Do baseball games need to be shorter? I’m presuming most everyone would like to see MLB contests clock in at less than three hours. It feels like something of a relief any time that happens.
Yet some would like to see shorter ballgames become a far more regular occurrence and are willing to consider drastic changes to the sport in order to reduce the time commitment for players and fans. Earlier this week, ESPN’s Buster Olney spoke with a “high-ranking” baseball executive who thinks MLB games should be shortened to seven innings.
In this exec’s view, slicing off those last two innings would keep games around two-and-a-half hours. But more importantly, it would reduce the number of pitching injuries by requiring pitchers to throw fewer innings. Additionally, it would lessen the burden on teams to find enough good pitching to fill out a staff.
Given what seems like a growing epidemic in pitching injuries (with the Rays’ Matt Moore the latest to suffer what appears to be a significant elbow issue), it’s understandable that this MLB executive is trying to think of ways to keep pitchers healthy. Perhaps he also works for a team that’s having difficulty accumulating enough good pitching to fill 12 spots on its staff. But the thinking here seems rather misguided.
For one thing, do we know for certain that it’s the number of innings thrown that has led to a seemingly greater number of arm injuries? Couldn’t it be more likely that it’s the types of pitches being thrown — such as the slider, which places a tremendous amount of stress on an elbow? Perhaps fewer innings in a ballgame — and thus less usage, especially for relievers — would mean pitchers throwing fewer sliders. But aren’t MLB pitchers going to throw what’s most likely to get batters out? If the slider is what keeps them in the majors, they’ll keep using that pitch.
The complaint about not being able to find enough good pitching comes off as rather whiny. Being able to develop or acquire quality pitching is a crucial part of the game. Those teams that do it are the ones that win. Those that have difficulty finding good arms typically struggle. Yet even the top contenders in the sport can have trouble assembling both a strong starting rotation and bullpen.
Yes, that task would conceivably be easier if teams had to carry fewer pitchers. But don’t most MLB clubs keep too many pitchers on their rosters as it is? Are 12-man pitching staffs really necessary in today’s game? Too many teams sacrifice bench depth in favor of another one or two relievers that isn’t likely to see much action over the course of a season. So is the game truly to blame for a shortage of good pitching or do general managers and field managers create this problem for themselves by how they assemble rosters?
As Olney points out in his article, shortening games to seven innings would fundamentally change baseball, influencing season and career milestones. No sport pays more homage to its history and tradition more than baseball. The game’s records — and continuing pursuit of them — would be radically affected.
Would we have fewer 200-hit seasons with batters potentially losing two to three plate appearances per game? Would winning 20 games become less of an achievement because starters might have to pitch fewer innings with bullpens blowing fewer of their leads? Reaching marks like 3,000 hits or 500 home runs could become all but impossible. (Although 300 wins could perhaps be more attainable.)
There’s no way the players union would be on board with such an idea. Obviously, this would create fewer jobs for pitchers if teams reduced the size of their staffs. Middle reliever jobs would effectively be eliminated if starters pitched six innings, followed by closers and/or setup men taking over in the seventh. But hitters would also lose bargaining power when negotiating contracts because they wouldn’t reach the same numbers that baseball traditionally associates with elite achievements.
There are so many other little fixes that can be done to shorten baseball games that wouldn’t require changing the fundamentals of the sport. Minor league games are often played in less than three hours, sometimes finishing up in just over two hours. That’s because long breaks to accommodate TV commercials aren’t required. Pitchers take less time between pitches. Batters don’t step out of the box on nearly every pitch. Umpires call more strikes.
Of course, some of this is because minor league play has to be simpler out of necessity. Pitchers haven’t developed pickoff moves and thus throw to first base fewer times. Teams don’t employ complex strategies that require batters to step out and check signs. Opposing players and coaches might not be as adept at stealing signs, so the pitcher and catcher don’t have to stop and change their signals.
But how much time could be sliced off baseball games if pitchers were encouraged to work faster, if batters were allowed to only step out of the box once per at-bat, if breaks between innings were limited to a set amount of time?
Marlins president David Samson wants his players to work faster in an attempt to improve the pace of their games. Miami’s average game lasted two hours and 56 minutes last season, tied for the second-shortest in MLB. Samson thinks the Marlins can whittle that down to two hours, forty minutes this year. Both manager Mike Redmond and the front office will impress that goal on the players, letting them know when they’re taking too much time between pitches or entering from the bullpen.
While it might seem somewhat silly to ask players to think about that (especially a team with younger players like the Marlins), rather than concentrate on the task at hand, it’s far less drastic than toying with the structure of a ballgame. But clubs such as the Red Sox and Yankees have been so successful in recent seasons by slowing down the game for their pitchers and drawing out at-bats by taking pitches and fouling them off, such a mandate is likely a tough sell among players and managers.
All of this isn’t to say that baseball shouldn’t encourage radical ideas for keeping games moving along and becoming more exciting to younger fans. (Even a suggestion like implementing a home run derby after 10 innings has some merit in terms of unconventional thinking. Though that one is a bit too wacky.) I do think it’s interesting that there’s so much talk about how long baseball games are, yet there seems to be little protest about how long NFL games take these days. Is that because the NFL is mostly played on Sundays and feels like less of a commitment when watching once a week?
There’s no need to lose our minds when thinking of ways to shorten baseball games. Drastic ideas like reducing games to seven innings seem like a massive overreaction to problems that can be fixed with less dramatic solutions. At some point, we have to accept baseball for what it is. Its pace is slower. The game doesn’t lend to quick transitions. Major League Baseball has always been played in at least nine innings.
Keeping up with the NFL and NBA in terms of fan interest has to be an ongoing concern, but at what cost? Let’s not go crazy, folks.