Published February 26, 2017
So you’re wringing your hands and gnashing your teeth over the decision by Major League Baseball to do away with the four-pitch intentional walk?
You’re afraid that the very fabric of the game has been singed by the fires of overreach?
Well, I wouldn’t worry too much about the rule change—to be implemented this season—because I don’t think the impact will be all that great, which is ironic. Intentional walks occur once every three games.
My issue with the intentional walk rule change is that it’s shooting at the wrong target.
Baseball is a game full of numbers, so here’s one for you: 8.2.
That’s the number, on average, of pitchers that were used in a big league game in 2016.
Twenty-five years ago, that figure was 6.2, and it’s been increasing steadily ever since.
Yes, using pure math, each MLB team burned through 4.1 pitchers per game last season. On average.
Let that sink in for a moment.
If all these pitching changes took place between innings, there may not be much of an issue. But they don’t. They occur mid-inning and they bog the game down, if you care about pace of play.
Sometimes you can smell a pitching change a mile away, like a skunk’s odor. But unlike a skunk, which you can avoid, a pitching change is going to happen whether you want it to or not.
Then the arduous pattern begins.
First, some infielders wander toward the mound for a chat, and they’re probably not even talking to the pitcher about pitching. For all we know, they’re discussing where they’re going to dinner after the game. Because they’ve been sent to the mound by the manager or the pitching coach, to give the relief pitcher a few more warmup tosses in the bullpen.
Next, the manager makes the long, slow walk to the mound. There hasn’t been a manager yet who’s in a hurry. They all walk to the mound with the urgency of a man who’s been called to the boss’ office.
At the mound, there’s some more idle chatter. The umpire is forced to traipse to the hill to break up the gathering, and even the umpire isn’t in a hurry.
The manager looks at the umpire and acts surprised to see him, as if the skipper has forgotten why he’s at the mound to begin with.
Oh—that’s right! A new pitcher!
The signal is given, and here comes the new pitcher. In the 1970s, the relievers were driven to the mound via cute baseball buggy or car. Today, they’re on their own, which usually means another long, pained walk. The bullpens are about a mile away from the pitching mound.
Bring back the cars! With the number of pitching changes these days, you could make more dough than an Uber driver during the baseball season, shuttling relievers.
The reliever finally reaches the mound, and of course, there has to be another discussion.
Now, the reliever has been in the bullpen, warming up. He’s been called into the game because…he’s warmed up! He’s ready to go.
Yet baseball gives the new pitcher eight warmup tosses, which are thrown with absolutely no sense of urgency. Because apparently the relief pitcher has cooled off during the walk to the mound, which I suppose makes sense considering how long it takes.
Meanwhile, television sets are being turned off and walked away from all over the country.
And all this rigmarole for one pitching change.
Every MLB team, on average, used 4.1 pitchers per game last season. I’ll keep repeating it, believe me.
How does it make you feel as a fan to know that in any given game, you’re going to see eight different men take the mound during the course of the contest?
Eight men out.
Since each game, barring extras, has at least 17 half innings, we’re seeing a new pitcher, on average, once every two half innings, or once per full inning.
Actually, this wouldn’t be so bad, except that of the eight pitchers per game, five or six of them enter the fray in the sixth inning or beyond.
Baseball’s late innings have turned into the last two minutes of an NBA game.
The pace grinds to a halt, and unless a starter has a no-hitter going, you’re going to see the influx of relievers, period.
So if baseball is serious about doing something to speed up the pace of play, instead of going after the poor, innocent intentional walk, how about they look at the use of bullpens?
I started following baseball in 1971, and back then most teams carried ten pitchers, sometimes nine. Of course, that was on the fringes of the days of the four-man rotation, but even after the fifth starter was added, 10 was the average number of pitching staff.
Five starters, five relievers.
Then we added specialists to the bullpen and everyone had to have assigned roles and pitch counts began to dominate thinking and here we are, with many teams carrying 12 arms and sometimes 13.
We have five-inning starters dotting every big league roster these days. A guy who pitches seven frames is your ace. The complete game has gone the way of drive-in movie theaters.
The Four Step Plan
I can solve this madness and return the pace to something quicker than that of a snail with four simple steps.
1. Set a minimum for the number of batters that each reliever has to face.
This one isn’t new and I’m not purporting to offer anything unique here, but since it’s been bandied about so much, and by so many different baseball folks, then doesn’t that indicate something?
Each reliever who enters a game mid-inning has to throw to at least two batters. Period. And one of them can’t be an intentional walk, either. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if the home plate umpire smells a so-called “non-intentional, intentional walk” (a long-used tactic of cowardice), then he can add another batter that must be faced. Manager ejections might tick up, but the skippers will fall in line.
Don’t come at me with “you’re killing some strategy!” comments. Au contraire, mon frere.
The two-batter minimum will create new strategy. Managers will have to think ahead like never before. It’s not like they won’t have time to chew on it. They’ll have six innings to contemplate.
2. Reduce warmup tosses for new pitchers to four.
File this under the category of baseball not being able to see the forest for the trees.
This mechanism is staring everyone right in the face.
Why does Mr. Reliever, who’s already warmed up, need eight tune-up tosses?
I don’t want to hear bleating about getting “the feel for the mound.” Give me a break. These guys have been pitching on mounds for years and how different can they possibly be from one another?
Bring the new guy in, give him four tosses and away we go.
Oh, and I’m serious about the cars and baseball cap shuttles, by the way. If we’re going to speed things up, then let’s speed things up!
3. Implement NFL-style technology for communications with pitchers and infielders.
It’s not just pitching changes that gobble up idle time during a ballgame—it’s also the non-pitching change trips to the mound and other impromptu chats.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi has an idea and I like it.
Why not steal from football and hockey, which use wireless technology to communicate with each other?
Girardi suggested that pitchers and certain position players be equipped to receive messages from the dugout, i.e. how to play certain hitters defensively, how to pitch to the next batter, etc.
But what about the soothing, comforting visits to the mound by the pitching coach?
You think they really work?
How many times have you seen a pitching coach give a pep talk on the mound, and the next pitch is promptly tattooed into the gap for a bases-clearing double?
But if you want interpersonal communication, then make every trip to the mound equal to a pitching change. You cross that white line, you must change pitchers—as long as the current guy has thrown to at least two hitters!
And Mr. Pitching Coach, if you still want to whisper sweet nothings into your pitcher’s ear, then that’s what the wireless equipment is for. Every pitcher gets to wear an earpiece. Don’t tell me that we aren’t advanced enough to make this happen. If I can watch coffee commercials from 1957 on my phone while in line at the checkout, then we can do this.
4. Stop the token tosses to first base madness!
I’m all for holding runners on base and keeping them honest—for actual base stealing threats.
I’m not into useless lobs to first base to make sure that Mike Napoli doesn’t get a three-foot lead.
There are honest to goodness pickoff tries—and precious few pitchers are good at it anyway—and there are those mindless, time wasting tosses that do nothing but get everyone annoyed.
More than three tosses to first base during an at-bat, the home plate umpire calls a ball.
The legitimate base thief is going to run, no matter how many times you throw to first base. And if he can count to three, he knows when you’re out of tosses. So make them count.
4A. More efficient use of replay.
I’m not making this no. 5 because it’s not related directly to bullpen use and tomfoolery on or around the pitching mound, so let’s just say that MLB needs to take a look at replay efficiency. There’s nothing wrong with tweaking an already existing mechanism. The NFL has, for the most part, done a good job with taking the spirit of replay and evolving it.
The players’ association has been resistant to even token changes to improve pace of play, citing the history of the game and strategy, which is actually the union’s word for “gamesmanship.”
No sport uses its history as a crutch to resist change more than baseball.
I’ve been guilty of it; I’m not a DH guy, for example.
But for the most part, if you were to chart rules changes in the other three major team sports, an overwhelming majority of them have been widely accepted and in many cases even embraced. Some of the changes you wouldn’t dream of reversing, knowing what you know now.
Baseball, by its nature, has more opportunities for tweaking than any other sport, because of the down time.
The new CBA calls for baseball to be able to make changes involving pace of play, unilaterally, starting with the 2018 season.
Commissioner Rob Manfred, in other words, doesn’t need to have kumbaya in order to implement changes after this season.
“We intend to pursue our agenda for change in year two … for the benefit of the game and the fans,” Manfred said recently.
Therein lies the rub—the last part of that sentence.
The players can squawk all they want, but whenever there are rules changes, the changes always outlive the players who are in the game currently. The players will come and go; some rules changes are forever.
The players union must remember that they’re stewards of the game and their time in baseball as players is finite.
For all its warts, the DH is still here, some 44 years after Ron Blomberg made history in Boston in 1973.
Players and managers will adapt to any reasonable change that quickens pace of play. Skippers might even find new ways to strategize.
It’s fine to raise concerns, but if the MLBPA wants to dig its cleats in and resist change for resistance’s sake, then they’re not only going to ultimately lose, they’ll be judged by history unfavorably.
The game needs sprucing up when it comes to pace of play. Most fans agree, within reason.
The elimination of the four-pitch intentional walk is probably not going to move the meter, frankly, and the absurd idea of starting each extra inning with a runner on second base is about as misguided as you can get.
But change needs to happen—with or without the players’ consent.
After all, what’s the game’s rallying cry?
Any changes and/or tweaks that can encourage this, the better.