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Bill Veeck's ideas to speed up the game

The appointment of Rob Manfred as the new commissioner has led to a lot of suggestions on what he needs to do once he officially steps in for Bud Selig after the season. One area that everyone seems to agree upon is addressing the pace of game.

As Jayson Stark wrote last week,

Friends of Manfred say he's determined to end baseball's most unfortunate streak: For the fifth straight season, the average major league game is going to take longer than it took the year before. Now it's time to do something about it.

From Tyler Kepner's piece in the New York Times in August:

Mark Attanasio, the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, said a brisker pace of games, better use of social media and more participation on the field would be crucial to engaging younger fans. "I think it’s a priority for all of us, and Rob is leading us," Attanasio said. "We’re faced with an aging demographic, and there’s any number of metrics which point to that. So it’s an issue we need to address."

Tom Verducci, Sports Illustrated,

Baseball clubs have adopted the term "actionable intelligence" from the military. It defines how analytical experts must distill all the big data available in the game today to useable, bite-sized chunks for the player. So here is my "actionable intelligence" for those wearing a major league uniform today:

In just 10 years you have added 29 minutes, 11 seconds of dead time per game while scoring 13.3 percent fewer runs.

Does that get your attention? It should, because you don't need to go back to pre-cable, pre-DH days to measure the deceleration of pace of play. How the game is played has changed drastically in a short period of time.

According to Baseball Prospectus, the average time of game has increased to 3 hours, 8 minutes this year, up four minutes from last year (replay reviews no doubt being a huge factor there) and 13 minutes over just a few years ago. Here are some average times through the years:

2014: 3:08

2010: 2:55

2005: 2:47

2000: 3:01

1990: 2:52

1980: 2:38

1970: 2:34

1960: 2:38

1950: 2:23

A generation ago, a two-and-a-half-hour game was standard fare; this year, there have been just 103 games played within that time -- out of 2,069 total games (5 percent).

Going back even further, I recently read a book on the 1939 Yankees, "A Legend in the Making." Author Richard J. Tofel reports that the first two games of the World Series that year took 3 hours -- combined; 93 minutes for the first game, 87 for the second.

Maybe it was those World Series games that had Hall of Fame owner/showman Bill Veeck complaining in 1962 about the length of games. Yes, it's not a new argument that baseball needs to speed up its pace. In his autobiography, "Veeck -- as in Wreck," Veeck outlined his ideas to fix a game that "has become too slow."

While on a sabbatical from owning a team in 1957 and 1958, he broadcast games for NBC. "I made it a practice to time the pitchers," he wrote. "For twenty minutes out of every hour, I discovered, the action on the field consisted solely of the pitcher holding the ball and looking at the catcher, a tableau which I find singularly lacking in drama. I suspect that the ratio is even higher now because the pitchers seem to become increasingly timid every year."

I don't quite get that last bit, since by 1961 walks per nine innings had dropped from 4.1 in 1950 to 3.5; comes across a little as grumpy old man stuff. Anyway, this sentence does sound familiar: "The reason, of course, is that with the lively ball and the slender whipsaw bat, any .220 hitter is capable of hitting the ball out of the park."

Veeck goes on to suggest that there were 40 percent more 3-2 counts than 30 years prior, that Grover Cleveland Alexander could just "throw the ball down the middle and let the batter hit it; he didn't bother to start pitching until there was a man on second base. ... Today, anybody standing at the plate ... is in scoring position, and the pitchers feel it necessary to nibble around the corners of the plate."

I'm thinking Veeck probably wouldn't like the modern approach to pitching ... let alone the constant use of relief pitchers. Anyway, let's see what Veeck wanted to do to speed up the game and how his ideas would affect the game in 2014.

1. Widen the plate by 25 percent.

Umm ... if this was the case, would Clayton Kershaw ever give up a hit?

2. Three balls for a walk, two strikes for an out.

If you think we have a lot of strikeouts now, this idea would excessively increase strikeouts even more. It's hard enough to hit with three strikes to work with. Imagine just two.

3. A limit would be placed on the time permitted for throwing the ball around the infield, or eliminated altogether.

And batters should have to run up to the batter's box from the on-deck circle!

4. The pitcher would be limited to one warm-up toss between innings.

Of course, Veeck's book came out before the wide increase in number of games broadcast on television. I suspect that a large chunk of the increase in game time from the 1960s to now isn't just the pace of game but the time between innings -- when baseball makes money by showing commercials. If the average break between half innings is 2:15 (longer for postseason games), multiplied by at least 16 breaks, that's 36 minutes worth of commercial breaks/inactivity. A generation ago it was probably half of that, and in Grover Cleveland Alexander's time he was probably throwing his first pitch as he ran out from the dugout.

(I wonder: If you simply add up the commercial breaks and all the mid-inning pitching changes, how much of the 30 extra minutes per game since 1980 are tied up in just those two elements and not slow pitchers or batters scratching themselves or adjusting their batting gloves?)

Anywaym good luck telling baseball, "Sell fewer commercials on TV broadcasts."

5. Intentional walks would be made automatic.

Not enough of an issue to worry about.

6. The ball would be "slowed up."

I assume Veeck was referring again to the so-called lively ball. The weird thing is that all his big changes would have had a major effect on run scoring. But runs per game in 1961 were 4.53, about the same level it had been since the late '40s (and fewer runs per game than in the '30s or '20s). I'm not sure why he was so despondent about the state of the game then, unless he wanted to bring back dead-ball era baseball.

You know what? That's kind of what happened. In 1963, MLB redefined the strike zone (making it bigger) and run scoring started going down, culminating with the 1968, The Year of the Pitcher, when the average runs per game dipped to 3.42.

You know what else happened? Attendance stagnated. In fact, by the late '60s it had dropped below the levels of the late '40s. Major league attendance didn't really start growing again until the late 1970s and '80s, fueled by more offense, the first generation of new, multi-purpose stadiums, and smarter, professional marketing and more televised games.

In fact, even as the average time of game kept increasing, so did attendance. Average attendance first reached 30,000 per game in 1993, dipped a little after the 1994 strike, but has averaged 30,000-plus each of the past 11 seasons, including this one.

That doesn't mean Manfred and MLB shouldn't address the time of game issue. It doesn't mean baseball shouldn't worry about attracting kids to its product. I'm just not sure that speeding up the game will necessarily lead to more fans going to games.