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MLB trying to pick up pace of play

This just in: Your average big league baseball game now takes longer than a nonstop flight from Phoenix to St. Louis (although with better refreshments).

And whaddaya know, in an unrelated development, Arizona is exactly where baseball owners are jetting this week, for the final owners meeting before the dawn of the Rob Manfred administration.

But now here's a totally related development: Tidying up the pace of those games looks as if it's about to become the first major initiative of that Rob Manfred administration.

There are changes that the next commissioner, and the people around him, are determined to make. And no one in the sport has any doubt that some of them will be in place by Opening Day.

But then there's that other stuff. The big stuff. The stuff baseball experimented with in the Arizona Fall League. If you think you'll be seeing pitch clocks ticking in a major league ballpark near you in 2015, for instance, uh, let's just say we have a feeling there's a better chance of Norichika Aoki winning the home run title.

Negotiations on exactly what will change -- and when -- have just begun, so no one can say yet precisely where this is leading. But we've spent the last week feeling out people in all walks of baseball on the burning pace-of-game issues of the day. We can at least take a look at what might lie ahead, in both the short- and long-term.

Pace of game versus time of game

The question we heard most when we raised these issues was as basic as a 3-and-0 take sign:

What's the goal here? What is baseball really trying to accomplish by attacking this "problem?"

Is it trying to make games shorter? Or is it mostly trying to make games appear to be moving along quicker? And how does anyone know that doing either (or both) would magically make the game more lovable to a younger audience?

"The thing that gets me about all this," said Orioles manager Buck Showalter, "is that there are only two groups of people I hear consistently complain about the pace of games, and that's the umpires and the media, people who are at the game 162 times a year. But that family of four in the stands, those people who come to three games a year, I don't hear them complaining about the length or the pace of games. So what's the endgame we're trying to get to? ... What are we basing this on?"

And players are posing the same questions: Where is the data, they've asked, that shows younger fans would come stampeding back to the park if games were over by 9:55 every night instead of 10:05?

But on the other side of that table, baseball officials find it hard to believe they're even being asked that question. They see games that averaged 2 hours, 50 minutes as recently as 2010 now averaging 3 hours, 2 minutes. And they see lots of dead time within games that they think has to be tightened up if baseball is ever going to get the attention of that elusive 18-to-34-year-old demographic.

Is "pace of game" even the right term?

Then again, it's possible that all this focus on the clock is missing the point, says Indians president Mark Shapiro. What baseball really needs, he thinks, is more action.

"The more I consider the challenge, the more I feel the challenge might be more appropriately considered a 'pace-of-action' issue," Shapiro said. "I think we are proceeding in the right progression, but as we test and consider the impact of changes, capturing a culture with shortening attention spans would probably require we focus on the frequency of action as much as length or pace of game."

Well, come to think of it, "pace of action" is exactly what this ought to be all about. Isn't it?

Part of baseball's unique essence is that it's a fabulous, thinking person's sport. And that won't ever change. But without action, there can be no Web Gems, no viral videos, no "SportsCenter" Top 10 highlight reels. And while the winners still need to get 27 outs a night, there's now more time spent waiting for something to happen in between than there has ever been.

We asked the Elias Sports Bureau to compute a stat for us that we'll call Minutes Per Balls in Play. So Elias took the average time of game, then divided it by the number of balls in play per game (AB + SACs + SFs, minus Ks). And it came up with this fascinating chart (right).

In other words, on any given night in 2014, a ball was put in play approximately once every three and a half minutes. That's 17 seconds longer -- for every fair ball hit -- than it took just three years earlier.

Now we should concede that, in many ways, that's misleading. That figure doesn't factor in between-inning breaks, all the time used up by pitching changes or delays caused by replay reviews, among other things. So once an inning starts, the wait for stuff to happen is actually a lot less than 3:29.

But no matter how you slice it, that's still 17 more seconds of non-action -- between every fair ball -- than we were seeing as recently as 2011. And that sounds like a call to, well, action, in every sense of the word.

One foot in the batter's box

We've all seen David Ortiz adjust those batting gloves and, um, moisten them up 14 times a game. We've all seen Ichiro Suzuki back out of the box and fiddle with his helmet and shirt after every pitch.

But maybe not anymore.

If we had to bet on the one pace-of-game initiative that's most likely to be implemented in 2015, it would be this:

Hitters will be spending a lot more time in the batter's box -- and a lot less time wandering around the dirt.

We expect MLB to press hard for tighter enforcement of a rule -- 6:02 (d) (1) -- that is already on the books: "The batter shall keep at least one foot in the batter's box throughout the batter's time at bat" -- except after swings, brushback pitches, etc. And despite concerns about whether umpires will be more lenient if it's a tie game in the ninth, players don't appear to be gearing up to fight this one.

How much time this will save in the long run is tough to say. But at worst, it will create the appearance of continuous action. And at best, it could re-program the mindsets of hitters who thought a leisurely stroll between pitches was a way of life.

Tighten time between innings

In a regular-season game that isn't nationally televised, the breaks between innings are supposed to last 2 minutes, 5 seconds. If it's an ESPN "Sunday Night Baseball" game, the breaks are supposed to be 2:25.

In reality, do you know how long the average break lasted, according to one source? Just over 3 minutes. That has to change.

"In football," said one club official, "when they come back from a break, the line judge is ready to spot the ball. And boom, they run the play. In our sport, when we come back from a break, the hitter is still waiting for his walk-up music to start."

But players say these delays aren't being caused by them.

"I'd like to know how many times," said one pitcher, "a pitcher throws his last warm-up pitch and then stands there for 45 seconds, waiting around for TV to come back [from a commercial]."

So imagine what would happen if innings were to start promptly. Baseball officials believe they could cut game times by close to 15 minutes a game if those 2:05 and 2:25 breaks were more strictly enforced. And there is interest on all sides in making strides toward that goal as soon as this year. Excellent idea.

Tighten up mid-inning pitching changes

Here's another move that seems to have support on both sides: When a team makes a pitching change in the middle of an inning, why shouldn't managers be required to signal to the bullpen promptly? And why can't there be a time limit that would inspire relievers to stop dawdling in the bullpen and get to the mound to warm up ASAP?

The truth is, there can be. And there should be. And we could conceivably see a move in that direction by Opening Day.

Trim replay review time

The good news is that, on average, baseball went to the replay machines to review calls less than once every two games last year. The bad news is, every one of those reviews represented a new low in what used to constitute sporting entertainment.

So MLB is getting ready to fix that, with tweaks to the replay rules that will put a merciful end to the sight of managers moseying around the infield, their engines in neutral, waiting for some sage advice on whether or not to challenge a call.

Those tweaks haven't been officially decided upon yet. But sources say MLB is moving toward a system that will allow managers to signal umpires from the dugout, and will encourage them to decide whether to challenge calls in a more "reasonable" amount of time.

It also appears likely that managers will be given a second challenge over the first six innings, so they'll feel less pressured to wait for perfect confirmation that a call should be overturned before asking for a review.

So how much time will that save? It won't be much. MLB says the average review took 1:46 last year, not counting the time managers killed before challenging. But we're only heading into Year Two of a three-year rollout of replay. So it's worth a try.

Limit mound visits

This was another Arizona Fall League experiment: three mound visits per team per game -- by anybody, including pitching coaches and catchers. But would it work in the big leagues?

Well, it's being talked about. But a three-visit limit would never fly. So trying to figure out a more workable number could take some time.

Install those pitch clocks

All right, here's The Big One. In the Fall League, baseball tried out a 20-second pitch clock. And the penalty for a pitcher who didn't deliver a pitch in time to beat the clock was having the umpire call a ball. Even if it happened to be ball four.

Inside MLB, officials would love to see pitch clocks in every big league park. But even MLB's Joe Torre conceded at the winter meetings that this is a change he envisions happening "down the road," not in 2015, because it involves changing habits of players who have lived a clock-free lives their whole careers.

"I'm not about to say it can't happen," Torre said. "But I think we're a little ways away from that."

We surveyed players about pitch clocks three months ago. And it was clear they had major concerns about "unforeseen consequences," including the possibility they could feel rushed at a critical point in a game.

"If I don't feel right, or I'm not on the same wavelength with my catcher, I want to have the ability to step off and regroup, or call the catcher to the mound," said veteran pitcher Kevin Slowey at the time. "Any one pitch can change a ballgame. And any one game can change the course of a season.

Even MLB officials concede that because the pitch clock was studied for just a handful of games in Arizona, the sample is small. So for now, they're likely to settle for installing it in minor league parks, both to allow for more study and for players to start getting used to it.

But in the future, this has the potential to be the most volatile issue on the pace-of-game table. And remember, every change has to be negotiated with both the players and umpires unions.

So while the next commissioner is going to make certain that something gets done on this front, players deserve to have their voices heard. And they want to move cautiously. Fortunately, Manfred has a track record as a realist, who is more likely to push for gradual change than for implementation of the Fall League rules all at once.

"All that matters, I think, is that we continue to move forward," said one baseball official who is close to Manfred. "We need to move as fast as we can, without undoing the integrity of the game or doing anything that dramatically changes the nature of the game."

So the changes for 2015, he said, could turn out to be mostly "symbolic." But they'll at least be a sign that baseball -- and its new commissioner -- is about to pick up the pace, in more ways than one.