ESPN’s Jayson Stark reported on Monday that Major League Baseball made formal proposals to the players’ union, suggesting that the strike zone should be raised to the top of a hitter’s knees and that the procedure of a pitcher lobbing four pitches way outside the strike zone should be eliminated. According to Stark, the union is still getting a feel for the players’ opinions on the proposed changes.
The suggestions are part of commissioner Rob Manfred’s attempt to improve the “pace of action.” As Ashley discussed on Friday, the implementation of a pitch clock is another avenue Manfred is exploring.
According to Baseball Reference, there were 0.19 intentional walks issued per game in 2016, the lowest figure among years with available data. The second- and third-lowest years were 2014 and ’15 at 0.20. Let’s arbitrarily make up a number and say that it takes, on average, 30 seconds between pitches during an intentional walk. That means that eliminating this change would save about two minutes once every five games, or 24 seconds per game. Not very meaningful. And then we’d miss out on potentially great moments like this:
The proposed strike zone change is interesting. As Stark notes, the strike zone has been defined as “the hollow beneath the kneecap” since 1996. However, the ongoing decline in offense is, in part, due to umpires gradually calling strikes lower and lower beyond the rulebook definition. The strikeout rate has ballooned as a result. Raising the strike zone would encourage pitchers to throw pitches closer to the “good” part of the strike zone for the hitter, so we would likely see more contact, fewer deep counts, and more base runners. That means a slightly faster and more action-packed game. Stark points out in his column that nearly 30 percent of hitters walk or strike out for the game’s highest “non-action” rate in the history of the sport.
The biggest culprit in the perceived slow pace of a typical baseball game is the pitching change. Here’s an example from July 1 last season between the Indians and Blue Jays. In the bottom of the eighth in a 1-1 game, manager Terry Francona brought in right-hander Dan Otero to pitch to Devon Travis. Otero got Travis to line out to right field on the fourth pitch of the at-bat. Francona then brought in lefty Tom Gorzelanny to face Michael Saunders. Saunders struck out on six pitches. Francona brought in his third pitcher to face the third batter of the inning, Jeff Manship versus Russell Martin. Martin struck out on six pitches. Three batters, three pitchers, 14 pitches thrown. Since there’s a commercial break in between pitching changes lasting between two and three minutes, Francona added at least four minutes of down time with his strategy.
Managers making excessive pitching changes in one inning doesn’t happen very often, but then again, neither does the intentional walk. Focusing on limiting the down time between pitching changes would seem to be a more productive use of time if the goal is to improve the pace of a typical game. Doing so is tricky, however. Making it so that pitchers entering in the middle of an inning can’t warm up on the mound would seem like an obvious fix, but one could argue that it increases a pitcher’s risk of injury by a non-negligible amount. Strictly limiting the number of pitching changes a manager can make in an inning doesn’t feel good because it hamstrings strategy. Eliminating the commercial break and instead having TV broadcasts focus on something to entertain the audience while the pitcher warms up would cost broadcasters too much advertising money. No matter what happens, somebody is unhappy.