MLB will test Atlantic League pace of play initiatives in Arizona Fall League
But first, a quick Sean Smith update: After York Revolution team physician Dr. John Deitch performed successful knee surgery on him on Saturday, 9/27, he is recovering and in good spirits. The YouTube video is approaching 1.2 million views- give it another whirl and keep that counter going up. You might be able to convince ESPN to fly the whole front office to the ESPY’s in L.A. once Sean is nominated.
Now, on to pace of play. You may remember back in June, the Atlantic League unveiled it’s pace of play committee and an opening list of initiatives to try. All except the controversial “courtesy runner” should the catcher reach base made it to the field. What remained was enforced and did make an impact; between eight and 10 minutes were shaved off Atlantic League games on average this season after the rules were enacted. High profile reporters such as Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated even took notice and applauded the Atlantic League’s efforts. Pace of play has been a Verducci peccadillo for a long time, and if you click that link from earlier this year, he shared some rather awe-inspiring numbers about how much longer MLB games have gotten in just the last few seasons.
OPINION ALERT: Some will say “what’s the big deal about just eight to 10 minutes on my night out or if I’m watching/listening at home?” The answer is, not much. However, it’s important we distinguish between time of play, and PACE of play. The real onus on baseball leadership is to make every moment of the in-person or television experience exciting for fans, to ensure the game’s stability and growth. A game with countless stoppages that takes over three hours usually does not pass the excitement threshold. Don’t get me wrong, a 2-1 game can of course be exciting in its own right, but that game should take no more than two and a half hours. Of course an 8-7 game with dramatic home runs and lead changes will not be confined to that time, but as long as it’s free of unnecessary jock strap adjustments, wandering out of the batter’s box and excessive, extemporaneous timeouts with pitchers, it will be an exciting event regardless of the time it takes. In an 8-7 game, there’s all the more reason to keep the focus on pace of play to make the whole game digestible, allowing fans with children, jobs to wake up for and alike the ability to experience that game in full. Likewise, the crispness of a 2-1 game should not be sullied with clunky stopping and starting.
No, baseball is not dying based on the time of the game, as every single person with a body temperature in the 90s who covers the NFL would have you believe. But time of game could be improved and innovations to improve pace of play should make for a more enjoyable product on the field. I think we can all agree on that. It’s also a huge canard to assume things like TV commercials (MLB) and on-field promotions between innings (minor league) contribute to long games. You can trust that those inning breaks are rigidly timed between 90 seconds and two minutes from the team getting off the field to the next pitch being thrown, and no measurable time is lost due to advertising or promotions. Players and umpires control the time and pace of the game, period.
Anyway, back to Major League Baseball’s plan. They’re going to test very similar, if not the same rules adjustments (or enforcing previously written rules) in this year’s Arizona Fall League to see how they may adapt to the MLB regular season. Like the Atlantic League, comprised primarily of players with Triple-A and/or big league experience, the high level professionalism of the Arizona Fall League will be an appropriate barometer with Major League-ready players.
(The AFL takes top prospects, usually transitioning from Double-A to Triple-A in their career, as a showcase in October and November at Arizona spring training sites. Players are allocated to the league by each of the 30 MLB clubs, based on those clubs’ desire to see certain players get more at-bats and more high-level playing experience against other prospects as they prepare for their MLB debut.)
Yes, players are creatures of habit and will resist their on-field routine being messed with, but players adapted with minimal protest in the Atlantic League following some initial outcry. The players in the AFL will do the same, and eventually MLB players will adapt once the pace of play initiatives trickle upward. Perhaps some players understand that less time on the baseball field for the same pay can mean more time with Netflix or at the local watering hole after a game. Everybody wins!
Here are some links, and you’ll notice some similarities between what MLB has planned for the Arizona Fall League and what the Atlantic League has already done:
The news is posted most everywhere in the sports corner of the internet of course, but you get the idea from those three, as all the reporting is derived from the MLB release. What’s disappointing is the lack of mention of the Atlantic League pioneering this (other than in Tom Verducci’s reporting and a few others, including friend of the York Revolution Tim Kurkjian of ESPN); yes pace of play has been recognized as an issue that needed addressing throughout professional baseball for a while. But it was the Atlantic League that first got its feet wet, in what has to be considered a successful experiment, at least at the outset. This summer, Atlantic League leadership met with Major League Baseball leadership at MLB headquarters on Park Avenue in New York, where a few topics regarding ALPB-MLB relations were discussed, including pace of play ideas. The ALPB truly did serve as a proving ground to convince MLB to do the same in the Arizona Fall League, and it’s hard to deny the timing of the Atlantic League season ending with quantifiable results of improving pace and time of play, and MLB jumping on board.
In the end it makes no difference who gets the credit, and in Wag The Dog, desperately wanting the credit got Dustin Hoffman killed. (I’d say spoiler alert, but that movie is almost 20 years old. There must be a statute of limitations on “spoiler alert.”) Improving baseball, be it on the field or the fan’s experience is what everyone who works in the industry tries to do on a daily basis. But as you hear more about Major League Baseball tackling pace of play throughout next spring training and next season, be aware that this particular project was spearheaded by the Atlantic League.