The Sports Revolution: Speeding Up Baseball

Let me set the scene for you: The Tigers and Rangers play a tight afternoon Game 2 that many do not see the end of, because they have turned instead to a mundane Monday Night Football contest between the Lions and the Bears. Oh my.

Let me reset the scene for you: The Tigers and Rangers play a tight afternoon Game 2 that stays in the afternoon, with nobody turning the channel. They achieve this with one simple alteration of baseball rules: A batter is only permitted one two-strike foul ball before he is called out.

As always, please, control your incredulity. Baseball, as a game, has gotten demonstrably slower over the years — not just because more batters are getting on base, but also because they’re taking longer to do so. Major leaguers averaged 3.81 pitches per plate appearance this season, just down from record numbers in recent years. Contrast that with 1988, the first year that Baseball-Reference tracked the stat, when plate appearances lasted a mere 3.59 pitches.*

*As for why Baseball-Reference exists if it can’t track pitches per plate appearance beyond 1988, I have no answers.

Prima facie, a measly 0.22 pitches per plate appearance seems inconsequential. But read it again: It’s per plate appearance. How many plate appearances are there in a baseball game? Fifty-four, at least, and usually quite a bit more. There were 92 in Game 2 between the Tigers and Rangers, 77 of them in the first nine innings. Seventy-seven times 0.22 means 17 more pitches; the game featured a half-inning’s worth more pitches than it would have in 1988.

So, how to solve this dilemma, aside from sending some sort of robotic assassin back in time to murder Bill James’ mother?* As I said, a simple — and slight — alteration to how plate appearances evolve. Right now, they can last in perpetuity; theoretically, a plate appearance may never end, as a batter can continue to foul off pitch after pitch to, as the broadcasters and the BeeGees enjoy saying in equal measure, “stay alive.”

*And placing some legit security around the mechanism of such chronomanipulation to ensure no defenders of James’ sabermetrics return as well.

But why is the ability to foul pitches off seen as valuable? Why do batters receive chance after chance despite proving themselves incapable of putting a good pitch in play? Why is the field, in this instance, tilted in the batter’s favor?

This is baseball, not cricket. And yet, with two strikes, the batter becomes a batsman, rewarded for behavior better suited to the Asian subcontinent. “Protecting the plate” is the realm of the catcher, not the hitter, and it should not be considered a worthwhile skill.

Place yourself, if you will, in the mind of a pitcher. You make several quality pitches, only to see them fouled off, often barely. You begin to nibble, the umpire — as has been his collective wont for a generation now — squeezes you. You lose the hitter. He walks. You must begin anew, in harder circumstances.

But now, under Pierre’s Plan to Prevent Perpetual Plate Appearances, a batter is out if he fouls off more than one two-strike pitch. It is as if he has bunted foul with two strikes, and it goes into the books as a strikeout. I am, I think, remaining reasonable in affording a hitter one two-strike mulligan; I see no reason to extend any more.

How would this modify the game? Let us take Monday’s Game 2 between Detroit and Texas as an example. In the second inning, instead of working an eight-pitch walk, Ryan Raburn would have been out one pitch earlier. But you save but one pitch, you say. What difference does it make? Indeed, you agree that the effect isn’t all that much. It is, in fact, a reasonable and minor change.

Alas, the minor changes add up to something overwhelmingly positive. We save one pitch in the Raburn at-bat, and 11 more later in the inning because Raburn’s base on balls would instead have been the first out.

In all, six batters would have made an out before their plate appearance ended under the current regulations. It would have saved the game 14 pitches in regulation — and all 67 used in extra innings, since Victor Martinez would not have reached base and scored on Raburn’s third-inning home run. There were 355 pitches thrown in that game, and a small change in rules would have cut near a quarter of them out of it (22.8169 percent to be exact, as Pierre always is).* Apply that math to the 4:25 time of game, and you cut a full hour out of it. The game ends at 7:44 instead of 8:44; everyone has seen its conclusion.

*To four decimal places. Exactitude beyond that is, shall we agree, superfluous.

And of course, this is talking about a day game; imagine how helpful the alteration would be for postseason night games, whose finishes could then be viewed by more than insomniacs, college students craving background noise for their consumption of Domino’s, and honest-to-goodness vampires.

The long-term effects would be similarly praiseworthy. Pitchers would accumulate more strikeouts, sure, but strikeouts are exciting. Pitch counts would drop, and we’d be treated to far more games where the starter lasts into the eighth and ninth instead of seeing the bane of modern baseball: the middle reliever. Batters would have to alter their approach, attempting to make contact earlier in counts and leading to, in Pierre’s estimation, better at-bats.

Sure, there are other solutions to baseball’s time of game quandary. You can scrap the DH, thereby taking jobs from some of our most enfeebled everyday professionals.* You can cut the time of commercial breaks between innings, but this is game is a business, as our basketballing friends are apt to remind us these days. You can make Josh Beckett pitch faster, which would singlehandedly reduce the average time of game across the American League by approximately 12 minutes per contest. You can shrug off the very debate about time of game and loudly proclaim, Why would I want something I like to last less time?

*Is this the time to needle that pushpin of an American president? I’ll pass.

But those are radical steps. And this minor one — eliminating a parade of two-strike foul balls — creates significant and substantive change in time of game without altering the fabric of the sport we love.

One response to this post.

  1. Posted by John S on October 13, 2011 at 12:32 AM

    I like how the entire premise for this fundamental rule change is that MLB ought to pander to the idiots who prefer to a regular season, intra-NFC North matchup to playoff baseball…


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