Baseball keeps getting slower, but change will come by 2018

After months of haggling over the final details of the new collective bargaining agreement, the document is completed and now in the hands of printers, sources said. This clears the way for the pace-of-action conversations between Major League Baseball and the players' association that are destined to have a lasting impact on a sport long celebrated for its timelessness.

Baseball officials and players may ultimately embrace -- or confront -- two words that seemed unimaginable even five or 10 years ago: pitch clock. And as the union and MLB exchange ideas in the months ahead, some players privately hope that part of the solution is the advent of an electronic strike zone, which they believe could serve to move the games along as much as a time limit between pitches.

There will be change between now and the start of the 2018 season, because under the terms of the CBA, MLB can make rule changes unilaterally if it cannot reach an agreement with the union. The power to alter the rules to accelerate the pace of action -- or to forcibly negotiate the alterations it wants -- is contained within Article XVIII of the collective bargaining agreement, page 77.

The wording is thought to be a long-standing holdover from the 1970s, and while it’s not exactly clear why this section was added at that particular time, it certainly is handy now for commissioner Rob Manfred as he endeavors to hasten the way the sport is played, to better reflect the attention spans of these times: "[T]he right of the Clubs to make any rule change whatsoever shall not be impaired or limited in any way," so long as MLB gives notice to the union one season in advance -- which it has already done. The areas of focus for MLB are on the time between pitches and the growing number of meetings among pitchers, catchers and infielders.

The preference on both sides is for a negotiated solution -- a common ground found through conversation and an exchange of ideas. Manfred spoke about this in March, about how he wants to have more dialogue from the players, more input on how to improve the pace of games. But some players recognize that one way or another, rule changes are coming. One player told teammates recently that they better get used to the idea of a pitch clock "because it’s inevitable."

Among the rank and file of the union, the concept may not seem as radical as it once did because the vast majority of MLB players have competed in games in which pitchers are given 20 seconds between deliveries. That rule change was implemented prior to the 2015 season for Double-A and Triple-A, and as researcher Sarah Langs of ESPN Stats & Information dug out, a staggering 74 percent of the 1,047 players on active MLB rosters or disabled lists have played at those two levels since the start of the 2015 season, some on injury rehabilitation assignments.

The average MLB game time decreased by six minutes in 2015, but those gains were squandered in 2016, when the average time of nine-inning games climbed from 2 hours, 56 minutes to 3 hours. This year, the average time of nine-inning games is at 3 hours, 4 minutes, and at 3:08 for all games. Some team officials are convinced the more deliberate pace is due to the changing habits of players.

Among the 88 pitchers who qualified for the ERA title in 2008, only three averaged more than 25 seconds between pitches; Josh Beckett was the slowest at 26.7 seconds. Sixty-six of the 88 pitchers averaged 22 seconds or less.

In 2017, only 21 of 87 major league starting pitchers are averaging 22 seconds or less between pitches. The faster-working pitchers will catch the return throw from the catcher while stepping backward up the front slope of the mound, almost never turning their backs on home plate as they try to create a rhythm. Carlos Martinez of the St. Louis Cardinals averages just 19.2 seconds between pitches; R.A. Dickey of the Atlanta Braves averages 19.1 seconds. But 12 average more than 25 seconds. Interestingly, five of the slowest 10 spent their formative years with the Tampa Bay Rays -- Matt Andriese (28.4), Alex Cobb (26.4), Chris Archer (26.3), Jason Hammel (25.6) and Jeremy Hellickson (25.2).

Some veteran pitchers have concerns that their in-game routines will be disrupted. Pitchers want to get settled on the mound before throwing each pitch, which bears the potential of altering the trajectory of a performance. Hitters step out of the box, adjust their batting gloves, buy a few seconds to think through what the pitcher and catcher may be planning next.

Some hitters and pitchers are just slow workers. Los Angeles Dodgers reliever Pedro Baez drew a lot of attention during last year's postseason for his laborious habits. And Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Odubel Herrera, who averages about 30 seconds between pitches, has the most deliberate pace of any hitter in the big leagues. Abraham Lincoln probably delivered the Gettysburg Address in less time than Herrera requires to work through a five- or six-pitch at-bat.

"It’s ridiculous," said one longtime player of Herrera’s at-bats. "The pitchers get most of the criticism for how long they take, but a lot of time, it’s the hitters who are slowing things down."

A pitch clock would help to solve that, although an additional layer of regulations would have to be created to account for situations when there are runners on base, for when pitchers step off the rubber, and for when hitters step out of the batter’s box -- vestiges of the timelessness unique to baseball. After all, Patriots QB Tom Brady would have to call timeout if he wanted extra time to study an opponent's defense, and Cavaliers star LeBron James can’t stop to chat with a teammate about executing a more effective pick-and-roll without burning a timeout.

But MLB wants a formal mechanism to push along the pace of action, and by holding the power to change rules on its own, it’s in a strong position to negotiate the terms of a pitch clock and to restrict the number of mound meetings between teammates.

Through negotiation, the players would be in position to get something in return, and in recent weeks some have privately mentioned their hope that the union will push for an automated strike zone, with balls and strikes determined electronically. This would remove the constant debate over strike zone decisions, according to players.

"It could speed up the game at least as much [as the pitch clock]," said one player. "Think about what happens now: You have a close pitch, and the batter steps out to ask the home plate umpire. Or the catcher turns to ask the umpire. Or the pitcher says something, and he slows down because he’s frustrated with a call. The benches yell at the umpire, and the umpire turns to yell back.

"That would all go away. Nothing would have to be said. It would either be a ball or a strike, and everybody would move on to the next pitch."

MLB and the union would have to be comfortable that the technology would be good enough to replicate what the umpires do, as some of the collected results are currently recalibrated by MLB before they are presented in evaluations because of the imperfections. However, one player noted that MLB is already confident enough in the technology to measure umpire performance using electronic results.

The players are positioned to extract substantive concessions like this in the pace-of-action talks, some players believe, knowing that baseball officials are devoted to streamlining a product that's better-suited for a younger audience.

"I think it’s going to turn out to be good for both sides," said one longtime player.