At ESPN, Buster Olney recently revisited the ongoing debate of MLB’s pace-of-play issues, and, for the first time in a long time, there’s actually some new ideas and news to dissect and discuss.
But before we get into the specifics you see there in our title, I want to relay one of Olney’s most compelling points, in case you didn’t head over and read the article for yourself (which you should definitely do).
I’m paraphrasing, but reportedly 66 of the 88 qualified pitchers from the 2008 season averaged 22 seconds or less between pitches (which is good). Here in 2017, just 21 of the 87 qualified pitchers accomplished the same feat (which is bad, like really bad). That is an undeniably damning and convincing statistic that should worry every one in and around baseball about the direction of the sport’s future. It’s also a primary motivator behind the calls for a pitch clock at the Major League level.
Of course, as you might imagine, some MLB pitchers are taking offense to the notion that poor pace-of-play is entirely their fault. As some players put it, the hitters are more than half of the problem:
“It’s ridiculous,” said one longtime player of [Odubel] Herrera’s at-bats. “The pitchers get most of the criticism for how long they take, but a lot of time, it’s the hitters who are slowing things down.”
One version of the “it’s the hitter’s fault” argument goes something like this: when there’s a borderline pitch, the hitter tends to step out, look at his manager, talk to the umpire, ask questions, and generally delay the game even longer than the time between routine pitches.
So what would be the solution to that problem? An automated strike zone. Yep. Real-life Major Leaguers are calling for an automated strike zone. That’s a pretty big leap.
Okay, let’s pause for a second to recap: pitchers are throwing slower than ever and that’s slowing the pace of play tremendously. MLB is hoping to institute a pitch clock as soon as the 2018 season in order to push pitchers to work more expediently. In response, some MLB players are hoping to negotiate an automated strike zone as part of the deal, citing hitters’ disagreement with certain calls as part of the overarching problem. If either one of these changes were implemented any time soon, they would represent some of the most notable changes to baseball in recent memory (perhaps second only to challenges).
MLB doesn’t actually need to negotiate with the players to make these changes. Under the terms of the CBA, MLB can make rule changes (with regards to pace of play specifically) unilaterally if it cannot reach an agreement with the union. All they need to do is provide one year’s worth of notice (which they reportedly have already). So what comes next is actually pretty unclear.
Will MLB play nice and negotiate with the MLBPA despite the fact that they don’t really need to? Or will they move forward with the pitch clock rule change right away, leaving an automated strike zone up in the air. And to that end, do we have any idea on how MLB even feels about an automated strike zone? It seems to me that a relatively progressive Commissioner like Rob Manfred might even be happy to attack pace of play from both sides of the plate. But it’s obviously difficult to know for sure.
Given how dramatic each of these changes would be to the game of baseball, I’m not sure I can see both happening at the exact same time. Ripping the band-aid off might be the right approach for some rule changes, but in this case slow and steady might present the least resistance. And to that end, if just one rule change is coming next year, it’ll probably be the pitch clock. It’s arguably less of a dramatic change (even if the impact might be felt more) and could also help to increase action on the field if it allows hitters to make more contact.
Even more notably, Olney reports that most big leaguers have already experienced a pitch clock in the minors: “a staggering 74 percent of the 1,047 players on active MLB rosters or disabled lists have played at those two levels [with pitch clocks in place] since the start of the 2015 season ….” So the vast majority of players (which is obviously growing every year) are familiar with that change already.
This entire situation is a little muddy, but there does seem to be some open, friendly dialogue on both sides (even if that dialogue comes with some serious “asks”). We can’t be certain which change is coming then, but it feels safe to say that some change is on the way.