Too many pitchers, too much time, not enough new fans?
BY GEORGE CASTLE
I call it the gold standard of snappy pacing in baseball.
Fortunately, my fingers have thawed out over 43 years since April 6, 1971 at Wrigley Field. That 39-degree Tuesday afternoon, with nine future Hall of Famers in Cubs and Cardinals uniforms present on the field, was the first of 41 consecutive Wrigley openers I attended.
Game time was one hour, 58 minutes for a contest settled with one out in the 10th by a Billy Williams walk-off homer into the right-field bleachers off Bob Gibson. The proud, sometimes acerbic St. Louis ace, who decades later professed not to remember the Williams homer, suffered a complete-game-loss for a 2-1 final.
Cubs starter Fergie Jenkins, who had nine lifetime head-to-head duels against Gibson (5-3 record), went all 10 innings for the first of 24 victories in his Cy Young Award season. Jenkins had 30 complete games, including six complete-game losses, in 39 starts, a stat that is simply inconceivable to present big leaguers.
Three Hall of Famers were involved in the final result. It's unfair to expect the bevy of lesser lights who have followed in their wake over the better part of a half century to be as efficient and accomplished. But the pace of that long-ago opener (the Cubs still wore somewhat baggy flannel uniforms) shows how baseball does not have to be played as if its participants are slogging through mud, as is often the case today with three- to four-hour nine-inning game times.
Actually, the lack of complete games is likely be the main culprit in the laggard pace. The use-it-or-lose it nature of 12- or even 13-man pitching staffs is dragging down baseball, both competitively and from a marketing standpoint.
Pundits can look at the new replay system, or batters lollygagging around the plate in between pitches or the expansion of broadcast commercial breaks from one minute between innings in 1960 to more than two minutes as a new century began.
But the common thread I've seen over the decades is the decline in complete games and seven-to eight-inning outings in which one relief pitcher is used, often starting an inning. Strike-machine pitchers dictated the pace to both hitters and benefited their fielders. Now, would-be chess-masters over-manage and empty their bullpens, often in the middle of innings, thus slowing games to a crawl.
For history buffs – and I know you're out there – I'll offer up several other examples of snappy games from the 20th century.
On May 26, 1977 at Wrigley Field, rookie Mike Krukow spun a four-hit 1-0 complete-game victory over the Montreal Expos. Opposing pitcher was Steve Rogers. The Expos used two relievers. Game time was one hour, 48 minutes.
Almost 20 years later, on April 6, 1997 in Atlanta, the Braves' Greg Maddux triumphed over Cubs lefty Terry Mulholland 4-0 in one hour, 47 minutes. Each team brought in one reliever to start the respective final inning.
Five years earlier, in his first Cy Young Award season with the Cubs, Maddux quick-pitched complete game victories in one hour, 56 minutes and two hours, one minute.
Advance the clock to the present, to June 1. White Sox ace Chris Sale performed like a true throwback – or a more recent former teammate, as his outing was likened to Mark Buehrle by a local headline writer. Lefty Sale tossed a two-hit complete game with no walks against the Padres in just two hours, eight minutes at U.S. Cellular Field. The Pods helped out by using two relievers, each to start an inning instead of the slowdown entrance/warmups in mid-inning.
And Buehrle, the role model himself? Sale did him better by six minutes. The rejuvenated Blue Jays ace has spun starts in two hours, 14 minutes and two hours, 23 minutes this season.
The upshot of the trend is the evolution of baseball into a five-and-dive, bullpen-centric game may be good for the job prospects of fringe pitchers. More than canceling out that benefit is the slow-poke games are killing the marketing of baseball against more fast-paced, game-time-assured sports. The traditionalists tout baseball's timelessness, but all modern thinking points to limited attention spans of the next generation of fans to whom the game must sell itself.
Never has baseball looked more poorly in a proper pace than Sunday night, June 8.
The Spurs-Heat Game 1 of the NBA Finals and the Red Sox-at-Tigers game both started at 7 p.m. Eastern time. LeBron James and Tim Duncan had wrapped up their business 2 ½ hours later while a low-score baseball game was moseying along around the seventh inning. Suddenly, all hell broke loose when David Ortiz did his thing with a game-busting three-run homer in the top of the ninth – well past 11 p.m. ET. Boston finally disposed of Detroit a full hour past the end of the basketball game. Which telecast would snare the coveted millennial demographic?
Other games are so slow-moving that later-starting contests can catch up to them after a few hours. Such was the case April 20 when the Reds-at-Cubs game began at 1:20 p.m. Central, while the White Sox-at-Rangers started 45 minutes later. The game in Arlington actually caught the Wrigley Field affair in the eighth inning and threatened to pass it to finish earlier. But the White Sox scored seven in the ninth to pad a 16-2 victory in three hours, 16 minutes and conclude just after the North Side game. The Cubs and Reds used a total of eight relievers to bring Cincy's 8-2 triumph to a conclusion in a pedestrian three hours, 50 minutes.
Through June 8, the Red Sox and Yankees, noted for pokey games for years with their count-working hitters, tried to outdo themselves this season. Add the endless pitching changes and a perfect storm was created. Each team played 10 nine-inning games lasting at least 3 ½ hours.
Low scores and lack of offensive thunder mean nothing anymore for fast work.
On April 15, the White Sox edged the Red Sox 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth. Since-demoted Chicago starter Erik Johnson and Boston's Jake Peavy each pitched six innings of one-run ball, but each team also used four relievers.
I was fighting sleep in the U.S. Cellular Field pressbox on April 25 when top rookie Jose Abreu belted a walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the ninth to beat the Rays 9-6 in four hours, four minutes. But the White Sox hadn't seen anything yet. Two weeks later, they lost to the Cubs at Wrigley Field in regulation in four hours, seven minutes.
Through all these horror stories, anyone who attacks the replay system to speed up the game should be flogged. Baseball had to be shamed with blown calls in the postseason to enact a process to make right what was so obviously wrong in the HD video era. Numerous close plays to which previously there was no recourse but an ejection-inviting argument with the umpires have now been reversed via review.
Baseball Prospectus reported 381 challenges were recorded in 759 games over the first two months, with a 47 percent success rate. Even an elongated 2 ½ minutes for review is still less time than the crowd-pleasing, but ultimately futile screaming-and-cussing match with the arbiters. The stoppages are the best use of down time in baseball history despite the bleatings of nay-sayers.
Off the top, there is little to counter to the turtle-ization of baseball, short of going back to the four-man rotations and even the nine-man pitching staffs of 1971 to quicken the pace. And ban "Moneyball"-style count-working offensive strategy. The game has evolved and simply has to be sold as a much-slower-paced game than the NFL, NBA and NHL. Come on out and if you're not in a hurry or don't have dinner reservations, we can accommodate you.
Oh, a lightbulb just flashed. Maybe there is a radical solution. Aren't seven-inning games played in high school?
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