Sports

Long Ball Era

Major League Baseball games are longer than ever. What if we wanted to extend them even further?

Fan at a baseball game looking incredibly bored.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Julian Howard on Unsplash, Jakob Owens on Unsplash.

In this series, our sage referee answers fascinating, vexing, and/or bizarre sports hypotheticals and conundrums. To submit a question to the Sports Authority, email sportsauthority@slate.com.

Via Twitter, @brettsota asks: What can MLB do to make games longer?

In 2017, a nine-inning major league baseball game lasted, on average, 3 hours and 5 minutes. While that’s longer than any other season on record, it’s still 15 minutes shorter than the running time of Dr. Zhivago, and that film contains precisely zero grand slams. Nonetheless, this slow pace has become an issue of concern for the league as it tries to broaden its fan base and overcome a reputation as a dawdling and outmoded “pastime.”

Under commissioner Rob Manfred, MLB has instituted a series of rule changes in recent years to help speed things up. These include shortening the time between innings and limiting mound visits for managers. Intentional walks became automatic last season, meaning pitchers don’t actually have to throw four pitches anymore; the manager just notifies the umpire when he’d like to advance a batter to first base.

The commissioner also says he will impose a 20-second pitch clock in 2019 if the average game time exceeds 2 hours and 55 minutes this season, a scenario for which the league is well on track.

But what if, as this week’s question suggests, the league tried to extend games? First, we need to imagine a world in which this would happen. Longer baseball games would be a hit on planet Mercury, where each day lasts 58 Earth-days and provides plenty of time for leisurely trips to the diamond. The reduced gravity and almost nonexistent atmosphere would result in tons of dingers, surely turning Mercury into a baseball hotbed (801 degrees Fahrenheit in the sun, to be exact).

While Earth’s diurnal rotation is less compatible with baseball’s slow pace, hardcore fans shouldn’t mind the plodding nature of their favorite sport. So let’s cater to our base, shall we? Our hypothetical rule changes would be made with these ride-or-die seam-heads in mind and not ignorant, fair-weather types like five-time Gold Glove–winning first baseman Mark Teixeira. “I can’t stand playing a nine-inning game in four hours. It’s not baseball,” he said in 2011. “It’s brutal.”

Sorry, Mark, but you’re going to be begging for four-hour games by the time we’re done with the rulebook.

In order to preserve the sanctity of the game, none of our changes are going to mess with anything elemental. There will still be three strikes for an out, three outs per half-inning, and nine innings in a game. The rulebook alterations also have to be compatible with existing stadia, meaning no 1,000-acre outfields, 30-mile walks from on-deck circle to batter’s box, or crocodile-infested bullpens.

First order of business is to find a root cause for today’s longer games. According to the New York Times, “Strikeouts and homers reached record highs last season, and walks are rising … That means more pitches, which means more relievers, which means more time.”

Managers already use as many relievers as they can—and sometimes more than they should— but it is the process of incorporating new pitchers that adds time, not the pitchers themselves. Allowing pitchers to come back into a game—a revolving reliever door, if you will—would help drag things out. In addition, we will prohibit pitchers from running to the mound (we’ll say that one’s for player safety) and institute a blanket ban on bullpen carts (out of concern for the league’s carbon footprint).

It’s also essential that we are polite and give relievers time to acclimate, even if they had been pulled only a few minutes earlier. According to MLB Rule 8.03, relievers get no more than eight practice pitches on the mound before play restarts, though new rules grant them the duration of the commercial break to warm up. No one likes to be rushed, so let’s scrap both rules. If a pitcher needs 50 throws over a half-hour to get into a groove, why should anyone stop him? His job is stressful enough as it is.

Sign-stealing has become a bigger issue in recent seasons, and teams have been stretching the unwritten rules to their (nonexistent) limits. In order to stop these shenanigans once and for all, let’s introduce a written rule: No signs, ever. Now, there’s nothing to steal. How does this slow down play, you ask? Each pitch suggestion must be delivered in-person during a mound visit, sort of like an at-home consultation.

In order to relay if he wants a fastball or curveball or what-have-you, the catcher will have to take a 121-foot stroll (60 feet, 6 inches to the mound, 60 feet, 6 inches back). In 2017, an average MLB game featured 292 pitches, meaning the two catchers would walk a combined 6.7 miles per nine innings. Assuming they half-jog each leg at about 4 miles per hour, these commutes alone will add 1 hour and 40 minutes to each game.

MLB can also take a page from the NFL’s book. In that league, a player who hands a football to someone in the stands is fined $6,076 (the fee is doubled after the first offense). In this spirit, hitters should be penalized unless they retrieve their foul balls and home runs from the crowd. Spectators will want to hang on to these souvenirs, as is their right, so it will be up to the player to negotiate the return of each ball. Without skilled and experienced mediation, these protracted debates can really drag on, which would be ideal.

It’s also possible to slow things down without even touching the rulebook. Before games, singers should perform the full version of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” which is the entire Francis Scott Key poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry” plus the additional Civil War section that was written 20 years after Key’s death. Thanks to the labored and purple descriptions of Baltimore Harbor, we’ve added 308 words and four stanzas to the rendition that’s usually sung. In a similar vein, there are three versions of “America the Beautiful,” and it would be unpatriotic to not sing each one during seventh-inning stretches.

Finally, we must consider the rules that have been added in recent years to speed up play. While it may seem like these should be retracted wholesale, evidence suggests they could come in handy. In 2015, the year before MLB reduced the time between innings and limited mound visits, games lasted an average of 2 hours and 56 minutes. With those changes in place, the average game time increased by four minutes. In 2017, the year the league added its intentional walk wrinkle, things slowed down even further, to 3 hours and 5 minutes per nine-inning affair.

It seems like MLB has already figured out the key to making games last longer: reverse psychology. Should next season see the addition of pitch clocks, fans may want to bring photos of loved ones to the ballpark, lest they forget what their families look like after nine innings of extended fun.

Previously in Sports Authority

How Long Would It Take the Golden State Warriors to Score 20 Points Against Five Ordinary Bros?

Would Professional Sports Totally Collapse in a World Without Beer?

Could Leo Messi Play Running Back in the NFL?