Across the desert lands of Arizona and the sandy beaches of Florida, pitchers and catchers are reporting to Spring Training, beginning preparations for the upcoming Major League Baseball (MLB) season. As Opening Day approaches, however, MLB faces a major problem: the decline in interest and viewership from the younger generation.
Once America’s traditional “national pastime,” baseball has now been eclipsed in interest by the athleticism of the National Football League (NFL) and the skill and glamour of the NBA. In a new American culture which is embodied by a frenetic pace and short attention-span, the slower-paced game of baseball is losing its place at the cultural forefront. Facing this striking decline, new commissioner Rob Manfred has embraced a set of wide-reaching reforms aimed at regaining fans and viewership for the league by attempting to speed up the pace of the game.
Perhaps the most important initiative being tested by MLB is the pitch clock, which will help reduce the time between pitches, a part of the game which is often cited by fans as detrimental. In the hallowed MLB rulebook, there is even a clause which specifies that the maximum time between pitches without runners on base should be 12 seconds, significantly less than the average time across the league today. The long pauses between pitches cause fans to lose attention, and there is no competitive rationale for taking these pauses.
Notoriously slow-paced pitchers, such as Boston Red Sox starter Clay Buchholz, routinely pause more than 30 seconds between pitches and are unpopular with both fans and the players on the field. Manfred and others are advocating for the clock as a way to regulate this problem, and it is a change that even baseball “purists” are likely to accept because it does not amend the rulebook. The idea is to install a clock behind home plate in clear view of both the pitcher and the umpire, similar to a shot clock in basketball. If the pitcher does not deliver the ball within this time frame, the pitch is called a ball.
This rule has been implemented with success in the Arizona Fall League, a minor-league developmental showcase. In 2015, baseball announced pitch clocks in the upper levels of the minors as well. Soon, the pitch clock should become an integral part of every MLB stadium, and should hopefully return some young fans to the game.
A less controversial measure that has been recently adopted is a rule which mandates that batters keep at least one foot in the box between pitches. In previous seasons, sluggers including David Ortiz and Albert Pujols have been criticized for complex rituals between every pitch, often stepping out of the batter’s box and adjusting their batting gloves or helmet, which ultimately slows the game. Many hope that this initiative will keep the pace of the game flowing and keep viewers interested.
Another potential change, which is proving more controversial for some old-time fans to accept, is the limitation of pitching changes per inning.
As the game has evolved, managers have increasingly turned to specialized pitching match-ups in the later innings, with “specialists” coming in often to face only one batter, which has led to longer games. A new change which many fans have heralded is a limitation to one pitching change within the inning, which would lead to a decrease in commercial time-outs and inning times and hopefully keep viewers more invested in the action at the game’s most crucial moments.
This change, however, has often been decried as against the spirit of the game, as some believe that it takes away from the intricate strategies and decision-making ability of managers to impact the game in its later innings.
As baseball tries to modernize, it faces a tough challenge in balancing the passion of die-hard fans, who embrace the long games and slow pace as part of the “beauty of the game,” with the desires of the younger generation, who want to see more strikeouts and long home runs rather than double-switches and pitching changes.
As baseball fights for the passion of young fans, the MLB must walk a tightrope to avoid the desertion of baseball purists, who love and have always loved the game the way it is.
But, at the same time, baseball must implement changes that will attract younger fans, or it runs the risk of ultimately fading completely from its once unassailable position as “America’s pastime.”