Richard Justice: Was it really this easy to fix Major League Baseball?

Apr 2, 2023; Oakland, California, USA; Los Angeles Angels designated hitter Shohei Ohtani (17) warms up next to the pitch clock during the third inning against the Oakland Athletics at RingCentral Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Richard Justice: Was it really this easy to fix Major League Baseball?

   Was it really this simple to fix virtually everything that was wrong with Major League Baseball?

   This 2023 version of the grand old game is so much more appealing than anything we’ve seen in recent years. It’s crisper in ways some of us no longer believed possible.

   It’s not about the time it takes to play a game either, although that’s a great barometer.

   Let’s start there. This season, the average nine-inning game is played in 2 hours, 36 minutes, which is a whopping 27 minutes faster than 2022 and the lowest in 29 years.

   Last season, only 3.8% of games were played in fewer than 2 hours, 30 minutes. This season, 34.8% of games break the 2:30 mark.

   Offense is up as well, from an average of 4.28 runs per team last season to 4.60 this season. Home runs have increased by .07 per game, batting average by four points.

   MLB consistently said its goal was not to play faster games. Instead, it was about cutting out the dead time between pitches.

   That it has done. A baseball is put in play every three minutes, 10 seconds this season, which is 32 seconds faster than 2022.

   That means we’re seeing less of hitters stepping out of the box and adjusting their batting gloves and whatever else they did. Likewise, we’re seeing less of pitchers walking around the mound and at times stopping and staring into space.

   We’d been told forever that baseball’s beauty was having no clock. Turns out, it needed one. As Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post wrote, “Baseball has turned back the clock with a clock.”

   Pitchers now have 15 seconds to throw a pitch when there’s no runner on base and 20 seconds when there is. Hitters must be in the batter’s box and engaged with the pitcher with eight seconds remaining. 

   Hitters from previous generations tell stories of umpires hurrying things along, yelling at hitters to get in the box and stop slowing things down. Now, it’s in writing, beginning with 30 seconds between hitters.

   I did not think this transition would be so smooth. I’d heard so much from pitchers who said they were wedded to their tried-and-true routines. Beyond that, a huge number of veteran players would not even acknowledge that the slow pace of games was turning fans off.

   To their credit, they’ve done an about face and allowed Commissioner Rob Manfred to seamlessly institute the changes.

   MLB’s deep surveys found that fans at the ballpark did not think pace of play was a problem. As Hall of Fame executive John Schuerholz told me: “People tell me those three or four hours at the ballpark is the best part of their day.”

   However, those same surveys showed that fans watching on television were put off by the slow pace of play. Again, it wasn’t the bottom line time of the game as much as the lack of action.

   Let’s not quibble over waiting a decade too long to fix the thing that had made the grand old game almost unwatchable. That everyone finally agreed changes were necessary is a step in the right direction.

   Whether they’ve waited too long to re-engage with a younger generation of fans—there are many other factors—is a larger question that will not be answered in one season and probably not in five.

   None of the other rule changes will come close to impacting the overall appeal of Major League Baseball the way the pitch clock has.  But the banning of infield shifts is a significant change, too.

   We’ll need a while longer to quantify its impact. Ground balls by left-hander hitters by a .245 batting average compared to .236 at this time last season. Left-handed hitters are batting .657 on line drives, compared to .628 last season.

   Stolen base attempts are way up: .90 per game in 2023 compared to .68 in 2022. Success rates are up slightly, from 75.4% to 79%. 


   More stolen bases. More runs. More hits, including more home runs. All those things probably are good for the game, and we can debate ‘em forever.

   What can’t be debated is the impact of the pitch clock. That has changed the game dramatically and smartly. It took awhile to get here, but this is baseball the way it oughta be.

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