XN Sports: MLB's pace of game proposal crosses the line

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By MARIO MERGOLA
XN Sports

The changes proposed are absolutely unacceptable.

We've all been there. We burn under the sun or struggle to stay awake in bed despite every desire to enjoy watching a baseball game. Some of us live and breathe the sport, yet even we would admit it. The games are too long.

The does not mean changes to the gameplay are the solution.

The new Major League Baseball rules expected to take effect during the Arizona Fall League are intended to speed up the average baseball game. If all are enacted properly, they should succeed at their plan. But they are not without their consequences.

If Major League Baseball wants to restrict batters from performing ritualistic acts between pitches, fans should applaud. If they want to shorten commercial breaks, a petition would be filled with signatures in minutes. But if eliminating four pitches – and four opportunities for a mistake – for an intentional walk and limiting the amount of times a catcher can talk to his pitcher is on the table, I'm out.

There is a direct strategic component to every mound visit, whether initiated by the pitching coach, manager, or catcher. Everyone has a role, and every conversation has a purpose. Just because those who make the rules are not privy to the inner discussions does not mean they are disposable.

Relatively aligned with the timing of this announcement was the opening of the baseball's Postseason. As if on cue, Game 1 of the American League Divisional Series between the Royals and Angels featured the same strategic element threatened to be limited by the sport's new rules.

In the bottom of the 8th inning, with the game tied at two runs apiece, Angels center fielder Mike Trout was behind 0-2 in the count against Royals pitcher Wade Davis. Davis' 0-2 offering was a 50-foot fastball that spiked the ground in front of catcher Salvador Perez. The pitch, doomed from the start, careened off the ground before catching the home plate umpire in the leg. Chris Iannetta advanced to second base on the wild pitch, moving himself into scoring position for the likely American League Most Valuable Player.

Immediately following the pitch, Perez walked out to the mound to visit his pitcher – a combination of confirming the ill-fated fastball was nothing more than a mistake and ensuring the two were on the same page. Exactly one minute later, the catcher was behind the plate again, and then...wasn't.

Salvador Perez ran to the mound to greet Davis again. Apparently, he had something to say that was not discussed in their first meeting. Boos cascaded from the stands, and the home plate umpire broke up the meeting after only a few seconds. Davis missed high with a 1-2 cutter to even the count at 2-2, and the chess match reemerged.

After Davis threw his second ball of the at-bat, Mike Trout – the batter who, under the new rules, can only step out of the box upon certain conditions, one of which is requesting and being granted 'time' – raised his hand to the umpire and received the desired stoppage in play. Twice. When Trout was ready to bat again, Perez and Davis were not so willing to cater to the hitter's schedule. Another mound visit ensued. So did the boos.

By the time Mike Trout eventually walked, four mound visits and three 'batter timeouts' had occurred. Nearly five and a half minutes spanned the moment Davis threw his 0-2 fastball into the ground and when he missed with the eighth pitch of the at-bat. Trout's timeouts were responsible for about 45 seconds while the mound visits, in total, cost the viewer two minutes.

Two minutes.

In what was, at that point, the most high leverage situation of the game (technically, the young series), both Mike Trout and the pitcher-catcher battery of Davis and Perez felt that strategic game-planning was necessary. Davis could ill-afford to miss his pitch, and Trout could not be caught flat-footed in the box. In what was the heavyweight matchup of the game, all parties needed to be at their best.

It's interesting how quickly supporters of instant replay rushed to the argument that "a blown call might cost a team a game", but no such defense is used for the passive effects that highlighted the Mike Trout at-bat. Even more ironic is how the same system invented to 'correct mistakes in the game' is largely responsible for the elongated innings. If one's attention span is too short to sit through a mound visit when tension is at its peak, why should that same person be asked to wait around while announcers, umpires, and a central command station debate whether or not the throw beat the runner to the bag?

Besides the on-field benefit of the stoppages – Davis carefully approached the hitter while Trout fought off a pair of pitches before earning the walk – the pause in action allowed the fans the very atmosphere that would be removed in an effort to rush the at-bat: drama.

Every second that elapsed between pitches led to a heavier weight that the prior one carried. If 'edge-of-your-seat' excitement is something to be craved, one's toes would have become numb as their legs dangled with the fate of the at-bat.

Four mound visits. Each with a purpose. In fact, two visits from Perez were solely out of courtesy to the home plate umpire who was pelted with fastballs on separate pitches. Would those count against the team under the proposed new rules? Should the umpire take a personal timeout? If so, is Perez destined to share his thoughts with Davis via hand signals or carrier pigeon?

The other two trips? Only to discuss the particulars about how to help keep the Royals' season alive. Just that.

The proposed rules are surely suggested to keep the casual fan engaged. Those of us who consider ourselves 'diehards of the sport' will fight through bleary-eyed midnight innings to watch the ends of four-hour games, but we are a minority. The need to speed up the game is obvious, but the methods in doing so are threatening to many of the subtleties that make the individualized pitcher-batter showdowns so poignant.

To be fair to both sides of the argument, there is always a strategic element when new rules are imposed, and often times, they add to the experience, rather than detract from it. The initial 'Challenge System' in the NFL resulted in an extra level of decision-making, where the coach would have to pick and choose the times when he wanted the referees to take an extra look at a given play. It is certainly possible that the 'Shot Clock' for pitchers yields a sense of urgency, resulting in an unintended side effect of a more concise attack of the batter.

Possible, but still dangerous.

The league will likely move forward with these new ideas – in fact, this is probably only the start of such changes – and the game should react properly. Time of play should shorten and those clambering for nine innings of baseball within three hours of commitment will presumably leave the ballpark pleased.

Despite how the changes are described, however, they will have an impact on the core of baseball. Ultimately, everything that makes the sport so beautiful – the one-on-one matchups, the mind games, the decisions, the forever-changing gameplans, to name a few – all boil down to the very instant a pitcher nods his head and prepares to deliver.

Each moment of action is defined and contained to a single pitch.

Anything that alters the pitch alters the sport.

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