Dig. Dig, dig, dig. Dig, dig.
Mike Napoli’s right foot cuts into the dirt in the back of the batter’s box, creating an ever-deepening trench the Red Sox first baseman uses for his stance.
In a single night, that digging will account for 39.5 seconds over four at-bats, and for 1 minute and 18 seconds over a three-game series against the Blue Jays last month.
And it’s not just Napoli. Some of his teammates seem to barely stand in the box during their at-bats, stepping out after each pitch to adjust batting gloves (David Ortiz), take off their helmets (Jonny Gomes), and wander around the dirt and sometimes even the grass (Jacoby Ellsbury).
It’s those quirks and routines, coupled with mound visits and pitching changes, that give baseball its unique flow and plague it with dead time. And it’s why Red Sox games are averaging 3 hours, 11 minutes, and 34 seconds this year, the longest of any team in baseball.
Five years ago, Major League Baseball sought to address its pace-of-game problem, issuing a directive to players, coaches, and umpires to — so to speak — make it snappy. From 2008 to 2011, games averaged around 2 hours and 51 minutes. After a bump to 2:55:58 in 2012, game times this year through Thursday are averaging 2:57:53 — a mark that would tie the 2000 season for the all-time high.
In 1963, when Vin Scully was in his 13th year as Dodgers broadcaster, games averaged 2 hours and 25 minutes. What could have added a solid half-hour since then?
“I partly blame it on Velcro,” said Scully, now in his 63d year in the booth, referring to the advent of batting gloves and players’ tendency to adjust them unceasingly during at-bats. (While it’s unclear who was first to use them, Ken Harrelson is widely credited with popularizing them in the 1960s.)
“In the old days,” Scully said, “there was no nonsense, no fussing.”
Batting gloves aren’t the only reason, of course. There are the changes on the mound: from 4.8 pitchers per nine-inning game in 1963 to 7.7 in 2012, as situational specialists have become de rigueur.
There is the soaring number of strikeouts — from 12.52 per game in 1999 to 14.72 in 2013 — with all five individual seasons of 200-plus strikeouts occurring in the last five years. There have been more batters going deep into counts as walks and on-base percentage rose in prominence amid the Moneyball-ization of the game.
There are the commercial breaks, which account for at least 34 minutes on local broadcasts in a full nine-inning game (41 minutes for nationally televised games); that figure rises with pitching changes. Play doesn’t resume, of course, until the networks return from commercial breaks. Those allotments, though, have remained the same since 1990, according to baseball officials, and still game times have crept up by about 10 minutes.
“The pace of our games is important to us,” said Joe Torre, MLB’s executive vice president for baseball operations. “We all want games to be played sharply and to keep wasted time and unnecessary breaks to a minimum. We respect the fact that players are routine-driven, but at the same time, we have to make sure that games move efficiently.
“Because there are so many various factors — players, umpires, broadcasting, in-game entertainment for fans and many others — this is a topic that is not as simple as it might seem. The Commissioner’s Special Committee for On-Field Matters has discussed a number of ways that could impact our time of game with the understanding that we have to balance our desire for games to be played crisply with all the traditions and realities of our game.”
So blame Harrelson. Blame Tony La Russa. Blame Mark Reynolds. Blame Billy Beane. Blame Major League Baseball and its attempts to address the issue.
“I think there’s a lot of things they can do,” said Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester. “But a lot of things they’re not going to do.”
Breaking it down
While nine-inning games averaged 2:56 in 2012, the Red Sox averaged 3:04. And against the Yankees, it was even worse: 3:19, down from a high of 3:31 in 2007.
“I think it’s the Red Sox’ fault,” said Rays pitcher Jeremy Hellickson, himself one of the slowest pitchers in baseball. “Pitchers. Hitters.”
To break down exactly what is taking so long, the Globe picked a random series in May — three games against the Blue Jays at Fenway Park — and analyzed every second that went into each game: from the time it took to remove the tarp on Friday (10 minutes, 18 seconds) to Blue Jays pitcher Ramon Ortiz tying his shoes (6 seconds) to Gomes adjusting his helmet (52 seconds over six at-bats) to the “God Bless America” break on Sunday (4 minutes, 24 seconds).
The conclusion? You can get a beer from the concession stand in the time it takes Gomes to get to the plate, but don’t blink when Will Middlebrooks approaches.
As calculated by the Globe, Gomes was the slowest of those who saw at least 20 pitches in the series, at 11.62 seconds per pitch. He is followed by Daniel Nava at 11.02, Napoli at 9.29, and Ellsbury at 9.27. The fastest? That would be Middlebrooks at 4.60, with Victorino (5.84) and Dustin Pedroia (6.42) behind him.
“I’ve always had that thought in the back of my mind that I don’t want to be that guy,” Victorino said. “I want to go. Let’s go.”
But it’s not just what happens at the plate. It’s getting there, too.
Watch a game from 1969, as the Globe did, and there is no walkup music. There is no preening (and there are no batting gloves). The look-at-me showmanship doesn’t exist.
It is like watching a current game on 1.5 speed, which makes sense, because the 1969 game, a complete-game win for Orioles pitcher Mike Cuellar, took just 2 hours, 21 minutes to play. There are still mound conferences. Trainers still come out to look at hit batsmen. It just all happens faster.
It’s not that the batters stay in the box after every pitch. But they do after some of them. The twitches — where they exist — consist mostly of a few kicks of the dirt, a few swings of the bat. When he walks to the plate, Carl Yastrzemski rubs a little dirt on his palms. That’s all.
“Most of the time, these guys come out to their music and have to stand there and listen to it — I don’t know, get pumped up for some reason,” Blue Jays pitcher Mark Buehrle said.
Middlebrooks, again, stands as a shining tribute to speed, taking an average of just 16.48 seconds from the time he steps on the dirt to the time he’s ready to receive the first pitch. Gomes, meanwhile, clocks in at 32.37 and Napoli at 28.57. Yastrzemski, for the record, takes 12.7 seconds to get from the dirt into the batter’s box.
When shown the numbers, many of the Red Sox — and Rays and Yankees — were surprised. They don’t believe they take that long. Gomes, for instance, argues that he never steps out of the box — which, while technically true, hardly means he’s ready to receive a pitch throughout his at-bat. And some, like Ortiz, argue that they use the time to plan out their at-bat, to think through all they need to do.
“I think the biggest thing is just making the pitcher and making the hitter accountable for what they’re doing at that particular time,” Lester said. “If that cuts off five minutes of a game, that’s five minutes.”
The slow-pitch game
There is no consensus on culpability. Pitchers blame batters. Batters blame pitchers.
Buehrle, who recently treated the Red Sox to a 2:42 game, is among the fastest-working pitchers in the majors, ranked second by fangraphs.com according to its “pitcher pace statistic” (which measures time between pitches) at 18.1 seconds.
Asked how long he generally spends waiting for the batter, he said, “90 percent of the time.”
“It’s annoying,” Buehrle said. “Guys don’t even swing the bat, take a pitch, and then they get out and adjust their batting gloves. Some of it might be just habit or routine or superstition that they do it, but you didn’t even swing the bat — why do you have to tighten your batting gloves?”
And while Buehrle might not be the reason for long games, some of his fellow starting pitchers aren’t as innocent. Houston’s Bud Norris is the biggest offender, according to fangraphs, coming in at a whopping 25.7 seconds between pitches. The average is about 21.5, and the Rays had three starters among the 11 slowest before David Price dropped off the list with too few innings to qualify.
Clay Buchholz, who is 11th at 24.2, is just one of many Red Sox pitchers who have been near the top the list in recent years. As Rays manager Joe Maddon said of Daisuke Matsuzaka, Josh Beckett, and Jonathan Papelbon: “Those are the three worst. Of all time. They’re Hall of Fame procrastinators.”
Said Ortiz, “I remember I was playing defense behind Daisuke once, and I almost told [then-manager Terry Francona] to get me out of the game because I was worn out by the third inning.”
The Sox, at least, are trying to correct that this season, with new pitching coach Juan Nieves emphasizing aggressiveness and pitcher pace.
“It’s like running a sprint and taking a marathon pace,” Nieves said of slow pitchers. “It’s a very rhythmic game — swinging the bat, fielding the baseball. A lot of art goes into it, graceful art. And I think the slower pace you have, it almost looks out there like you’re dying a slow death.”
There are added benefits, too, for pitchers who don’t waste time.
“If you have a pitcher that has a good tempo, as a defender you almost want to score runs for that pitcher,” said Yankees outfielder Ichiro Suzuki through his translator. “And vice versa. If you’re slow, you’re kind of dragging, you’re not [saying], ‘Let’s score runs for this guy.’ ”
One of the ways baseball has tried to solve its pace problem is through fines, with Papelbon, the former Sox closer now with the Phillies, a prime target.
Papelbon got fined at least a half-dozen times. Penalties started at $1,500, escalated to $2,000, then went to $2,500 and up, he said.
He only changed his routine when he was called into a meeting with Francona, then-pitching coach John Farrell, and then-GM Theo Epstein in 2010. That year, he was first in the majors among relievers at 31.6 seconds between pitches. He’s now fifth at 29.5 in 2013.
MLB has made other efforts to institute changes, notably in 2002, when it hired three former players — Bill Madlock, Jeff Newman, and Tom Lawless — to watch games and advise Bob Watson, the vice president for on-field operations, on pace-of-game issues.
“It was, where are we wasting minutes?” said Lawless, now a coach with Houston’s Triple A affiliate. “When one inning started at 2:20 and the next inning started at 2:40, then how long did it take for a pitching change?”
According to the Globe’s calculations, a middle-of-the-inning pitching change takes anywhere from 2:40 to 3:28, depending on how soon the manager takes the ball and how fast the reliever jogs in from the bullpen.
“It was really a matter of making the players and coaches aware of the time, and trying to keep them more on schedule,” Lawless said. “There are some things you can’t stop. You can’t stop the managers from making pitching changes.”
Drastic step in minors
There is one thing that seems to have been effective, and could be effective again. Rewind to 2007, to Middlebrooks’s first professional at-bat in the fall instructional league, a moment he had waited for all his life.
Strike one swinging. Ball. Strike called.
Middlebrooks stepped out of the box. Strike three.
He was called out on a rules violation that the then-19-year-old didn’t even know existed. That season, baseball instituted a ban in the minor leagues on leaving the batter’s box if the player hadn’t swung at the preceding pitch.
It resulted in bizarre moments, such as one with Red Sox minor leaguer Josh Papelbon on the mound in a Single A game. As Sox assistant general manager Mike Hazen recalled, Papelbon had two outs and two strikes on the batter. The tying run was on third. The batter stepped out.
“It was crazy,” Hazen said. “It didn’t go over very well and they stopped doing it shortly thereafter because it was causing more problems than what they had hoped to get out of it. All that stuff kind of died.”
Except, technically, it didn’t. The rules haven’t changed. While umpires might have pulled back on enforcement, minor league batters should still receive a strike if they step out of the box without one of eight proscribed situations occurring. Taking a strike isn’t one of them.
While such a rule won’t be instituted in the majors, who knows how many batters the enforcement in 2007 affected? Who knows how much slower Middlebrooks would have been without that experience?
“It’s always about teaching them in the minor leagues,” said Maddon. “And that’s the key. If you want to really change behavior, you’ve got to change it before they get here.”
Other suggestions seem unlikely to be acted on.
MLB could eliminate mound visits, one former pitcher said. MLB could stop changing baseballs every time they hit the dirt, Hazen offered. MLB could forego fines and start using suspensions, Yankees catcher Chris Stewart said. Batters and pitchers could take their cellphones to the mound and, as Middlebrooks joked, “Text the new signs.”
But one thing that might work is peer pressure.
“Internal pressure from the group,” Maddon said. “That’s probably the most effective. That, to me, would be the best way to get somebody to speed up.”
Lawless said one tactic would be for managers to alert the umpire that they are planning on making a pitching change when they step out of the dugout, as opposed to waiting until they’ve reached the mound and conferenced with a pitcher. But the decision hasn’t always been made by then.
There are some people who could help, too. As Lawless said, “It was really up to the umpires to make the game keep on moving.”
There are rules to govern pace of play. Rule 6.02 reads, “The batter shall take his position in the batter’s box promptly when it is his time at bat.” And batters are not supposed to leave the batter’s box except for specified reasons — and they’re never allowed to leave the dirt surrounding home plate.
There are rules for pitchers, too, including Rule 8.04, which says, “When the bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives the ball.” The clock begins on that when the pitcher is in possession of the ball, and ends when he releases it.
Not that everyone knows the rule. The Rays’ Hellickson said, “I don’t think you could really make a rule [about] how fast we have to get rid . . . oh, is there? I would like to see one.”
Any end in sight?
Can baseball really change what it has become?
It is no longer a sport of 2½-hour games (despite the 2:30 gift bestowed by the Phillies’ Cliff Lee recently at Fenway Park). It is a sport that embraces its grass-growing pace, even as that could turn away some potential fans.
“Way too long. Period,” said Bob, an usher at Fenway Park since 1994 who declined to give his last name because ushers are told to clear any comments to the media through the club. “The other sports, lacrosse especially, have taken over with the young kids. I see it with my grandchildren; I see it in the ballparks.
“People come in here, I’m sure they enjoy the game, but they look at the clock, ‘Geez, it’s 10 past 10 and there’s still two more innings to go.’ ”
That, he said, has had its effect on fans, on kids, on generating interest in the next generation.
And, still, the pace of play is only getting worse.
“In between pitches, they lose interest a little bit,” said Jerry Roche, who with wife Michelle brought Brogan and Abigail to a game on Brogan’s fifth birthday. “It’s not as fast. I thought it was the seventh inning — it was the fourth.”
They were leaving at 9:25 p.m. on a Wednesday. It was the top of the seventh inning.
“I don’t think they’re ever going to go in the other direction,” Lawless said. “Everything is so much down to detail now. Everything hangs on one pitch, [so] everything kind of slows down.”
Plus, batters are seeing more pitches than ever (from 3.75 pitches per batter in 1999 to 3.86 in 2013), and striking out more than ever. But while the number of hits per game has remained roughly the same since the ’60s, both runs per game and walks per game are down over the last 15 years.
So the lengthening games aren’t resulting from more offense. Fewer balls are being put in play, in fact.
But not everyone is against longer games.
“It’s good,” said Dustin Pedroia. “The fans get to see more baseball. It should take longer. Fans pay a lot of money to come watch us play. Why would they want it to be so quick?”
Still, there are more complaints than praise. Especially because it’s something that could be fixed with the right efforts. And yet, baseball hasn’t exactly focused on cleaning up the dead time that continues to stretch out, longer and longer, approaching three hours — and potentially beyond.
“They’ve got to do something to help,” said Lester. “This is where baseball is. There’s things we can do to maybe help it, but it’s going to be three hours regardless.”
globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.