By Steve Mar
For a number of years, Major League Baseball has been dealing with a pace-of-play issue. The league has done a number of things to try and combat the slow-moving game including a pitch clock which gives pitchers a set amount of time to deliver their next pitch, a limited number of mound visits, shorter between-inning breaks and a quicker instant replay system.
Games at the college level are following suit. According to The New York Times, the 13 games leading up to the College World Series championship series averaged 3 hours and 30 minutes, “a 25-minute increase from just two years ago.”
The analytic-era of baseball is here and will be for a long time, but if the game can become faster at the college level, both players and fans will find the game more entertaining at a quickened pace.
Coaches Are Too Involved
In college ball, many coaches call pitches from the bench through complex hand signals or gestures that take too much time to deliver. They want to call the pitches because they have the numbers right in front of them. Catchers do not, and while they might trust them to call the game, one mistake can change the tide of the game.
Managers can take anywhere from five to 20 seconds to call pitches depending on how convoluted the signs can be. If it takes too long for the pitcher to get the sign, batters will step out because they can’t find a rhythm with the pitcher. Pitchers will also step off if they need to get a sign again, or they can shake it off.
Coaches and managers should train their catchers and pitchers to know what pitches to throw in certain situations. They won’t have the analytics in front of them on the field, but that’s what scouting reports are for. Coaches can have meetings before games with both pitchers and catchers to go over when it’s appropriate to throw each pitch, the tendencies of each hitter and how they fare against each pitch. It’s a process that will be valuable to a players development, especially if they have aspirations to play professional ball, as many top Division I players do.
In an article from The Detroit News in 2015, former Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said catchers Alex Avila and James McCann were in charge of the pregame pitchers meeting so they could familiarize themselves with the information and be prepared for the upcoming game.
“If you are preparing it yourself, going over the information, it’s kind of getting ingrained in your mind. You are writing it down, going over it again. So when the batter steps into the box, it’s easier to recall how you want to approach him,” Ausmus said.
College coaches can take this lesson and, more or less, put catchers in charge of these kinds of meetings. This will help develop them both as players and people, but it can also give the players an opportunity to earn the trust of their managers so they can call pitches themselves during games.
Of course, old school managers have their own way of doing things. They want to be in charge of pitches no matter what, but instead of giving complex signs, the catcher wears a wristband with a chart which has numbers that correspond to pitches. This is a little more efficient, but it still can take time for catchers to find the number and put the signal down.
Giving pitchers and catchers more responsibility will speed up the game, but it will also help in their development as baseball players. There’s also more of a chance they will make mistakes, meaning more balls will be put in play, another issue that has plagued the game over the last few seasons.
Walks, Home Runs and Strikeouts
From 2015 to 2017, the average batting average in Division I baseball has been right around .275. Scoring has increased slightly and home runs per game has increased from 0.56 to 0.75. Stolen bases per game was below one for the first time since ever 1970 — the first year statistic trends were recorded — and strikeouts and fielding percentage were at all-time highs.
Sure, home runs are entertaining. It’s awesome to see players hit baseballs to the moon, but it takes a lot of time. In 2011, the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) said the average home run trot was 22.02 seconds. From there, a pitcher has to wait for the next batter to step into the box, get set and he has to get the sign. It’s a process that can take anywhere from one to two minutes.
When players strike out, they walk back to the dugout, but what takes the most time is when the catcher throws the ball around the infield, something of a tradition in the game of baseball. Many times, players are very nonchalant about the process, but it gives them something to do as the next batter walks to the plate.
Pitchers who work quickly like to get the ball back, get the sign and go. Throwing the ball around can throw off their timing and rhythm, and that’s when you see their command start to slip, leading to more walks.
There’s also the off-chance a bad throw occurs and players have to chase the ball around the outfield. Those moments make teams look bad and it slows the game down considerably. Just get the ball back to the pitcher and play the game.
I’ve never had an issue with a strikeout pitcher — unless I’m the victim — but there are times when a strikeout isn’t ideal. Power pitchers are always thinking strikeouts, but that can lead to awry command and missed spots. Personally, I find it more entertaining to see a pitcher get ground ball after ground ball, keeping his fielders active and their heads in the game. With a runner on first and less than two outs, pitchers should be thinking about the double play and pitching to the situation. Getting outs is the only thing a pitcher should think about. Strikeouts are fine, but a tailor-made double play is good for the entire team. It can also be more entertaining than a strikeout, unless the pitcher is eclipsing the century mark with each pitch.
There are a number of things coaches and players can change to speed up the game, but the reality is if they want to see real change, start teaching players to play the game quickly as young as possible. Coaches should trust their players to make the right call, and if they don’t, it can serve as a teaching moment. Good pace and tempo can be translated to the Major League game, but it starts with changing the collegiate game first.