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Thinking outside box slows pace of MLB games

| Saturday, July 26, 2014, 10:10 p.m.
The Seattle Mariners' Robinson Cano calls for time as he stands in the batter's box against the Cleveland Indians on Friday, June 27, 2014, in Seattle.
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Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki steps out of the batter's box in against the Braves on May 24, 2014, in Atlanta.
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Mets outfielder Curtis Granderson stands in the batter's box during the first inning against the Marlins on May 6, 2014, in Miami.
The Pirates' Pedro Alvarez checks his bat before stepping into the batter's box during the ninth inning against the San Francisco Giants on Tuesday, May 6, 2014, at PNC Park.

On May 11, the Pirates hosted the St. Louis Cardinals in the first ESPN “Sunday Night Baseball” game in PNC Park history.

The near-sellout crowd knew it was in for a slightly longer game as national telecasts receive additional commercial time. But what the fans endured on the eve of a new work and school week was a 3-hour, 37-minute game.

There was no rain delay. The game did not go into extra innings. The affair was not incredibly high scoring, and there were only 10 combined strikeouts, meaning pitch counts were not elevated.

What happened 190 times that evening was a batter left the batter's box after a pitch.

The Tribune-Review used a stopwatch on every batter that game. After the beginning of an at-bat, each time a batter left the batter's box with both feet, the clock began. When the batter returned to the box, the clock stopped. Pirates and Cardinals hitters spent a combined 39 minutes, 51 seconds outside the batter's box. The average stroll outside the box took 12.58 seconds.

Dead time is playing a large part in baseball's pace-of-game problem.

In 1963, a major league game averaged 2 hours, 25 minutes. In the 1970s, the average game time sat around 2 hours and 30 minutes. Forty years later, the sport has added nearly 40 minutes to the length of an average game.

The average major league game is 3 hours, 8 minutes in 2014 and has increased in each of the past four seasons by four minutes per year. The increase has occurred despite a decline in run scoring.

Nearly every batter contributes to the game's dead time with an idiosyncratic ritual.

On occasion, Neil Walker will take three or four reverse paces from the batter's box. He'll rest his bat against his midsection, take off his batting helmet and ostensibly wipe sweat from his brow with the inside of his arms. More often when he leaves the box, he regrips his bat and wrings the middle portion of it for another application of pine tar. He then takes one practice swing before reentering the box.

When Travis Snider steps out of the white chalk boundaries, he often taps each cleat with his bat. He then adjusts both batting gloves, seemingly needlessly re-Velcro-ing them.

Andrew McCutchen often steps out, looks up at the sky, takes a deep breath, gazes toward the pitcher, takes a light half swing and reenters the box.

These pauses have caught the attention of outgoing baseball commissioner Bud Selig.

“A guy gets in the batter's box, ball one, and now he's adjusting all this crap he has on,” Selig said. “And I'm thinking to myself watching the game, ‘What is he adjusting? He hasn't swung the bat.' ”

It's difficult to prove whether there is performance edge to be gained from the pauses. What is known is they are slowing the game to a crawl, a considerable problem for the game's next commissioner given the popularity of faster-paced sports. Many of the game-prolonging issues are complicated. What perhaps is reversible is to get batters to stop thinking — and fidgeting — outside the box.

Giddy-up

Every Friday morning, Selig receives a phone call he dreads. MLB official Joe Garagiola Jr. calls with a report on the week's time of play. Selig always begins with a question: “Is it bad?”

More often than not, it is, and Selig knows the answer immediately.

“I can tell by his voice if he doesn't have good news,” Selig said. “He kind of dances around things till we get to the heart of the matter.”

The heart of the matter is play too often is at a standstill. And many of the factors in play are difficult to remedy:

• The game is becoming more specialized as coaches and managers go to the mound and to their bullpens more often.

• Strikeouts, and thereby pitches, are on the increase.

• Instant replay has added time to most games this season.

• Commercials are not going away.

What annoys the commissioner, what is preventable, is batters' constant exiting of the batter's box.

“My friend Henry Aaron tells me over and over again on a twice-a-week basis he never got out of the box,” Selig said. “And if he did, he said (Don) Drysdale ‘Would have drilled me.' ”

Like Aaron, former New York Yankees slugger and Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said he spent little time out of the box.

“To me, you have to keep the hitters in the box,” Mattingly said. “If you keep the guy in the box, the pitcher has to go. Keep a clock on the pitcher, and call a ball if he doesn't pitch within that time frame. You do that two or three times, and they'll stop doing it. They'll speed up.”

Selig downplayed his concerns earlier this week in Pittsburgh, noting baseball has set attendance records in the past decade. He said he hasn't heard fans complain about the pace of play. Still, national television ratings lag behind other sports, and Selig acknowledged, “We have work to do.”

One thing Selig, or the next commissioner, could do is enforce a rule that already exists. Rule 6.02 (c) states that “if the batter refuses to take his position in the batter's box during his time at bat, the umpire shall call a strike on the batter.”

The rule rarely, if ever, is enforced.

A necessary evil?

The time between pitches is a record-high 23 seconds this season, up from 21.4 seconds in 2008, according to Fangraphs.com.

In an era of hyper-specialization and radical defensive alignment, Pirates first baseman Ike Davis said the time is justified.

“Every pitch that goes by, you step out, you regain yourself and go back in with (a) game plan, or you might have to adjust with what you see from the pitcher,” Davis said. “It could be a guy stole a base, and now you have a whole different situation, you have a whole different job to do. … You have to also look at the defense and see how they are playing.”

What does Davis say to those who think the time outside the box is unnecessary?

“That's our time. When you're in the box, that's your one time,” Davis said. “Baseball is a team sport, but it is also very individualized. No one else can help you in there. … You have to take it very seriously and give it your best mental effort.”

“More than anything you are collecting your thoughts,” Walker said. “You're thinking about your approach, and on top of that, especially when guys are in a good rhythm, you're trying to break that up a little bit.”

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle downplayed the out-of-box issues. His stance is when you go to a game, or play the game, time should not be a foremost concern. Said Hurdle of once the game starts: “I don't set my watch.”

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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