FORT MYERS, FLA. – Twins pitcher Phil Hughes has the answer to Major League Baseball’s pace-of-play problem, daring to go where few are willing to go.
“Robot umpires,” he said. “There wouldn’t be pitch framing. There wouldn’t be discussions with umpires. There wouldn’t be arguments with umpires about balls and strikes. That would be the biggest way to shave off a bunch of time.”
Alas, he knows the game should not be left in the hands — or the computer chips — of emotionless automatons.
“No one wants to talk about that,” Hughes said.
But Commissioner Rob Manfred wants anything else that can shorten the length of games on the table. According to Baseball-Reference, the average nine-inning game was a record 3 hours, 5 minutes last season, and Manfred has spent the offseason speaking with the players association about the subject. He is prepared to announce pace-of-play changes in time for spring training games that begin next Friday — with or without union support.
“It’s either going to be a specific agreement on specific rule changes,” Manfred said on Thursday during spring training media day in St. Petersburg, Fla., “or they’ll be rule changes that we put in place as a result of the provision in the basic agreement that allows us to make that change.”
As recently as 2005, games were 2 hours, 46 minutes long. A few factors have added time to games. The use, then expansion, of instant replay is one of them.
Another fact: At-bats are taking as long as ever. According to MLB’s BaseballSavant website, 133,840 pitches were fouled off last season. In 2012, that number was 125,262. Foul balls extend at-bats and makes pitch counts rise, leading to bullpen usage.
At-bats with 3-2 counts occurred 36,357 times last season — a 12.1 percent increase from 2015, when it was 32,431. More hitters are comfortable working the count full, and that extends at-bats. And games.
Manfred said some of the league’s mechanisms for shortening games have been adjusted because of union concerns. The union did reject the suggestion of a 20-second pitch clock earlier in the offseason, and there have been rumblings the league has taken that off the table.
But teams are waiting to see just what the league office has up its sleeve to address the issue.
“We understand that fans want a crisp game and a clean game,” righthander Kyle Gibson said. “That’s what we are trying to do every day.”
The league wants to cut down on visits to the mound, but the Twins contend that they are necessary for strategy and to make sure pitchers and catchers don’t get crossed up on signs.
“I think the league understands that’s a dangerous situation,” Gibson said. “If the catcher and pitcher aren’t on the same sign sequence, that’s going to be a big deal.”
Hughes added that mound visits also buy time for relievers who are warming up, to ensure they enter games loose and ready to pitch.
“It’s not that the catcher is out there to ask you how you are doing or where you’re having dinner,” Hughes said. “It’s to have the guy in the bullpen get a couple extra seconds to get ready.”
What the players object to the most is the proposed punishment system. Instead of fines, pitchers will be penalized a ball for time infractions and hitters will be docked a strike.
Gibson argued a reliever in the eighth inning with the bases loaded shouldn’t feel rushed as he is trying to execute a pitch in a big moment.
“I think that’s really as big of a nonstarter for a player as it gets,” Gibson said.
So the Twins waiting to see what MLB will apply before spring games begin. Does the league have a way to make pitchers deliver the ball in a timely manner? Will they impose a time limit on walk-up music? Can they shorten the time for replay to be examined?
Or, as manager Paul Molitor wondered, will there be a game that ends on a time violation with a 3-2 count and the bases loaded?
“I’ll have to see what [Manfred’s] mandate turns out to be,” Molitor said. “I don’t know if he’ll go above any union agreement to do what he feels he needs to do. I think it’s OK to think outside the box. I think we need to continue to find ways to make our game appealing, and some of that is length.”