By MARK KNUDSON
Even die hard old school “purist” types have to admit that Major League Baseball needs another tweak or two in order to pick up the pace of the action in this era of shorter attention spans.
Contrary to what some may say, the length of a game in hours and minutes isn’t really the issue. Three and a half hours can fly by if the action on the field is compelling. All too often during baseball’s long regular season, that’s not the case. It’s three and a half hours of slow paced non-action conducted in the name of strategy.
Baseball action can be defined very simply: The batter is swinging the bat and the ball is in motion. Everything else is drudgery to the average baseball fan who doesn’t care if a batter is “working the count” or a pitcher is employing the strategy of “pitching around a hitter.”
The worst part? Watching a continuous parade of manager/pitching coach/catcher trips to and from the pitcher’s mound. That’s the opposite of action.
In recent weeks, a lot of ideas have been floated – some from official circles – of ways to speed up the pace of baseball. They range from misguided to stupid. The obvious ones aren’t getting a lot of mentions.
Misguided is the idea of raising – and thereby shrinking – the strike zone. The thought from some, including baseball commish Rob Manfred, is that pitchers – many of whom succeed by throwing low strikes – will be forced to throw more hittable pitches that batters will take a swing at.
That sounds good, but in fact, the exact opposite is true. Shrinking the strike zone would allow hitters to take more pitches, to “work the count” even more and not swing at borderline pitches. There’d end up being more pitches thrown and even more walks, which most hitters would gladly accept.
Some people say they want “more offense.” But do walks count as offense? Not if action is what you’re seeking.
It’s not necessarily more runs that fans want to see anyway. It’s more action plays. It’s every bit as exciting to see a player thrown out trying to stretch a double into a triple as it is having him slide in just ahead of the tag. Like in hockey, 1-0 game can be thrilling if it’s full of action and doesn’t drag on at a snail’s pace well into the night.
Bases on balls? That’s not action. It’s actually a problem for the sport. Is there a single paying customer – at the ballpark or watching on TV – that paid to see more walks? A smaller strike zone would create longer at bats, which would add up to more empty seats and more TV sets clicking off because it’s well past our bed time.
Then there’s the stupid: The slow-pitch softball idea of starting extra innings with a runner already positioned at second base. This is the best way to cheapen the statistics and results of a game steeped in them. It would make luck more of a determining factor than skill. As it is, extra innings are normally “edge of your seat” stuff – when a single pitch can determine the outcome. That doesn’t need to be changed. The game would be cheapened considerably by placing a runner on (who didn’t earn his way there) into scoring position. The NFL didn’t decide to have the winner of the overtime coin toss take possession of the ball at the other team’s 35-yard line, did they?
It would not be that difficult to make time saving tweaks like limiting the number of pitching changes that can be made in a single inning (Bruce Bochy would hate that) and having a replay umpire on a headset in the press box who could instantly communicate with the crew chief on a bang bang play that requires replay. Those two things alone would shave minutes off of games and increase the pace of action.
But nothing would pick up the pace more than expanding – rather than shrinking – the strike zone. Doing so would create a different approach to hitting. “Working the count” would become less effective, and being more aggressive earlier in the count a necessity. There’d be fewer pitches thrown. The result would return us to our definition of action: The batter swinging the bat and the ball being put in motion.
Putting more balls in play creates more action plays, which is what the vast majority of the fans want to see. More swings will result in more balls finding holes and more hits, not fewer. That equals more offense.
This is what most casual observers – that includes the majority of fans and much of the media – would like to see. And in this case, the desires of those not on the field (including fans and sponsors who pay the fat salaries) should supersede the desires of the baseball purists, including those who are privileged enough to play on it.
Paying customers and viewers – regardless of what team they’re cheering for – want to see the batter swing the bat. Let’s see hits and runs and great defensive plays. Let’s see action.
But let’s not get stupid about it.