New bid to speed up baseball: Smaller strike zone

The commissioner of Major League Baseball yesterday had more suggestions for speeding up baseball to make it more appealing to short-attention-span nation.

Rob Manfred said the sport doesn’t “need to be fixed,” but focus groups have told him all the dead-ball time is turning them off.

He pointed to a couple of small changes which will make very little difference — intentional walks by declaration and less time for managers to decide whether to call for a replay, but he also revealed — without actually saying so — what the real problem is: Umpires.

“We have data on how effective the batters handle that low strike and that is something that has driven our thinking,” Manfred said. “I think it’s also important to remember the evolution on the strike zone. The strike zone was down to the hollow of the knee because we weren’t getting low strikes called. My good friend Mr. [Sandy] Alderson [then executive vice president of operations for MLB] came along and he improved dramatically the management of the umpires in two ways. We had a lot of turnover, we got a younger group there, and even more importantly, he applied technology to the strike zone. As that younger group grew up with that technology, they started calling that low strike, and the change we’re suggesting from my perspective is sort of like restoring the natural order, getting back to where we were for a very long time.”

He’s suggesting a smaller strike zone, the bottom of which would be just above the knee.

Would that help? There’s nothing more exciting than watching batters not swing at pitches to try to get a walk.

Manfred also said the rule-change in rookie leagues, allowing teams to start extra innings with a runner on second base, probably won’t ever make it to the big leagues.

“In Rookie ball, where crowds are small and games are really developmental, starting the 10th inning with a runner on base makes sense because there’s really no developmental reason to play 18 innings and end with the shortstop pitching,” he said. “And who knows? If we remain open-minded, we may learn something from this experiment that’s helpful moving forward.”

And Manfred acknowledged younger people today want different entertainment than what baseball has traditionally offered.

“The reality is consumers’ behavior is changing very rapidly,” Manfred said. “It’s an issue that faces every major enterprise that’s involved in the entertainment business.”

And he said getting rid of the blackout rule for watching games on smartphones and computers — local fans can’t watch their local team’s games — makes sense.

“I think that’s a really important way for particularly younger fans to enjoy our games on an important platform,” Manfred said.

The league reached an agreement with some regional TV sports networks to eliminate the blackout. So, all but nine teams won’t be blacked out locally anymore.

The Twins aren’t one of them, but fans will still need to be cable TV subscribers and be subscribers to FoxSports North to be able to watch the local squad.

At a time when younger people are “cutting the cord”, that’s not a logical solution.

  • ec99

    Anyone remember Eric Gregg’s strike zone, 6 inches off the plate?

    • Greg Maddux went to the Hall of Fame having never thrown an actual strike in his career.

      • wjc

        heh!

      • Zachary

        There is a dig (on an in-joke) in there somewhere, but I can’t seem to find it. I just read the wiki on the guy, and his stats are impressive. Explain please?

        • Jack Ungerleider

          I can’t speak for Bob (and he’s never been shy of correcting me) but I suspect his shot at Maddux is related to the pitcher’s reputation for pinpoint control and “living on the corners”. If somebody were to do a study (if the data is available) they might find that Maddux worked the edges of the strike zone and the tendencies of the umpires. I was known to have an “intellectual” approach to the game so he probably scouted not only hitters but umpires. He then used that information to plan his game around where he might “get” a strike that was just outside the zone.

          • Right, he’d keep throwing off the plate until the umps stopped calling it a strike. He was a brilliant pitcher. As long as they’re calling pitches off the strike zone strikes, there’s no reason to throw a pitch over the plate.

          • Nato Coles

            Glavine too. His early-game ERA is much higher than his ERA if he got through the first couple innings.

          • ec99

            I recall it being once said that umps would not call a strike on Ted Williams, which is the opposite of your point. Can’t say it’s true or not.

          • If he wasn’t swinging, it wasn’t a strike.

  • Rob

    I think the use of robot umpires would speed up the game. Their sensor systems would enable foolproof calls, and they could be equipped with a low-powered cattle prod to zap any batters who try to erase the batter’s box stripes, or who step out of the box too long or too often.

  • Zachary

    They already have this rule. It’s called the “shorter players” option.
    uggh…

  • Mike Stevens

    I’ve found that a TiVo works fairly well. 🙂

  • Mike Worcester

    Just my casual observations:
    1. Yes, make the intentional walk declarative, get them on base and to the next batter.
    2. Crack down on the constant, step our of the batters box,. fix your gloves, rub the bat, adjust your….you know what, and wave the bat around then just when the pitcher is about to pitch, call time.
    3. The delays in asking for a replay seems reasonable; what can take while though is how long the umpires have the headsets on talking with New York (or wherever that bunker is) to find out if a call gets reversed or stays.
    4. Shrink the strike zone? Hell, make it *bigger* to force the batters to swing more.
    5. This might be sacrilege, but cut out the patriotic stuff during the seventh inning stretch. Is it really necessary and does it add to the aura of the game? I don’t think so. (Let’s see how much flame I get on this one 🙂 ).
    6. Cut down on the allowed trips to the mound and pitching changes. This, let’s bring in a pitcher to pitch to one guy, then switch, is making the later innings of a game seem like the last five minutes of an NBA game.

    Goal should be to have a nine inning game average 2.5 hours. Is that unreasonable?

    • Rob

      And cut out a couple of innings.

    • Zachary

      1. Yes
      2. Yes
      3. Yes
      4. No
      5. Yes
      6. Heck YES!!!!

    • Barton

      re: #5, yes! But this isn’t the only time they do this. Stop with the mascots doing contests between 1/2 innings and innings. Stop with the marketing schtick of tossing out gifts and having kids (“awww, aren’t they cute”) running the bases. Let’s sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame at the stretch and that is it.

      Also, I really hadn’t noticed how slow the game had become, as I typically watch the Cardinals on TV and don’t go to see the Twins play, until I got tix to a Twins game this summer. You want to speed up the game? Stop the delays for TV commercials, and just let the TV watchers resume the game live after the commercials are over. It’s the commercial breaks that are taking so long – no matter the sport (except soccer and rugby where the clock does not stop, of course).

      • Mike Worcester

        Last summer while attending a game at Target Field I noticed they had a clock in the outfield used between innings to time the breaks. I wondered if it coincided with the commercial breaks and an effort to keep the game moving.

        • That was a thing they put in a couple of years ago across the league .

          • Mike Worcester

            Is it helping to maintain the p.o.g. dictates from the league offices? I wonder considering the other modifications being considered.

          • I haven’t looked at average times lately but it did initially cut the average time of the game 5-10 minutes IIRC correctly, although part of that was requiring the umpires to enforce a rule that batters have to keep one foot in the batter’s box at all times. I noticed by the end of last year that they were ignoring that in many cases.

  • MikeB

    Baseball has always survived in spite of bad owners and inept commissioners (not that Manfred is one). But in the era of fragmented media the challenges are real. It is a regional sport across the country. Teams gets richer with vertical media. Soon it will not be a national anything anymore.

  • Keith P.

    I disagree with the declarative freebie walk. It gives too much advantage to the pitcher. If they have to throw four lobs way off, they have to refocus to get back to throwing real pitches…if not, they keep drilling away in their zone on their terms. Tradeoff for the strategic move, I guess. And there’s the potential for a dropped ball or wild throw. 90 seconds, maybe two minutes saved a few times a game? Not worth it.

  • Bob Sinclair

    Rob Manfred=Gary Bettman. “Ooh, Ooh..lets make the goalie equipment smaller!” “Ooh Ooh…lets enlarge the net!”
    “There’s nothing more exciting than watching batters not swing at pitches to try to get a walk” Same is true of watching blue-liners stuff the neutral zone. Boring!!!

  • Nato Coles

    Pitching changes are the primary reason (other than commercial breaks) that the pace of the game has slowed; all other changes would hardly speed up games (although incentives for batters to put the ball in play, while not shortening games necessarily, would make them more exciting!). Either cut down on-the-mound warm-up time (why do we have bullpens anyway?), or limit the number of changes (I have no idea how to do so fairly but at least it could be discussed).

  • lindblomeagles

    Baseball, perhaps more than any other sport, is a lot like hunting. The target comes along, and you spend what seems like eternity trying to take the target down. Your reflexes coil as you take aim. You’re still, hoping not to give away the slightest sign of your presence. Your patient, drawing the target to you. You’re invisible because in order to have any success, your target has to be blind to your location. Sometimes you miss the target (balls and hits). Sometimes you hit (strikes and outs), but basically, the thrill of the game is the thrill of the chase. Will Joe Mauer draw a walk with a 2 – 2 count, line a double into the right field gap, smack a long bomb over the left field wall, ground out to short, or swing and miss, going down as easily as he came up to plate? In basketball, football, hockey, and tennis, there’s CONTACT! A wicked check into the boards! A slap on the wrist as the shot leaves your hand, or a thunderous rebound as the ball boomerangs from the backboard! The tailback that drags would be tacklers five yards up field, or a QB who goes 7 of 7 on a touchdown drive maintains the contact! An ace from the left handed Serena Williams serve! A long volley between two great tennis champions, Federer and Nadal! Baseball LACKS contact! The players, like the Wisconsin-bred hunter, wait, and so do we. The vintage image of our 5 year old son or daughter, taking a seat in short centerfield, or staring down at a clump of dandelions, is ALMOST, THOUGH NOT QUITE what real major leaguers do between batters, between innings, and, more importantly, in between short, quick, fleeting scoring eruptions. They stand in the infield dirt and the outfield grass! They wait, watching the duel transpiring between the hunter (the pitcher) and the hunted (the batter)! They stare out to look at someone! And they pounce only when the ball is finally hit into play. If you want more excitement, get rid of some of the strikes. Go from 3 to 2. Get rid of some of the balls. Go from 4 to 3. Just understand, that the game will be different once you add more contact. The essence of the prey and predator gone, replaced by the more physical boxer versus boxer relationship akin in the other professional sports.

  • X.A. Smith

    Luckily, even though it’s difficult to see the Twins on television, it’s not really worth seeing.