In the eighth inning of a game against the York Revolution on the first weekend in August, Brendan Harris, an infielder for the Atlantic League's Long Island Ducks, was intentionally walked. The free pass got an ovation from Ducks fans at Bethpage Ballpark, but the cheers weren't for the baserunner as much as for the method used to put him there.
Rather than having York pitcher Dan Cortes throw four intentional balls to Harris, the Revolution simply informed the home plate umpire of their intentions, and Harris was awarded first base without seeing a single pitch. Fans weren't just watching a key moment in a tight game; they were watching the beginning of grand baseball experiment.
Days earlier, the Atlantic League had introduced five new measures (including one that allowed for automatic intentional walks) designed to speed up the pace of play -- ones that would be tested for the remainder of the 2014 season and then studied in advance of Opening Day 2015. But it's not just Atlantic League executives interested in the lessons learned from the roughly 10-week trial. Many others in the sport -- including top executives at Major League Baseball -- are watching, too.
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Whether baseball games are too long or move too slowly has long been the stuff of barroom debates. The Atlantic League had been concerned about the issue, and small measures had been taken in the past to address it. For example: League founder Frank Boulton, who now serves as senior vice president in addition to owning the Long Island franchise, says that last year the league hung up posters to remind players and umpires of the true boundaries of the strike zone, on the theory that more strikes would lead to speedier games.
But a far more robust effort kicked off earlier this year, sparked by a lunch between Atlantic League president Rick White and Tal Smith, the former Houston Astros president and current special advisor to the league's Sugar Land Skeeters. Smith had long been bothered not necessarily by the length of baseball games, but by the sometimes-slow pace.
"When I first became involved with the Skeeters in 2012," Smith says, "it struck me that by mid-season, many of the games were running over three hours, three-and-a-half, or even four hours. It was becoming a problem, particularly during weekday games. Fans would arrive and depart in the sixth and seventh inning before the outcome of the game was determined, simply because of the hour."
Smith, who'd already been discussing his concerns with Peter Kirk, the principal owner of the group that owns the Skeeters, brought up the issue during his lunch with White prior to the 2014 season. Smith suggested that the league address the way games dragged on, and White was on board with the idea.
The result was a new Pace of Play Committee, chaired by Smith, and made up of baseball lifers including Pat Gillick, Sparky Lyle, Cecil Cooper, Bud Harrelson, Roland Hemond, and Joe Klein. Eager to make the first round of changes this year, they came up with six possible initiatives to test for the remainder of the season, five of which were approved by the league's executive committee and implemented in early August. The five initiatives introduced last month are actually a mix of new rules and a push to have existing ones enforced. In addition to the revised intentional walk rule, the league settled on four other measures:
• Teams were limited to three 45-second "time-outs" each in a nine-inning game, with a time-out defined as a mound visit from a manager, coach catcher or infielder that doesn't result in a pitching change.
• Umpires were directed to be more diligent in enforcing the rule that restricts batters from stepping out of the box, as well as one that requires pitchers to deliver the ball within 12 seconds when the bases are unoccupied.
• Umpires were encouraged to keep the game moving in "a timely manner" and were reminded to stick to the strike zone as defined by the rules, which means a larger zone than what is traditionally enforced.
• Pitchers were limited to six warm-up pitches at the beginning of an inning (or when they enter the game, if it's in the middle of an inning). Previously, they'd been allowed eight warm-up pitches.
A sixth idea was considered and ultimately rejected -- one that would have required a team to substitute a runner for a catcher who reached base, so the next half-inning wouldn't be delayed while he put his equipment on.
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The Atlantic League's experiment, so far at least, is working. Last Thursday, it released the results from the first 30 days of the trial, and the league has shaved nine minutes off the average nine-inning (or eight-and-a-half inning) game. Over the past 30 days, such games have lasted an average of two hours and 53 minutes, down from three hours and two minutes in 2013.
Twenty-two percent of the nine-inning games over the past 30 days have ended in under two-and-a-half hours, way up from eight percent in 2013. And just 26 percent of nine-inning games in the last month have gone over three hours, compared to 42 percent last season.
The handful of Atlantic League players I spoke to didn't seem all that fazed by all the changes. The "time out" rule affects strategy the most: Catchers must communicate with pitchers more frequently through nonverbal means (or as Ducks catcher Brandon Bantz told me, by simply shouting toward the mound from behind home plate), while managers and coaches must decide what's worth burning a trip to the mound for.
Indeed, while watching a game between Long Island and the Camden Riversharks on Labor Day, the changes hardly jumped out at me. At one point, I noticed a player quickly hop back into the batter's box after taking a step toward first on what he thought was ball four, but even that wasn't all that unusual.
More noteworthy, really, was what I didn't see: According to the evening's pace of play report, which the home team's scorekeeper is required to file after every game, there were just two time outs used, which is to say, just two mound visits that didn't result in a pitching change. At no point did a catcher go out to the mound to talk one-on-one with a pitcher. Six different half-innings took fewer than four minutes, and while part of that, of course, is the result of good pitching, there were other signs that the game was kept moving at a good pace. Most of the breaks between half innings lasted between two and three minutes, but they were as a short as one minute and 31 seconds -- a remarkably quick break even for a game that didn't have to accommodate television commercials. The time of the game, an 8-3 Ducks win? Just two hours and 28 minutes.
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It's here where we must state the obvious: It's nice for fans in eight scattered cities if the Atlantic League speeds up its games a bit, but to most baseball fans, it's the pace of play in the Major Leagues -- where the average nine-inning game this year has taken three hours and two minutes -- that really matters. Those fans, then, should be encouraged that the Atlantic League's experiment is being watched closely all around baseball.
Atlantic League President Rick White says he reached out to Major League Baseball in the very early stages of the project, and he's continued a dialogue with senior officials in the commissioner's office ever since -- one that's grown more frequent as the summer has progressed. (Says an MLB spokesperson: "Time of game is a topic we continue to study and we are open to considering any measures that can help us improve the flow of the game.")
White says he's received phone calls not just from the commissioner's office but from big-league clubs, as well as both affiliated and unaffiliated minor leagues. Some of the first responses, he says, came from MLB scouts who were observing Atlantic League teams and were impressed with what they saw.
Says White: "Intrigue has now moved down the continuum to where people are actively following what we're doing, actively calling, actively asking us things like, 'What in your judgment had the biggest impact?'"
White said he's happy to provide anyone in organized baseball with the data the Atlantic League is collecting, as well as walk them through how exactly they went about implementing their changes.
Smith agrees that the experiment is not just about speeding up Atlantic League games. "I would hope that it benefits all of baseball," he says. "We have the opportunity to serve as a trial program to test these things out. I think it's something that I hope all of baseball will take a look at and consider."
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After the season, the Atlantic League's Pace of Play Committee will meet to review the effectiveness of the new initiatives introduced in the final weeks of the 2014 schedule. But in the meantime, they're actively soliciting further ideas, not just from those in the league and around organized baseball, but from fans, who can submit suggestions on the league's website.
Smith says that at the moment, they have a list of 17 ideas, collected from various sources, to consider. They hope to whittle that down to five or six recommendations this fall, at which point they'll seek feedback from fans and the league's clubs, before owners vote on whether to put them into use for 2015.
Some of the ideas that have been suggested to the committee are too out there to have a chance at being implemented: a ban on velcro batting gloves that hitters sometimes readjust mid at-bat, for instance, or a limit on the number of foul balls a batter is allowed in a single plate appearance.
Others aren't fully formed, like ones from fans who have noted that sports like hockey have introduced a way to quickly end games that go beyond regulation, even if they don't suggest a solution for how to handle that issue in an extra-inning baseball game.
But the committee has other suggestions to consider, as well. One thing they'll look at is whether a time clock -- to count down the time between half innings, or during mound visits, or the time between pitches with the bases empty -- should be added. Another suggestion called for the return of the old-school "balloon" chest protector for home plate umpires, which could allow them a better view to call high strikes. The committee will consider whether a hitter should bring more than one bat to the on-deck circle, so one is nearby if he breaks one at the plate. Or whether a relief pitcher should be required to throw to more than one batter, to eliminate some of the lefty-righty switches. Or whether there should be a limit on the number of pick-off attempts a pitcher gets.
Of course, not all of the changes that might work in the Atlantic League would work in the Major Leagues, where TV time-outs help pay the bills and the stakes are far higher. It also should be noted that the Atlantic League isn't the first to try to implement rules to speed up the game (the Arizona Fall League has implemented similar initiatives in the past). But White says he's happy for his league to serve as another test case.
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Something besides the new rules might help explain the Atlantic League's initial success in quickening the pace of its games. "Everybody has that in the back of their mind, that they're trying to speed the game up a little bit," says David Kopp, a relief pitcher for the Ducks. "When you have the players hustling out to the field or back in after three outs, or staying in the box, guys are making a conscious effort to think about it."
Convincing millionaire major leaguers to do the same could be a tougher sell, however. Harris, the Ducks infielder whose intentional walk was cheered by Long Island fans, spent parts of eight seasons in the majors, and says that the pace of play isn't generally something big-league players discuss, unless there's a particularly fast-working or slow-working pitcher on the mound. And while he thinks the rules can nudge players in a certain direction, it's "not in their pay grade" to worry about the game's pace.
"You don't have to make the players want to do it," says Harris. "They're more worried about winning the game. That's on the umpires."