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Tackling the New Game-Speed Rules for MLB

Earlier this week, Red Sox DH David Ortiz went on a rant about MLB’s recent pace-of-play rules that will be introduced for the first time in 2015.

“It seems like every rule goes in the pitcher’s favor,” Ortiz said. After a pitch, you got to stay in the box? One foot? I call that bulls—.”

Ortiz does, in fact, make a good point. Most pitchers in MLB, when they get into a certain rhythm, don’t like their pace to be disrupted. As a batter, you want to do everything in your power to disrupt that rhythm, which includes stepping out of the batters’ box in-between pitches.

With the new rules, batters can no longer exit the batters’ box unless they swing at a pitch, a timeout is called, or are forced out of the box by a pitch.

Even when one of these incidents do occur, the batter cannot leave the dirt area surrounding home plate. If a batter fails to follow these rules, a $500 fine will ensue.

“Well, I might run out of money,” said Ortiz when informed about the potential fines. “I’m serious. I’m not going to change my game. I don’t care what they say. My game, it’s not like I go around and do all kinds of stupid s—. But I have to take my time and think about what that [pitcher] is going to do next. I’m pretty sure every single hitter at this level is on the same page.”

Ortiz makes a good point. Leaving the batters’ box is a dual strategy in the sense that a batter wants to disrupt a pitcher’s rhythm, but also wants to try to get into his head to try to guess what he will throw next.

For pitchers, this rule will likely be celebrated among the majority, but pitchers have a variety of methodologies when it comes to pitching. Some like to speed the game up, and some like to take their good time in-between pitches

Cliff Lee is the perfect example of a pitcher who likes to speed things up. cliff-lee

As a Phillies fan, watching Cliff Lee pitch is a treat. Not only is he a great pitcher, but he is also one of the fastest guys in terms of time between pitches in MLB, and games where he starts just seem to move along more quickly.

How many times have you seen pitchers get angry because a batter calls time, or takes his time getting back into the batters box? For Lee, his fast approach is not only due to his preference and style, but also a result of a certain rhythm he achieves while he’s pitching.

According to Fangraphs, Lee’s average time in-between pitches was 20.3 seconds. To put that into perspective, Kyle Kendrick took 24.3 seconds in-between pitches, which was the slowest among the Phillies’ starters in 2014. Any Phillies fan knows that the reason Kendrick is not the pitcher Lee is is because he’s not as talented, not because he pitches at a slower pace. Also, Lee isn’t a better pitcher than Kendrick  just because he does pitch at a faster pace. It comes down to talent.

The leader in MLB last season in pitch pace was Mark Beurhle, who only took a remarkable 17.3 seconds in-between pitches. The slowest pace among pitchers was David Price, who took 26.6 seconds in between pitches.

So, what is the result of Price and Beurhle’s differences in pace? Well, Price finished 2014 with a 15-12 record, a 3.35 ERA, and allowed an average of 8.4 hits per nine innings pitched, while Beurhle finished with a 13-10 record, a 3.39 ERA, and allowed an average of 10.2 hits per nine innings pitched. Eerily similar numbers despite the almost 10-second difference between paces.

What does this show? It shows that Ortiz’s argument that a slower pace would go in the batter’s favor is not necessarily true. In Price’s case, the opposite seems to be true. Perhaps the extra time between pitches causes a batter to over-think himself, and swings fastball when, in fact, the pitcher decides to throw a changeup. The counter argument to this is that Beurhle, like Cliff Lee, does not have over-powering stuff, but relies on location and using a batter’s aggressiveness against him. Beurhle’s lack of swing-and-miss stuff explains the higher average of hits against him, but his pace and attacking of the strike zone is what leads batters to hit into outs, and gives him similar numbers to Price, who has swing-and-miss stuff.

What about guys who don’t pitch at a fast or a slow pace, but are somewhere in the middle? Some examples of pitchers who took an average of 22-23 seconds in-between pitches last season are, Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, Jon Lester, Felix Hernandez, James Shields, and our own Cole Hamels.

So, does a pitcher’s pace really make that much of a difference in terms of giving pitchers an advantage over batters? These numbers show that it really doesn’t matter.

Ortiz should save himself some money and just follow the rules.

From a fan’s perspective, baseball needs to find a way to speed up the games. Sitting through a three and a half hour game is not appealing to the majority of people. Even weirdos like me who can watch a baseball game from the first pitch, to the final out have to admit that games are way too long.

These rules will hardly make a dent in MLB’s game times, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.

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