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Limiting pitching changes will speed up baseball's game pace

Could games be shortened without a clock, and run production increased?

Brad Ausmus makes a trip to the mound in the ninth inning of a game against the Giants on September 6, 2014 at Comerica Park.
Brad Ausmus makes a trip to the mound in the ninth inning of a game against the Giants on September 6, 2014 at Comerica Park.
Leon Halip/Getty Images

Major League Baseball has established a committee to evaluate rule changes, with a goal of improving the pace of games. Various schemes were tested in the Arizona Fall League including:

  • Twenty seconds between pitches
  • Keeping one foot in the batter's box
  • No-pitch intentional walks
  • Limiting between-inning breaks to two minutes thirty seconds
  • Limiting pitching changes to two minutes thirty seconds
  • Limiting conference on the mound to three per game

The schemes that involve a pitch clock are being considered for further evaluation in the minor leagues. As others have acknowledged these changes may decrease run production, while baseball executives perceive fans to want faster games and more runs scored. Why not then explore rule changes that can increase offensive production while speeding up the game?

The Tigers scored 5.1 runs per game in 2004, led by Pudge Rodriguez and Carlos Guillen. They were eighth in the league. When the Tigers scored 4.7 runs per game in 2014, they were second in the league. The decline in offense shows no signs of relenting, as teams averaged fewer runs per game in 2014 than in any year since 1981.

Baseball does not need a clock. Football has a game clock and a play clock. Coaches call plays based on the game time remaining. Basketball has a game clock and a shot clock. Soccer has a clock, though apparently it is a closely guarded secret as to exactly how much time remains in the match. Pitchers may take too much time between pitches on occasion, but this is often in times of heightened drama.

The game really starts to slow down when you encounter frequent pitching changes in the late innings of close games. For example, a team leading by two runs in the eighth inning allows two singles. A lefty is due up, so it's time to bring in the lefty reliever. He retires his one man, then the setup man comes to finish off the inning. Everybody at home has the joy of eight extra commercials during the pitching changes. Often, a commercial is shown twice in a break. How much exposure to the Bernsteins do we need?

So I propose a simple rule change, one that will not require a clock. Only the starting pitcher may be removed mid-inning. If a reliever is removed before the inning is completed, he is assumed to be injured and must be placed on the 15 day disabled list.

The graph below compares the number of pitchers the Tigers used each game at five year intervals, going back 100 years. From 1914 to 1949, they averaged 1.8 pitchers per game. From 1999 to 2014, they averaged 3.7 pitchers per game. If we assume their opponents have the same pattern, we now see 7.5 pitchers per game.


The primary benefit of the suggested rule is to maintain action at the peak times of interest during the game. Fans are subjected to about four pitchers per game being summoned mid-inning. This amounts to ten minutes of down time which can be eliminated. These are the key minutes when action should be maintained.

A secondary benefit of primarily changing pitchers between innings is to boost offense. Brad Ausmus can't just decide to pull Phil Coke when he runs into a righty, he has to pick someone for relief and run with him.

What are the downsides to this idea? There could be a loss of revenue, with fewer opportunities to show commercials. But that is also fewer opportunities for fans to channel surf away and forget to return. Surely I'm not the only person with this problem.

In the same vein, relief pitchers who cannot be effective against both right-handed and left-handed hitters would become rare. Submarining southpaws may go the way of the dodo. With fewer pitching changes, and fewer relief pitchers used, rosters would likely replace a pitcher or two with a hitter. The best veteran Triple-A hitters would be big beneficiaries.

A traditionalist would typically argue against such a major overhaul, however this proposed rule would actually move the game in the direction that it was played decades ago. When we looked at pitchers per game throughout the history of the Tigers, there are nearly three times as many pitchers being used now as in the early 20th century. If this rule works as intended, then the reduced ability to swap relief pitchers could revert the number of pitchers used per game to earlier levels.

There are some areas of the rule that could use clarification. What if the relief pitcher is genuinely hurt? What if he allows nine runs; must he really stay on the mound? To the first I say that a trip to the disabled list would be good for healing. To the second, perhaps we could add a waiver if the relief pitcher is actually a position player. We could call it the Danny Worth exception.

There must be more unintended consequences of such a rule change. What do you think would happen if relief pitchers were required to complete an inning?