Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The pace of play: Umpires trying to speed up the game

One of the primary complaints amongst non baseball fans is that the game is "slow and boring." Now, anyone who realizes that other sports, like football, contain as little as 11 minutes of action over a 3 hour period realize that these people lack some needed perspective. Never-the-less, I can understand that baseball may seem leisurely when viewed by a non-baseball fan. There are elements to the game that, either necessarily or unnecessarily, slow down the action. Pitching changes, coaches meetings, replay on home runs, and excessive warm-up periods between innings all create a lethargic feel to the modern major league game (Interestingly, at the beginning of the 20th Century, American's loved baseball particularly because of how fast-paced it was. I blame television).

Over the years, baseball has tried a few different things to speed up the game. I seem to remember reading somewhere that baseball tried a "pitch clock" (think of a shot clock in basketball) back in the '80s, but I can't find a source (damn internet). More recently, baseball has emphasized staying in the batters box, enforcing the 12 second limit on pitching with no runners on base (with runners on, many pitchers still grind the game to a halt.), and limiting the length of coaches meetings. Regardless, the "time-less game" will take however long it damn well pleases.

Since the game is dependent on the pitcher (defense) for instigating the action, it can be to the pitcher's advantage to slow the pace down (both to rest after a tough pitch, and to affect the hitters rhythm). In return, the hitter will try to mess with the pitchers timing by stepping out of the box. Especially in the playoffs, when pitchers really "bear-down" (read: stare at the catcher for a long time; hopelessly afraid to throw lest the hitter jack it into the stands), the game can settle into a crawl as a result of these duels, often taking 4 or more hours to complete a regular game. This bores even me (I also blame Fox, cause they have to play a damn commercial every 5 seconds).

(Some pitchers, like Mark Buehrle, don't give a fuck, and throw almost as quickly as possible. Above: Buehrle is holding a clock that commemorates his game from a few years back that was completed in 1hr 38min. That's so fast, you almost couldn't finish a beer before last call.)

I bring all of this up because yesterday veteran umpire Joe West publicly shamed the Red Sox and Yankees for taking too much time to play a baseball game. Being quoted in the Bergen (N.J.) Record, West said that the teams, in their recent season opening series, were taking too much time to play the game, and that it was "pathetic and embarrassing," and "a disgrace to baseball."
After Tuesday's game, West grumbled "they're the two clubs that don't try to pick up the pace. They're two of the best teams in baseball. Why are they playing the slowest? It's pathetic and embarrassing. They take too long to play."
(That's West on the left, throwing Ozzie out of the game. Joe is also a country music singer and holds patents for umpiring gear. He's an interesting guy)

Anectdotaly, I can confirm that the Yanks and Red Sox play very leisurely. I always dread watching my Sox play those two teams, 'cause the games always seem to go on forever. Both teams intentionally take pitches to extend at-bats and attempt to be extra fine in extended counts. Specifically, the first two games of the season lasted 3hrs 46min and 3hrs 48min respectively. National TV or not, that's way too long for a regular season game that only goes 9 innings. It was during the second game that plate umpire Angel Hernandez made multiple attempts to speed up the game, refusing to grant time (the ump doesn't have to give time to the hitter) to hitters on 3 occasions. After the game crew chief "Country Joe" West spoke up. His tirade worked. Last nights Yanks-Red Sox game only lasted 3hrs 21min, and that includes an extra inning. (Players know better than to piss off an umpire.)

With 162 games in a season, baseball is long enough, and I have no problem with the umpires stepping out from behind the plate publicly prod the players into action. Baseball needs to step up their efforts to speed up the game. While I'm glad they did speak up, it shouldn't be left to the umpires to publicly shame the players into speeding up the game. Bud Selig needs to give the umpires a public mandate to enforce the existing rules designed to speed up play. A 4-hour game in April is bad enough. Two in a row is reprehensible.

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