Major League Baseball has thought long and hard about its place in American entertainment.
TV ratings – unless the Cubs are winning their first World Series – have trended down for two decades, and the average age of the viewer and fan has reached critical levels where if new fans are not brought into the game, Major League Baseball could be an afterthought in 40 to 50 years.
Major League Baseball has reacted – not acted – in a number of ways, emphasizing a faster pace of play seemingly more than anything else other than fan safety. For years, fans complained games lasted too long, thanks in part to this new advent of pitching changes and defensive substitutions, plus the increased time in which it takes a pitcher and batter to be ready for a pitch.
The sport has made strides. The pitch clock employed in the minor leagues has sped up games, and it’s only a matter of time before it comes to the majors with penalties for consistent offenders. It’s a shame the mound visit limit seems more like a gesture than anything really changing, but it’s at least something resembling progress.
But in just three weeks, Phillies manager Gabe Kapler is threatening to burn down that work.
Kapler has been the unabashed King of Mound Visits so far in 2018, adding time to games that could have had a half-hour cut off them had he kept his butt on the bench. But that’s not his style. He didn’t just hint at this style of playing the match-ups (read: “I’ll be changing pitchers A LOT”) during spring training, he flat-out told us this. But sometimes you can’t really grasp something until you see it in action. And seeing Aaron Nola cruise through the first 68 pitches of opening day before being pulled, and then watching the two hours of baseball after that … it’s not good. And he’s doing it at the worst time for fans: in a miserable April, weather-wise, when people are just looking to get out of the cold by the sixth inning and not see a third pitching change.
That said, the numbers say that Kapler isn’t even increasing game times by much. While it’s still a small sample size, average game time so far this season for the Phillies has been three hours and 16 minutes (in 2017 it was three hours and eight minutes). Eleven other teams in 2018 have average game times longer than the Phillies’ total. But because of those small sample sizes, four of those teams are the Marlins and Cubs (who hooked up for a 17-inning, five-hour and 18-minute marathon) and the Yankees and Orioles (who played a 14-inning, five-hour and 20-minute tilt Friday). So by the time July rolls around and the numbers balance out, Kapler’s Phils likely will be one of the teams with the longest game times.
Fans have floated about a zillion theories in the last week as to why Kapler has been getting booed on mound visits (including that it stems almost entirely from pulling the plug on Nola on opening day). My theory is that it’s a fundamental objection to the theory of increased, match-up-based pitching changes throughout the game and in every game. Look, fans are people. And when you’re at a game, it’s not different than being at a work meeting, where your mind wanders and you start to plan the rest of your day … or the next day. When someone screws with that plan, you get angry. And when you see Kapler come out of the dugout, he’s screwing with your plan, whether it’s having the kids in bed by a certain time, beating traffic by a certain time … whatever.
Gabe Kapler’s style of managing is exactly what Major League Baseball has tried to minimize, but he probably couldn’t care less. He’s actually everything Major League Baseball has been trying to avoid when it comes to pace of play, but he’s got a plan and he’s likely to stick to it. And that’s the problematic dichotomy Kapler has created without even realizing it. The league has put in motion a system where it will speed up the pace of play, while Kapler has instituted a culture and strategy that should cause games to plod.
The consequence could be the loss of fans, but so far this season, there might not be a great way to measure that loss. Lower ratings? “Of course we’re going to have lower ratings; the Sixers are ruling this town right now and we’ve been thrown to the Comcast Network twice already. We’ve even had to be streamed twice!”
Lower attendance? “It’s been, like, 20 degrees and raining every night. Did you see those snowflakes on Monday night? Of course we’re going to have lower attendance!”
(Also, as of this writing, the Phils’ paid attendance is in the middle of the pack, above the Mets and Nationals, among other teams.)
So who’s right? Is Kapler right in playing the odds that constitute a long game but ultimately ends up with a win? Or is the league right in looking to not care about wins and losses, but instead to make sure kids are home in time for bed?
That’s what the Phillies are up against this year. Kapler’s style of managing is for sure going to keep a 10-year-old out of bed until 10:30 p.m. And that 10-year-old is the future baseball fan, who could be turned off completely as Kapler makes his fourth pitching change of the night. And instead of falling asleep to Tom McCarthy’s voice as previous generations fell asleep to Harry Kalas, that 10-year-old could be falling asleep to the docile tones of “Call of Duty.”
No one is asking Kapler to change his managing style or ignore the analytics he and his team have put together. Not yet, at least. But if there is a larger sample size later this season that shows the team is scuffling, and fans are tuning out and not showing up, it could be an extra arrow in the quiver of ownership if the Kapler plan falls short and the Phillies underachieve.