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Off-Season Hot Take: A way to speed up the game for the Astros…and everyone else.

Let’s consider some options you didn’t even think were options.

Houston Astros v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

A major point of emphasis in the off-season coming into the 2023 off-season was speeding up the pace of play and getting more game action. Pitch clocks, the ban of the shift and bigger bases were the major changes at the MLB-level to get more interest. It succeeded. MLB saw a near 10% increase in attendance and game times were cut by nearly 20-25 minutes per contest. That didn’t exactly translate into marquee World Series ratings, however, and baseball will no doubt try to find ways to increase the popularity of the game.

Baseball is already in discussions about more ways to speed up the game. There is talk of lowering the pitch clock time with runners on base from 20 to 18 seconds. There is also talk of limiting the number of pitchers on a roster, lowering it to 11 on an active 25-man roster. Maybe those changes will greatly improve the game speed and action tempo, maybe not.

Yet, if baseball is determined to reduce the modern pitching staff, then maybe instead of/or along with any clock/roster management, it may be time to reexamine some far older aspects of the game. Perhaps, as so many sacred cows of baseball have fallen by the wayside, is it time to look at the once unassailable? How about baseball putting in a limit to the number of pitches a single batter will face?

How might this work? Right now, a duel between a pitcher and hitter can vary in length. The shortest is one pitch, but the max can vary. A full count of 2 strikes and 3 balls means at least 5 pitches. To get a resolution, that is 6 pitches minimum. If you factor in multiple foul balls after the strike count hits 2, then that could extend the at-bat indefinitely, provided the foul ball is not a bunt that goes foul or a fielding play on a foul ball. An average baseball game expects to see about 46 foul balls a game. Since 2018, the greatest percentages of balls during an at-bat are fouled off (over 37%).

Why bring up the foul ball? After the batter gets to 2 strikes, foul balls usually tend to favor the hitter, forcing the pitcher to throw another pitch. If it is a full count, then the pitcher has that much less margin of error. Yet, there is currently no limit or restriction on foul balls with 2 strikes. Aside from the foul bunt rule with 2 strikes, a batter can foul off as many times as able. Given that the prevalence of fouls in a MLB game, and how they lengthen a game, could reducing the number of foul balls a batter can hit be an option?

A WAY THIS MIGHT WORK:

  • A foul ball still counts as a strike if less than 2 strikes. There is a reason that this came into being back in 1900. Some players were especially adept at fouling off pitches, and at the time, a foul ball did not count towards any strike or ball calls. To move the game along and avoid those shenanigans, baseball implemented the rules about the foul ball that exists to this day. No reason to change that aspect.
  • When the batter gets to 2 strikes. Here is where the change happens. A batter still gets one foul ball, which can land anywhere (infield, behind home plate, outfield, etc). However, after that foul, there are directional considerations. If the next foul ball does not travel past the infield (aka a foul ball back behind the catcher, or an infield fly that travels just to the dugout and not down the line past the outside bases) that will be an out. A batter gets two fouls to go beyond the infield.

At this point, the batter has had 3 fouls. Here we can go one of two ways:

  • Follow the same rule as the infield foul and make it an out. Or...
  • Borrow the college basketball method for jump balls, in that possession flips (in one case, a foul becomes a ball or a strike, depending on whose turn it is for the baseball equivalent of the “possession” arrow).

If nothing else, you will cap the number of pitches a batter will face from one pitcher. For the pitcher, he knows that he can’t throw more than 9 pitches (3 balls, 2 strikes, 3 fouls + whatever the final disposition of that last pitch is) to one batter.

Related to the modification of the foul ball, we look at something older and more “sacred”. The number of balls it takes to issue a walk. Since the 1890s, baseball decided that 4 balls equals a walk. Much like the foul ball trick for batters, pitchers in the late 19th century could be quite adept in manipulating ball-call rules/pitches to make life difficult for the hitter. Hence, the 4-ball rule. Arguably, 4 balls = walk and 3 strikes = strikeout are among the few constants to stand up over 3 different centuries.

Yet, the idea of a pitch clock as a way to put a time limit on the one American game that never had a time limit broke that particular barrier. If MLB is adamant about reducing the length of games, then all options are up for grabs. At this point in baseball, it is an accepted fact that pitch counts will limit the modern pitcher. Even guys who would be workhorses in the old days, like Gerrit Cole and Fambar Valdez, are still beholden to the pitch count. If MLB is looking to limit the number of pitchers in a game, then it should probably account for those things that stress pitchers and staffs.

A SOLUTION: Instead of the imbalance of 4 balls for a walk vs 3 strikes for a strikeout, we make them all the same. 3 BALLS EQUAL A WALK. So a full count is no longer the asymmetrical 3-2, but a symmetrical 2-2. Throw in the foul ball rules mentioned earlier, and now you have a cap on the number of pitches between a pitcher and batter. Presuming that you get to a full count of 2-2, and allow for the 3 foul ball rule, and a pitcher will guaranteed throw no more than 8 pitches in any one duel with a hitter.

On the surface, this seems to favor a pitcher. Limiting pitch count means that a starter can go longer against a line-up, and while the analytics will still likely say that the third time through the order will favor the hitter, a pitcher with a lower pitch count can go longer in a game, limiting bullpen exposure. The limits on foul balls will also favor a pitcher, as a batter is going to have to get a ball in play a lot sooner, and possibly on a pitch that he doesn’t really like. The flip side is that the pitcher, with fewer chances to get away with a batter chasing bad pitches, (getting only 3 balls for a walk vs. 4) will have to attack the strike zone more, opening himself up to more hits and allowing more “action”.

By how much will this reduce game time? The precise numbers are hard to know for certain without actual testing. If baseball sticks with the 20 second rule between pitches with no one on base, that would make a single pitch/hit sequence last 20-22 seconds max. This equals out, presuming no timeouts/interruptions, to ~3 minutes/batter, presuming a full count/foul count scenario. Factor 9-10 minutes at a minimum for a 3-up/3-down half-inning. Double that to account for a top/bottom inning scenario, that gives you ~20 minutes. Multiplied by 9 innings, you have ~3 hours of game time, not counting pitching changes, the time between innings/etc.

That alone would make the average game longer than what 2023 clocked in at (~2 hrs/40 minutes). However, that rough calculation presumes that every at bat goes the full count of 8 pitches per batter. Likely the numbers will be lower, thus reducing the time of the game. However, if we are limiting the foul balls, you increase the amount of swings that will have a dynamic result (out/hit).

Yet, in a society that is more apt to consume data, information and entertainment that is in a shorter format, perhaps going after the sacred cows of foul ball limits and walk counts can’t be discounted. Sacrilegious? Maybe. However, what do they say about sacred cows and great hamburgers? Then again, this is just one writer’s opinion. What say you? Do you agree? Disagree? What is your solution to speeding up the game as it stands now? Or not. Let the interwebs hear your thoughts and solutions below.