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Solving MLB's pace problem

Jon Lester asked if cutting the game to 2:50 would even matter. The answer is a resounding yes. AP Photo/Paul Beaty

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 16 Gambling Issue. Subscribe today!

GIANT ON-FIELD pitch clocks? Instant intentional walks? A ball called when a pitcher doesn't deliver quickly enough? What's next, carting poky pitchers off the mound mid-delivery? In the search for a way to move games along, MLB is apparently open to any and all options, some more fantastic than others. (The most recent proposal from the commissioner's office -- that pitchers and batters must be ready to go shortly after the end of commercial breaks -- is at least a little bit saner.) Turns out the causes aren't that complicated, and fixing them might not require drastic measures. No, seriously. Put down the jet packs, guys.

BLAME IT ON THE BULLPENS
Contrary to popular belief, relief pitchers aren't throwing all that many more innings these days. In 2014, relievers threw 33.5 percent of all innings; 16 years ago, they threw 32.2 percent. But that pie keeps getting sliced into smaller pieces -- from 432 relievers used in 1998 to a major league record 538 last season -- contributing to a 14-minute increase in average game time in the same span.

Few things slow down a ballgame more than a new pitcher moseying in for warm-up tosses, and in 2014, there were 14,440 pitching changes. That's the second most ever and nearly 2,500 more than when baseball expanded to 30 teams in 1998. (Thanks, Tony La Russa!) So let's limit those mound visits -- and, more important, those mid-inning pitching changes -- and we can all head home a few minutes earlier.

THE BOTTOM IS FALLING OUT
We -- and Crash Davis -- have long known the truth: Strikeouts are boring. And for seven straight seasons now, the rate of K's has increased. One reason: an ever-growing strike zone. According to a Hardball Times study, the bottom of the zone has expanded by 40 square inches since 2009. That hasn't affected contact rates much -- but maybe the men in blue are playing a de facto role in an explosion of called strikes.

And K's aren't just boring and, per Crash, fascist -- they're time-consuming. Sure, the 11-minutes we've added since 2009 aren't solely thanks to strike-outs, but they don't help the problem: With a two-strike count, deliveries take an average of more than three seconds longer, and in 2014, more than half of all plate appearances reached two strikes. So sure, fixing the strike zone isn't a cure-all, but at least it might cut a few minutes from this snail's pace.

IT'S ALL ABOUT PERCEPTION
Turns out MLB's 2014 average game (3:02:21) was eight minutes shorter than the NFL's 2013 average and 20 minutes shorter than a college football game -- and those massively popular sports don't inspire this kind of hand-wringing. But here's the rub: The NFL averages 128 offensive plays per game, and college football 148. In 2014, an MLB game averaged just 52 balls in play. So in that context, baseball, at 3.5 minutes per play, lags far behind the NFL (1.48) and NCAA (1.37).

MLB can't match those numbers, but cutting 15 minutes (losing a few mid-inning work stoppages might do it) and adding four balls in play per game (which, hey, could come from that smaller strike zone!) would get us below three minutes per play -- much more palatable.