Baseball games are taking longer than ever before, with the average game lasting almost half an hour longer now than it did just thirty years ago. There are a lot of reasons for this, the largest one being the expansion of the time between innings in order to accommodate more commercials, but a significant amount of the problem is also caused by players delaying or interrupting play: batters stepping out of the batter’s box, pitchers taking a long time to warm up or deliver their pitches. Baseball, not surprisingly, is implementing rules to address the latter set of issues, leaving the advertising question—the one that makes it money—untouched. We can roll our eyes at that blind spot, but the changes that are being put in place seem sensible and uncontroversial, trying to get the game back on track to how it’s meant to be viewed: a smoothly-proceeding affair with few unnecessary interruptions.
But Jorge Arangure Jr., in an article on Vice Sports, argues that the new rules are pointless, because baseball’s problem is with its fundamental image. To change that image, Arangure says, baseball would “have to massively restructure the game and enact drastic measures like changing the number of outs in an inning, the amounts of innings in a game, and the amount of players allowed to hit in a lineup.” (Arangure doesn’t seem to be actually proposing these things, only setting the level of change that would be required to have an impact.) Short of massive changes like that, Arangure says, “Baseball shouldn’t even bother.”
With all respect due to Arangure, his piece perfectly represents the blind spots that so often come up in these sorts of discussions. Basically, the flaw in arguments against these sorts of changes usually comes down to mismatched or overlooked comparisons: the difference between the interests of the individual player and the interest of the fan, between abstract issues and practical ones, and even between different sports. Arangure’s article is just the latest to make these mistakes, so I think it’s worth looking at how the discussion tends to go off the rails.
Much of Arangure’s article centers around an interview with David Ortiz, who’s notorious for stepping out of the batter’s box and pacing around on every pitch. In the interview, Ortiz shares the reasons why he does this and why, therefore, he hates the new rules. Though this player’s perspective is interesting, it’s irrelevant to Arangure’s argument, because despite what Ortiz suggests (“I’m not walking around just because there are cameras all over the place and I want my buddies back home to see me”), no one was saying that players were wasting time just to preen for the cameras. Of course the batter has a reason to step out of the box, and the pitcher has a reason to hold on to the ball forever before throwing it, and (as Bill James pointed out in his New Historical Abstract) there are reasons in basketball to hold on to the ball forever too, but it’s bad entertainment and so basketball instituted a shot clock to get rid of it. The fact that the players have an incentive to slow the game down is exactly why we need a rule to keep it from happening.
But the meat of Arangure’s argument isn’t David Ortiz, it’s that, according to Arangure, the pace of the game is simply beside the point:
Baseball doesn’t have a pace of game problem. Baseball has an image problem.
On average, baseball games last season lasted about 3 hours and 13 minutes, roughly the same as an NFL game. But the important thing to remember is that there’s only about 11 minutes of stuff actually happening in an NFL game compared to 18 minutes of stuff happening in a baseball game. So really, you’re actually getting more for your money watching a baseball game than you are watching an NFL game. But that’s not the perception.
This cross-sport comparison is used all the time when talking about the pace of baseball, and it makes no sense, which is why it’s worth picking it apart a little bit here. It’s a basic reasoning error to think that “slow-paced” means the same thing to every sport. Football is measured in plays: brief, intense spurts of combat followed by regrouping and strategizing (“violence punctuated by committee meetings,” as George Will said). The downtime is not as much of a problem, because it gives us a chance to process (with the help of replay) everything we saw in those super-compressed moments. Baseball is measured in at-bats, which are founded on slowly-mounting tension as they build towards an uncertain resolution; almost no individual moment in an at-bat rewards replay or reflection—the moments are only meaningful in aggregate—so anything that interrupts the faceoff, like the batter stepping out or the pitcher making a futile pickoff throw, simply dissipates the tension. The ideal pace is not a constant across all sports, but determined by the structure of play.
(This is a digression, but Arangure’s failure to think about the differences between sports reaches amazing levels when he talks about soccer:
Soccer games roughly last about two hours when you factor in half time and stoppage time. The ball is continuously moving. And yet a large faction of the American sports audience believe soccer is too slow paced. So it isn’t so much about game time. It’s about what is perceived as “action.” There are no dunks, no hard hitting collisions, and no fights in soccer.
Of course there are hard-hitting collisions and fights in soccer. This past summer we saw one of the best players in the world get kicked out of the World Cup for repeatedly biting his opponents. What soccer lacks that American audiences consider action is scoring.)
But an even bigger disconnect in Arangure’s article is his total separation between how a sport is played and how it is perceived:
The truth is, you could cut baseball game times by 10-15 minutes and many fans would still think baseball will put you to sleep. The changes Major League Baseball has considered are only cosmetic. They do nothing to address the larger issue, which is perception.
“Perception” is not an “issue.” Perception is an abstract concept that can only be addressed through concrete steps. There’s a reason Arangure has zero serious suggestions for how to fix the game’s perception (“Who knows? All I know is that the pace of games is just a tiny bit of the problem”). The reason is that “perception” is not a fixable problem in itself; it’s the effect of the actual issues that Arangure dismisses as not “real.” Arangure compounds the hollowness by blaming the sport’s poor perception on “marketing”: “Maybe it’s because we’ve become such a star obsessed society that baseball suffered because it has done a poor job of marketing itself compared to the NFL and NBA.” But as an explanation, “marketing,” like “perception,” has no content; it’s a word for an effect, not a cause, because the main way sports market themselves is through their games. Baseball can’t shake its reputation as slow with, like, an ad campaign or something (“Baseball: Faster than you think!”). In this arena, at least, marketing is based on what you do.
And so it’s frustrating to see someone citing baseball’s out-of-touch image as a reason not to bother making changes to improve the product on the field. Look, do you know why baseball is perceived as your grandfather’s game? It’s because the sport won’t make any of the changes that would help keep the game entertaining, which in turn is because fans bitch and moan every time such changes are suggested. We’re talking about a sport where people are still arguing about the designated hitter, a rule adopted more than 40 years ago. (My own squabbling about the DH to follow in a future post.) Becoming a faster-paced game, with much less downtime, is exactly the kind of thing that would help baseball stand out, as the smoothly-running alternative to football’s stop-and-start action. It’s not that that would make baseball the most popular sport in the country again, and that shouldn’t be the goal. It would make baseball a more entertaining sport, and that would both make baseball more popular than it is and be good in itself.
If baseball measures itself by football’s yardstick (“Eh, the games take as long as football games do, so I guess pace isn’t the real problem”), it will lose to the sport which is more like football, which is to say, football. Baseball needs to understand its own strengths and craft its rules accordingly. And as fans (and, especially, journalists and commentators) who want the game to be appreciated, it behooves us to think about what practical steps would improve its appreciation, rather than hold out hope for some sweeping change in baseball’s perception that would somehow happen independent of actual changes to the game itself.