See here three simple rules for the betterment of baseball and the country whose pastime it remains, to the extent that anyone can sit through an entire 9-inning game these days without the aid of a DVR.
First, give the ball to the pitcher and oblige the batter to be ready when the ball is delivered. This sounds simple, and it is. Honestly, it’s more or less the way baseball was prosecuted up until around 1980. We are simply codifying a throwback policy, whereby, once a batter strides to the plate from the on-deck circle and establishes himself in the batter’s box — two things he can do with levels of speed and alacrity entirely of his own choosing — there are no more batter-initiated timeouts.
The batter is not a prisoner there. He can step out. He can wave to his mother in the stands or adjust his balls. He can tug on each batting glove strap as often as he likes, or, to be more accurate, dares. But he clearly won’t overindulge in any of this behavior because he knows the pitcher, once in possession of the ball, can deliver it to the plate whenever he chooses.
Base hit, foul ball or stolen base? The process resets, meaning he can step out and tug on those batting gloves before re-entering the box.
Some have called for the umpire to be more diligent in calling batters back into the box. That won’t work. It’s arbitrary and frankly not the umpire’s charge. Should the batter be inclined to see some pitches (something the Moneyball Era has emphasized), superfluous batter routinization between pitches will disappear almost instantly — and completely organically.
There is no penalty for stepping out of the box – only that you might not be in the hitting position when the ball arrives at/near the plate. There is no need to make special accommodation for the delivery of signs from the third-base coach. They can be delivered to/received by the batter at any time, though it seems prudent to get this done prior to said batter entering the box.
The umpire is free to call time at his discretion — for example, when a player is knocked down or back by an inside pitch. Resetting is a simple matter, as the umpire already holds the game balls on his person. By not handing a new ball to the catcher, or not winging it out to the mound himself, he has called time and allowed the batter to regroup without ever calling time.
I’m not sure whether the baseball rulebook even acknowledges a batter’s right to call timeout. If so, this would be the only rule-change required. Otherwise, it’s a seamless move back to the way batting was prosecuted over the game’s first 150 years.
Second, as a companion rule, pitchers in possession of the game ball may no longer leave the mound during an at-bat, and excessive time-wasting, as judged by the home-plate umpire, will result in one ball being added to the count.
Here again, simplicity reigns: When the pitcher accepts the ball from his catcher, another member of his team in the field, or the umpire, and said pitcher enters the mound area, he cannot leave said mound area until the ball is next put into play, i.e. pitched and hit, or the batter is retired, or a base is stolen.
However, if, in his opinion, the umpire determines the pitcher to be standing around on the mound purposely wasting time, the pitcher will be warned. Only one warning will be issued per team, per game. A second infringement will automatically affect the count, to the tune of an added ball.
Here again, pitching habits will change rapidly but organically. There is no need for a delivery clock, as some have proposed — for there are too many variables during a baseball inning to make that stick (think about a speedy runner at first; all those throws over there; all that stepping off the rubber… yes, it can be tedious, but it’s a vital part of the game and all of it can be conducted without the pitcher leaving the mound area). Indeed this rule will change the art of pitching only subtly. The pitcher will remain free to leave the mound following those three designated reset moments: base hit, foul ball or stolen base. Time-honored activities such as conferring with fielders, rubbing the ball while wandering around the infield, or adjusting his scrotum while staring blankly off into right field will remain protected under the new rules. However, once he steps onto the mound, he cannot leave until the ball has been pitched, or the ball has been hit, or a base has been stolen or the at-bat has been concluded. What’s more, under this rubric, time-wasting, as determined by the umpire (a third party who certainly knows deliberate slow-downs when he sees them), is appropriately punished.
While pitchers and batters are more or less equally responsible for the glacial pace of 21st century baseball, these new rules are not meted out equally. Batters will clearly be obliged to make the bigger adjustments. But that’s as it should be. The pitcher has always been in charge of this game. He has always determined the pace of “play”, from at-bat to at-bat.
These new rules would restore an equilibrium that prevailed for a century, a fact furthered by the umpire’s ability to meaningfully penalize pitchers who don’t hold up of their end of the bargain.
Finally, a third rule: No one associated with the for-profit broadcast of Major League Baseball games is allowed to complain about how slow baseball games have become, whether these new rules ever get adopted or not. Because let’s get real: The main reason for 3.5- to 4-hour MLB games is the fact that every single one is televised.
Yes, batters step out too often, and pitchers are too deliberate pitch to pitch. But we all know the real culprits are all those commercials between innings. These intrusions have, of course, been a fact of baseball life for decades now, and yet the intervals devoted to this interstitial advertising continue to grow in duration — despite the wide acknowledgement that “something should be done” to get back to 2.5-hour baseball games.
I don’t expect or propose that we regulate the amount of time devoted to between-inning advertisements, though a solid cap would be welcome. Baseball is, in a perverse way, the ideal TV product because of these organic breaks between innings. But it drives me crazy to hear TV people — especially ESPN analysts — bemoan the length of baseball games without acknowledging their central, integral role in extending them.