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Major League Baseball is enjoying a time of record-setting revenues, but the sport remains concerned about maintaining its relevance to new generations of fans. The concern was amplified by Nationals star outfielder Bryce Harper, who told ESPN the Magazine that he viewed his own sport as “tired.”

Red Sox analyst Bill James, asked as part of a panel at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference what he might change in order to increase the appeal of the game, offered an unexpected answer.

“I’d get rid of the balk rule,” James said of the requirement that, with runners on base, pitchers are required to come to a complete stop in the set position before throwing the ball. “You may think it’s a silly answer, but it’s not. The balk rule interferes with the way that baseball should be played at such a profound level when you think about it. The game constantly stops. Why does it stop? It all goes back to the balk rule.

“Pitchers should be able to stand on the mound and do whatever the hell they want to do. You wouldn’t have to take a set position. The batter would have to be ready. What the balk rule does is [like] if you had a rule in basketball that you couldn’t have a fast break.

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“What I envision is kind of live-ball baseball,” added James, who suggested that there would need to be some corollary rules introduced, such as a limit on the number of times a pitcher could throw to first base. “The ball is always live because you don’t have to stop the game to restart it for the next pitch, because the pitcher can do what he wants to on the mound. If he wants to have a fake double-move, all right. There’s no reason we can’t. We don’t ban fakes anywhere else in the sports world. You can’t say, ‘I’m sorry, you faked that shot, you can’t do that.’”

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In 2015, the average length of Major League Baseball games was 2 hours, 56 minutes – down six minutes from the 2014 average of 3:02, a reduction credited in part to measures such as a between-innings clock and the introduction of a rule requiring batters to keep at least one foot in the batter’s box between pitches.


Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.