Will MLB threats, rule changes get players to pick up pace?

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/players/8180/" data-ylk="slk:Clayton Kershaw">Clayton Kershaw</a> (L) shares a moment with catcher <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/players/9971/" data-ylk="slk:Austin Barnes">Austin Barnes</a> in October. (AP)
Clayton Kershaw (L) shares a moment with catcher Austin Barnes in October. (AP)

GLENDALE, Ariz. – The issue is not that games are a half-hour (or more) longer than they used to be, it’s that no matter how long (or short) they get there’s still the same amount of baseball in them.

The other issue is players are asked to be perfect – as are managers and umpires – and sometimes that takes a little time, a little forethought and a lot of technology, and where that gets us is past bedtime.

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So we want all the beauty of it, all the competition, all the intellectual stirrings, and sometimes the way that happens is with a long breath and a few practice swings, and other times it happens with six guys standing with you on the mound, and still other times it happens when you don’t let that left-handed thumber, God forbid, throw a single pitch to a right-handed hitter all year.

Meantime, there’s enough air in a baseball game to supply life to a whole other planet, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is a thing, which is why we keep saying “pace of play” and Rob Manfred keeps saying “pace of game.” John Wooden would advise, “Be quick but don’t hurry.” In baseball that translates loosely to “Hey, mix in a strike” or, perhaps, “If you’re not going to be quick or hurry, we’re gonna put a clock on it.”

This seems reasonable. Manfred says a somewhat speedier game is important to fans, particularly the ones watching on television, and that there has been enough feedback from players to believe they lean the same way. He knows this, he says, because MLB asked fans. In reaction to that, and with pitch clocks and other more severe measures in play, Manfred chose a soft open – restricting mound visits, monitoring potential sign stealing through technological devices, and perhaps greater attention to some past requirements (batters must stay in the box in most circumstances), enforcement of which has lagged.

Though he had the authority to institute a clock, he did not, primarily because the players did not want it. So 2018 becomes a trial. If the games get reasonably shorter (by, say, 10 or 15 minutes), and limiting mound visits won’t do that alone, then there is unlikely to be more changes. If not, well, start your stopwatches.

The reality is Manfred has decided there’s some fat in the game. The rest of the reality is the players (and, to a degree, managers and umpires) can decide how much fat is trimmed. If hustle in-hustle out, get-in-the-box, throw-a-pitch isn’t the rule, it’s at least the ultimatum, so, again, they get to decide.

“I’m hopeful,” Manfred said Tuesday, as he has on many other days, “we’ll see some progress this year.”

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred is aiming to make games shorter. (AP)
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred is aiming to make games shorter. (AP)

The question, then, will the threat of a clock be enough to alter the habits, routines, strategies, realities and phobias of the men who will determine next year’s rules?

“I think it’s going to be challenging and time will tell,” Cincinnati Reds manager Bryan Price said. “I don’t know if that would drive them. If it was a playing-time, money or winning-games issue, maybe. These are the things that are going to drive players.

“We’ll see. I would say probably not. I think when you’re a player, you like to play the game. And that’s what you do.”

That’s the challenge, right? All the pick-up-the-pace requirements/consequences in the world aren’t going to hurry a hitter through a seventh-inning at-bat against Clayton Kershaw. And neither would a pitcher suddenly hustle through a ninth-inning jam, two runners on, a 32nd pitch coming. They’re all taught to be in the moment, they got here by being in the moment, and they play baseball, which means the moment can go for as long as they want it to. They get to decide.

“The players’ mentality is right now, this pitch,” Arizona Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo said.

But, he added, “It’s a new normal. It takes us time. As the rule changes happen, we adapt and move on.”

So, maybe. Given enough time. And maybe a year’s not enough time. But it’s all they get.

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“Sometimes it’s tough to speed it up,” San Diego Padres manager Andy Green said. “It’s going to be an interesting thing to see. … Players, managers, coaches, ownership, everybody would love the game to have good pace and good action.”

And, yet, he said, “I don’t necessarily see drastic change in the flow of the game as it’s being played now.”

Tick, tick, tick …

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