NEW YORK – A season of seismic changes for baseball gets underway Thursday highlighted by significant new rules designed to speed up the pace of play and create more action on the field.
Major League Baseball also hopes fans noticed more transparency around replay reviews and efforts to boost marketing of players.
Improved replay technology and a refreshed marketing strategy designed to focus on players were among the notable changes unveiled at MLB’s Innovation and Fan Engagement Showcase on Tuesday.
The sprawling replay facility resembles a television production truck and features workstations with umpires assigned to two games simultaneously with a replay operator, who required about four to five weeks of training.
Once a close play is spotted, they notify another group watching the isolated angles from television feeds.
“Us having access to all the angles at the ballpark is what leads us to be faster and faster every year,” said Jim Sensale, director of replay operations. “We’re hoping to have the call before they even come to headset.”
In terms of feedback from current umpires, Sensale said the feedback is positive
“They love it now,” Sensale said. “They don’t want to be in the papers for getting the call wrong. They know they have this backup system and we’re going to get the call right in here and help them out on the field.”
The new feel of the replay room was unveiled about two weeks after MLB reached a deal with Zoom Video Communications Inc. allowing on-field umpires to watch the replay operations center evaluating contested calls.
Another new feature of the replay room includes limited number of telecasts getting access to the Zoom videos being seen by umpires on Apple TV+ and MLB Network Showcase telecasts. New technology may also become available for postseason broadcasts, and ballpark videos will have access to the Zoom views on telecasts.
The new quicker pace of replay decisions is in conjunction with new initiatives cut down the average time of game. The average time of a spring training game dropped about 26 minutes this season, to 2 hours, 35 minutes.
The reduced time occurs after respondents to MLB’s fan research said they wanted to see games lasting less than three hours and more events such as doubles, triples, stolen bases and defensive plays.
“Two pretty self-evident themes emerged from that research,” MLB Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Morgan Sword said. “The first was that fans want a pretty crisper pace of play. They want shorter games, pace to be improved.
“And when you asked them an open-ended question, how long do you want a baseball game to be, the immediate answer is two hours and 30 minutes.”
According to Sword, last year the average time between seeing a ball put in play was nearly four minutes and stolen bases were up by nearly 50% during spring training.
“Players that have the ability to steal bases are exciting, athletic players who we want to see more of on rosters and fans want to me of in the game,” Sword said.
MLB also unveiled several new ads highlighting the rule changes, including one where actor Bryan Cranston says “Shift This” in an ad focused on the outlawing of infield shifts. Another features Mets designated hitter Daniel Vogelbach contemplating stealing a base because of decreased distances between bases.
MLB also held its first ever player marketing session last month in Arizona. Twenty-eight players from 13 teams participated in seminars involving lifestyle photoshoots, personality driven content and capturing content for social media.
“I think it was an opportunity that we put some resources behind and finally highlight the process and relationships discussions with players and their management,” Karin Timpone, MLB Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer said.