MLB attempts to speed up games

The sight of Gary Sanchez repeatedly calling time to go confer with his pitcher will become, well, at least a bit less frequent.

The New York Yankees catcher has been among the most egregious offenders when it comes to slowing games down to a crawl with frequent mound visits, a practice that grew especially aggravating during the 2017 postseason.

Major League Baseball is taking action against the inaction, announcing Monday a series of steps to speed up games that last season set a record with an average length of 3:05.

Pitch clocks won’t be installed, as had been expected, but MLB and the players association agreed to limit the number of mound visits to six a game, excluding the instances when a pitcher is removed. The new allowed total, which grows by one for every extra inning, includes visits by managers, coaches and teammates, even if they don’t occur right on the mound.

In addition, the break between innings will be tightened by 20 seconds, with the countdown clock getting set at 2:05 for locally televised games and at 2:25 for national telecasts. It remains at 2:55 for postseason games. There’s also a new measure in place to make pitching changes a bit quicker.

The modifications don’t go nearly as far as Commissioner Rob Manfred seemed determined to take them in his efforts to accelerate the increasingly glacial pace of games, which grew by nearly 41/2 minutes in length last season.

The collective bargaining agreement that came into effect in December 2016 gave Manfred the power to unilaterally impose new measures such as a 20-second pitch clock and a timer between batters.

But at a time of increased acrimony between MLB and the union because of the dramatic slowdown in offseason signings, Manfred decided to exercise patience rather than further alienate the players, many of whom are still sitting on the sidelines waiting to sign new contracts.

Still, the news release announcing the new rules points out the timer options are on the table.

“I am pleased that we were able to reach an understanding with the Players Association to take concrete steps to address pace of play with the cooperation of the players,” Manfred said in a statement. “My strong preference is to continue to have ongoing dialogue with players on this topic to find mutually acceptable solutions.”

In other words, this is not nearly enough. At the owners meetings less than three weeks ago, Manfred offered to hold off on a pitch clock for the coming season and 2019 if game times went down by at least 10 minutes to 2:55, but the players balked at that proposal.

And union head Tony Clark made it clear he would continue to fight tooth and nail against anything that might infringe on work conditions.

“Players were involved in the pace-of-game discussion from day one and are committed to playing a crisp and exciting brand of baseball for the fans,” Clark said in a statement, “but they remain concerned about rule changes that could alter the outcome of games and the fabric of the game itself — now or in the future.”

There doesn’t appear to be any clear winners or losers in this latest round between the parties, who have been at odds for a couple of years over how to speed up the game and whether there is actually a need for it.

The reduced commercial breaks do offer a tangible gain of about six minutes a game, and it’s hard to see how it would be all that difficult for players and the coaching staff to avoid visiting the mound more than six times. At this point there are not even penalties for breaking such a rule, only an encouragement to follow it.

Manfred would like to see more urgency from the players, whose habits of dawdling on the mound (hello, Pedro Baez) or constantly stepping out of the box to adjust their equipment add to the game’s perception as languid. That makes it a hard sell among young audiences used to instant gratification.

As to how the changes will impact the way the game is played, Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon said the effect would be negligible, and everybody would get used to the new rules after some initial consternation.

“We’ll have to just figure out a more non-verbal method of communication. We’re not going to be texting,” Maddon said, drawing chuckles. “It’s going to be a new normal. You learn how to do it and you do it. That’s all.” – by Jorge Ortiz, USA TODAY