparks? If all of this discussion about how to improve the game isn’t about making MLB more popular, why go through the trouble?
The NFL might be more popular, but baseball will always be the national pastime. It’s meant to be played at a slower pace and the league isn’t going to suddenly attract more fans with the slogan, “Hey baseball fans that were on the fence about our league: Our game is faster now, so you can watch it more!”
The diehards are already watching. They don’t give a rip about saving an extra five minutes per nine innings.
You think John or Judy Cardinal Lover is watching the clock when Adam Wainwright is on the bump or Matt Carpenter is in one of his 67-pitch duels with the opposing pitcher? Of course not, they’re already sold on the game itself.
What draws in the causal fan is the marketing of star players, especially polarizing star players. People are drawn to other interesting people, as well as storylines that transcend the game.
Take the NFL, for example. Ever go to a live game? The pace-of-play is horrendous.
There’s more down time in today’s NFL games than flight delays at Midway Airport. There’s stoppages after kickoffs, between plays, after scores, and for penalties, which seemingly happen every other play.
And yet, the NFL has never been more popular. That’s because there are plenty of teams and players fans love, as well as love to hate.
Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the Patriots are a draw. Russell Wilson, Richard Sherman and the Seahawks can be fascinating or nauseating, depending on who you are. Cam Newton, the most athletically-gifted quarterback in the league, is a polarizing player.
If MLB continues to grow both its attendance and TV ratings, it’ll be because people want to see if Joe Maddon can help the Cubs break the curse, or if the history-rich Cardinals will spoil things for Chicago as a sudden underdog.
It’ll be because people want to see if Bryce Harper is going to hit a home run in a given game, or get choked out by one of his teammates. (Same goes for Yasiel Puig.)
Jason Heyward vs. the Cardinals. Zack Greinke vs. the Dodgers. David Price vs. the Rays and Blue Jays. Madison Bumgarner vs. anyone who dares hit a home run off him and doesn’t run around the bases at Mach 9 speed.
These are the storylines that will cast a wider net of fans for Major League Baseball. These are what people will be talking about and after awhile, people are tuning in because they feel they’re missing out. That’s how the league grows.
Again, credit MLB for trying to improve the game anyway it can, including by looking at pace-of-play.
But, if the powers at be for Major League Baseball figure out how to better market stars and successful teams, they won’t have to bother with improving pace-of-play. It’ll be irrelevant, much like it is now.