Making Baseball Less Boring

Will MLB's new rules to speed up America's pastime bring younger fans back or alienate the diehards?

Ralph D. Freso/Reuters

Strike two pops the catcher’s glove. The catcher zips the ball back to the pitcher, who’s ready, who’s feeling it; he wants the strikeout. An expectant crowd puts down their peanuts and Dippin’ Dots and leans forward. The pitcher’s cleats dig into the dirt. The at-bat’s climax approaches.

And then the batter steps out of the box. He wants to strap up his gloves, again.

On Friday, Major League Baseball announced several new changes designed to speed up America's pastime. A new rule will require hitters to keep one foot in the batter’s box between pitches, unless an established exception occurs, such as a foul ball, a wild pitch, or time being expressly granted by the umpire. Managers must now also make instant-replay challenges from the dugout, rather than by walking onto the field.

Perhaps the most significant change is a new timer that will govern the time between each half-inning: breaks will last 2:45 minutes for nationally broadcast games and just 2:25 minutes for local broadcasts, even if a new pitcher takes the field.

Violators will receive warnings and eventually fines (up to $500), although spring training and the first month of the regular season will be a phase-in period for the new rules.

New MLB commissioner Rob Manfred touted the changes as “an effort to streamline the pace of play.” Baseball has been looking to “streamline” for a while: In 2010, veteran umpire Joe West called the dawdling pace of nearly four-hour marathon between the Yankees and Red Sox a “disgrace to baseball”; a few weeks later, then-commissioner Bud Selig told the AP he wanted to address the issue.

Major-league games have been getting longer for years. In 1984, the average game wrapped up in about two-and-a-half hours. By 2014, that average was more than three hours. These longer games are partly a result of record-high strikeout totals in recent years, and more strikeouts mean longer at-bats—and MLB can’t do much about that.

But some of the damage is self-inflicted. Longer commercial breaks and flashy between-inning entertainment have stretched games out. Last season's introduction of an expanded video-review system (which allowed managers to challenge at least one play per game) overturned some bad calls, but managers also started strolling towards the diamond whenever they needed to buy some time for their video team to review the play. All in all, MLB has been demanding more patience from an audience that has less of it.

The changing makeup of that audience might have pushed MLB to take action. No, baseball isn’t dying. Local ratings are strong for the sport—and six of the top ten seasons for stadium attendance came from 2003-2013. Still, those fans are getting older, as The Wall Street Journal reports.

The average World Series viewer this year is 54.4 years old, according to Nielsen, the media research firm. The trend line is heading north: The average age was 49.9 in 2009. Kids age 6 to 17 represented just 4.3% of the average audience for the American and National League Championship Series this year, compared with 7.4% a decade ago ... kids make up a larger segment of the television audiences for the NBA, NHL and even soccer's English Premier League than they do for baseball.

Basically, the baseball story is the story of all entertainment and media in 2015:  There is more to watch than ever and more ways to watch it. The challenge of staying relevant with youngsters is especially acute for a sport more suited to languid discussion and statistical analysis than mind-blowing Vines. In The New York Times, Jonathan Mahler explained why some purists appreciate the moseying pace. “Yes, it’s quiet and slow, but if you hang in there, through all of the pitching changes and batting-glove adjustments, you might get caught up in the drama. If you don’t, there’s plenty else to watch.”

An understanding of traditionalists’ concerns—and a desire to avoid alienating veteran players—is likely why MLB decided not to implement some of the pace-of-play fixes that the Arizona Fall League experimented with, like a 20-second clock between pitches, and limits on pitcher’s mound conferences. For a game so old it counts Mark Twain as a devotee, a slow pace of change makes sense.