Peter Gammons: Changes needed to quicken the pace of game

randy choate

Randy Choate back in 2012.

We all understand how hard Major League Baseball is working to quicken the pace of game, addressing shrinking attention spans and what one member of the study committee calls “the fragmented and competitive entertainment landscape.”

We understand why instant replay is important to a younger generation, and, in fact, it has gotten increasingly efficient and credible in the early stage of its work in progress. And they have worked really hard to get it as right as it can be.

We understand that young pitchers today come in throwing 93+ MPH; hey, the Marlins had an intrasquad game this spring with 11 pitchers who threw between 96 and 101, and Nate Eovaldi, who has the highest average velocity of any starting pitcher in the game in 2013-14, didn’t even pitch that day.

We understand the decline in skilled, athletic college players, as the NCAA has all but eliminated scholarships and any chance minorities or poor kids can afford college baseball while the leaders of the NCAA roll in their football sugar daddies’ arms. In an effort to take agents out of the draft process, rewriting the draft has virtually eliminated any chance baseball can challenge bigtime college football for athletes.

But the National League on base average is .312, which means the league average player isn’t as good as Ruben Tejada. The American League average slugging percentage is .394, which means that the average American League player’s slugging percentage is lower than Houston’s Chris Carter, a .172 hitter. We get the younger attention span concept, we all hope that the rules of engagement can allow major league players to show the same level of fun that all of us had when we were 13.

When, in the past, offensive arms went off, they looked at these:

Runs Per Game 1968, 1972

Indeed, 1968 was a period of indomitable pitching, of Bob Gibson’s 1.12 earned run average, Luis Tiant’s 1.60 ERA for the Indians, with 9 shutouts, 258 1/3 innings, 152 hits, 264 strikeouts. So they changed the rules, lowering the mound from 15 to 10 inches.

It so happens that 1969 was also an expansion season, and history has shown the impact of expansion on pitching (go back and watch “Sixty One,” arguably the best baseball film ever made), and appreciate that the Maris/Mantle show came the first year of expansion with the Los Angeles Angels and Washington Senators. But by 1972, runs were again at a premium, there were historic players like Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Orlando Cepeda and Ron Blomberg ready to hit with limited exposure to the field. And they called it the Designated Hitter. In a league then dominated by the Oakland and Baltimore markets, it made sense. So they changed, because tweaking isn’t twerking. It can work, in thoughtful moderation.

Where we are since industry-wide drug testing was put in place before the 2005 season:

Runs Per Game 2005, 2014

The point was that in 1968 and 1972 they were willing to try rule changes, which other sports have done, sometimes excessively, but to adjust to trends and to what is tending on Twitter. ”Could we be seeing what the game looks like not only without PEDs but without amphetamines (that were accepted in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies)?” asks one club executive. “We are also dealing with a lack of impact players coming into our game. The talent pool is shrinking. We focus on (Mike) Trout and Bryce Harper and some of our great young players, but after that it becomes problematical.” Look no further than this year’s draft. No impact position players, especially at the infield and outfield corners.

In 2005, the Red Sox really wanted Jacoby Ellsbury, who was a leadoff hitter with great athleticism, with the 23d pick. That was the first year of full drug testing, and Boston GM Theo Epstein predicted “the game is going to change, and we’d better be preparing for that change.”

The Red Sox were hoping they could get a little-known outfielder from The College of Charleston in the third round named Brett Gardner. They figured Gardner would slide to them in the third round and took a catcher named Jon Egan in the second. Egan did not pan out. The Yanks grabbed Gardner ahead of them in the third round.

And how much has the game changed? Never mind that Ellsbury has hit double figures in homers once in his career. Gardner and Ellsbury went into Sunday’s games sixth and seventh, respectively, in WAR among American League outfielders. While we watch Dee Gordon with the Dodgers and Billy Hamilton with the Reds and wait on Micah Johnson with the White Sox and Mookie Betts with the Red Sox and see how increasingly important speed is becoming, we need to address another issue.

“It is ridiculous that impact lefthanded hitters like Joey Votto, David Ortiz, Shin-Soo Choo, Chase Utley and Anthony Rizzo will almost never face a righthanded pitcher from the seventh inning on,” says one National League GM. “Can’t we see some great hitters hit with games on the line? This whole matchups thing gets carried away, but everyone has two or three Randy Choates to throw at a Votto.”

Experienced managers howl in laughter and advise that MLB post orthopedic surgeons’ phone numbers in every clubhouse when the matchup computers get overloaded in the third or fourth innings of games and their managers are forced to be warming up right and lefthanders in the early innings. Pace of game? Is it thrilling to see five or six pitching changes a game? In 1972, a team used an average of 2.94 relievers per game. In 1992, 4.29. Now it’s 5.96.

What baseball needs is fewer pitching changes, fewer matchups; on July 27, 1979, the Orioles beat the White Sox 12-7, it was 8-5 in the fourth inning, Earl Weaver left Mike Flanagan in to throw a complete game and did so in 2:48. My suggestion is to limit rosters to 11 pitchers, which would open rosters to a hitter who could act as third catcher in extra-inning games, or a Tony Phillips kind of versatile performer. They could require that a reliever either finish an inning or have to face three hitters, but this way relievers would be required to have to retire batters from both sides of the plate and be groomed not to throw 3-5 pitches, but have to be used to 4-6 outs. Starters should pitch seven innings. Relievers should be able to get six outs on both sides of the plate.

That would limit matchups. Limit stalling while the next Randy Choate heats up to face Utley or Votto. Pace of game? Limit the number of combined visits by managers and pitching coaches to two a game—between them.

We have reams of pages of statistical data on why it’s dangerous to allow a starting pitcher to face a lineup the third time around the order. “I asked our guy whether we’re allowed to have 25 man pitching staffs,” laughed one veteran pitching coach. “Take away the value of starting pitchers’ innings and we’ll make a lot of surgeons a lot of money.”

In many ways the sport is in a golden era, certainly the best it has been run in terms of business. But there are disturbing numbers that indicate that fans aren’t going to flock to games decided by corner kicks, sidearming one pitcher matchups and five to seven pitching changes a night.

We all love Charlie Blackmon, Brian Dozier and Dee Gordon. But when they comprise a third of the top nine players in the game in WAR…

It’s worth at least a few new and creative ideas. How many 13 and 15 year olds are beginning to ask, “Is this becoming The Deadball Era, or is this the Polar Vortex?” Come the All-Star Break, it’s worth studying.

  • Richard Morey

    Yes yes yes! Regardless of game speed, the mentality of pitchers (and managers) needs to change. Starters should WANT to get the complete game. Get rid of the stupid 100 pitch count. I love the idea of saying a reliever has to face three batters! Another idea would be to get rid of the meaningless “save” stat, or make it so it actually means something – basically if you come in for the starter with the tie runs on base or at the plate and you finish the game you get a save, that’s it. If the SP doesn’t get the “W” no save can be awarded.

    • Jhary Kenshura

      So my starting pitcher leaves the game after pitching 6 innings and the score tied, and a save can’t be awarded even if we score in the 7th? That seems rather silly. What if he goes 7 innings and winning bya run, and a middle reliever gives up a run to tie it in the top of the 8th, and then we score again in the bottom to retake the lead? The SP can’t get the W, and so the closer can’t get a save?

      • Richard Morey

        If the SP is the pitcher of record when the reliever comes in then the RP gets a save. If the reliever blows the lead he obviously doesn’t get a save (and neither should anyone else). Honestly, I’d love it for the RP to not get the W after blowing the save either!

  • MARKMMCAULAY@GMAIL.COM

    You can count on one hand the number of games I miss every year, but it’s getting silly! Make the hitters stand in the box. Make the pitchers throw the ball and stop all of the stupid meetings. Finally and most importantly, I don’t care how the umps are graded, they are inconsistant and moody, make them CALL STRIKES!!! I’m starting to long for the days of Emmette Ashford and Ron Luciano…..

  • John MacEnulty

    Raise the mound back up to where it was in 1968. Do away with the DH. Those 2 things will speed up the game tremendously.

  • Kynikos

    TL;DR. Tried to. Got halfway.

  • koslo31

    It’s time to call the instant replay rules a failure. Not only do they extend the games by a minimum of 10 minutes (assuming both managers take advantage of it at least once each game, and why shouldn’t they?) but it also seriously disrupts the rhythm of the game. While the umpires and the manager dither before even calling for the replay, everything comes to a halt with the pitcher standing like a museum statue getting colder by the minute. Then, too, isn’t it all demeaning to the umpires (although they’ll deny it). Of course they’ll blow one now and then but by and large they are the best set of officials in any major
    sport. When a call is overturned, it’s their credibility which will be injured ultimately reducing their ability to control the game which in turn injures the game itself.

  • Orioles Logic

    Ruben Tejada has an above average OBP because that’s his job, same reason why Chris Carter has an above average SLG. Cherry picking examples of people who are above average in one stat doesn’t make sense. And what exactly is even the point of bringing up the names of the players you mention as near the top in WAR (over an irrelevantly small sample size)? Because they aren’t household names they shouldn’t be good, or have career years? This article is trash.

  • stargate125645

    Shouldn’t you use a more apt example than Choate? St. Louis doesn’t use him like that these days. A bit lazy in an otherwise great article.