State Of Baseball: Pace Of Play, Draft Timing TalkColumns
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Most college baseball coaches and fans want to see replay expanded in order to get more calls right in the NCAA tournament, when the games matter most. But it’s worth noting that implementing replay does add additional delays, which won’t help remedy concerns about college baseball’s pace of play.
“Everybody cares about the length of the game and sometimes we say, ‘Hey, this was a little bit too long.’ But let’s not mistake the fact that we really have a great product,” said Division I baseball committee chairman Ray Tanner, the South Carolina athletics director. “But I think we can improve upon it. And the more action, the more often I think is better in any sport. And I think we do need to collaborate and get on the same page and try and improve what our great game is all about.”
And ultimately, he’s right — the college game is in a great place right now, even though the average length of postseason games is on the rise again. After peaking at 3 hours, 38 minutes in the 2009 College World Series (the height of the composite-barreled bat era), the average postseason game length dropped precipitously after the move to pitcher-friendly TD Ameritrade Park and the simultaneous introduction of BBCOR bats in 2011. In 2012, the average CWS game lasted just 2:54, the lowest since 1995.
But the game was boring, and almost everybody complained about the lack of action in Omaha. The home run all but disappeared in Omaha in 2013 and 2014, when just two long balls were hit in the entire CWS in back-to-back seasons.
The switch to the flat-seamed ball has restored balance to the game, and last year there were 23 homers at the CWS. Overall this season, scoring and home runs were both down slightly (about 2 percent) from a year ago, but home runs were up 19 percent in the NCAA tournament, a result of some powerful teams making the field of 64 and some hitter-friendly ballparks hosting, as well as generally favorable hitting conditions at most sites during the regionals and super regionals.
But overall, we have arrived at a place of equilibrium in college baseball — the games have variety again, with some pitchers’ duels and some slugfests and everything in between.
“Right now baseball is in the best position we’ve been in a long time with the runs and defense and the way the game’s being played,” ABCA executive director Craig Keilitz said. “And I think a lot of that has to do with the flat seam baseball and the development of the bat and so forth. But I think we’re in a real good spot right now.”
But Keilitz also called pace of play “our trouble spot right now” — that’s an area of focus at all levels of baseball. Some conferences are experimenting with different ways to shorten games. The SEC has used a 20-second pitch clock for several years now, and though it seldom comes into play, it has helped players get into the habit of working a little more quickly. The Big 12 experimented with a 15-second pitch clock this year, and indications are that it was well received. The SEC and ACC also allowed teams to use an experimental headset this year that made communication between the catcher and the dugout a faster process — but it may need a bit of tweaking.
“The only other thing I see about the earpiece thing is it does slow the game down because you can tell your catcher to go out and talk to the pitcher as things kind of get maybe looking like they’re going to get out of control or the game or innings is going to get away from you a little bit,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “So you can have multiple, multiple pitching coach visits to the mound, basically tell the catcher what to tell the pitcher. I think that part probably needs to be tweaked a little bit.”
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said the Hogs used the earpiece this year even though catcher Grant Koch called most of the pitches, and he thought it was a positive addition.
“We made some hopefully educated suggestions to (Koch). The pitcher always had the right to shake us off,” Van Horn said. “But we let Grant call them for the most part. I stand next to our pitching coach, Coach (Wes) Johnson, hear the suggestions and chime in a little bit here and there. I know Coach Johnson really likes the earpiece, being able to communicate, and not even to the point of saying fastball, slider, changeup or location, just to be able to communicate a little bit with the catcher. And like Sully said, you don’t want the catcher running out there — maybe there would have to be a rule where the catcher can only visit so much.
“But we definitely like it.”
Keilitz suggested college baseball could also look into rules enforced in pro ball like the automatic intentional walk and eliminating the fake-to-third, throw-to-first pickoff move. Those are small things, and people have different opinions about them, but perhaps those changes could help.
Overall, though, coaches just need to do a better job getting their teams to play with better tempo. Too many coaches slow the game down to a crawl with runners on base, perhaps because they think it gets them a competitive advantage. But I happen to agree with coaches that believe exactly the opposite — that playing faster keeps defenders more engaged in the game and leads to better quality of play.
“I did an informal survey many years ago about — I kind of took this from Coach (Skip) Bertman. He always talked about heightened awareness,” Tanner said. “When you can get your team on and off the field, you play better defense. Pitchers get the ball. They’re back on the rubber after it hits the catcher’s mitt. They don’t walk halfway to the plate to receive the ball. They start backing up. They get a little momentum going. The only thing that can stop that is the umpire and the hitter.
“Coaches work hard. There’s people committed in this game like never before. And it’s not fair to criticize them, but I think it’s just their intensity and the involvement in the game. And it probably has taken an effect that it slows down a little bit the strategic part, you go out discuss it, you sub your defense, you have how you’re going to pitch the next guy and we’re taking a little bit too long, I think. Not just blaming the pitchers, but we’ve got to stay in the box, get on and off the field. Television is great. We need television. So that to me is not part of the equation. We’ve got to do a better job between the lines.”
Discussions About Draft Timing
Once again this year, the major league draft began on Monday night while several teams were on the field playing winner-take-all regional games. Florida’s Jonathan India was playing third base when he was drafted No. 5 overall — he learned about it when a fan shouted out the news to him from the stands. Ole Miss first rounder Ryan Rolison got a call in the dugout and retreated back into the tunnel when his name was about to be called, as his teammates fought for their postseason lives in an eventual loss to Tennessee Tech.
It’s a distraction to the players, and it’s disrespectful to the players, it’s disrespectful to college baseball fans and to the college game as a whole. Major League Baseball likes to have the draft on a Monday when most of its teams are off, but the big leaguers aren’t the ones getting drafted, and they’re not the ones whose lives are affected by the draft. Can you imagine the outcry if the NBA conducted its draft on Friday evening during the Sweet 16, while star players were on the court — just because it didn’t have any NBA games going on that day?
“We’ve had the opportunity to meet with (MLB Commissioner) Rod Manfred on this. He’s willing to work with college baseball to make it the best for our sport,” Keilitz said. “With that said, they have a window of Monday and Thursdays that they need to clear because that’s when major league teams typically have their day off and traveling day off and so forth. He needs to have it either on a Monday or Thursday.
“With that said, there’s a good opportunity they could have it on a Thursday and run into our Super Regional. That is the best date, according to our coaches, and we’ve talked with them at great length because they need to find out what their team’s going to look like. So having it after the World Series, if it’s in July, you don’t know what your team looks like for high school-drafted kids or your sophomores or junior that are draft-eligible that go and what your team’s going to look like.
“So the earliest opportunity is best for the majority of the teams. This year we had a situation where a couple teams are playing while their kids are getting drafted, and that’s unfortunate. But it affected just a few kids rather than all of the teams around the country.”
I simply disagree on this point — again, imagine if basketball held its draft during the Sweet 16 under the rationale that, “Well, at least there are only a couple of players affected.” We simply need to find a way to move the draft to dates when no college baseball teams are in action. MLB has expressed strong interest in holding the draft in Omaha before the CWS — which seems like a great idea for the good of the sport at all levels. But the NCAA has balked at that idea, citing nebulous amateurism concerns.
“We want to make sure we’re focusing on the NCAA model and what makes the event unique and distinct for people here,” said NCAA vice president of Division I Kevin Lennon. “And we’ve talked about the growth in college baseball. We don’t want to do anything to take away from it, and we want to do things to best support our student-athletes.
“And Craig just talked about some of the dynamics that are at play anytime you reintroduce draft issues into the environment that we have here, but can certainly share with you it continues to be a topic of conversation and we want to do, first and foremost, what’s best for college baseball, the collegiate model and student-athletes.”
I think what’s best for college baseball and the “collegiate model” is to make the draft a bigger deal, in order to attract more players to the sport — and to make sure the draft doesn’t occur while college players are on the field in the postseason, even if it means just pushing the draft back one day, so that it starts on Tuesday night instead of Monday. But for now, the power brokers in the NCAA and MLB don’t seem to be on the same page, and this problem isn’t going to go away on its own. Here’s hoping common sense will prevail sooner rather than later.