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Why MLB’s Instant Replay, And Not The Intentional Walk, Should Be Altered

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Major League Baseball might soon be doing away with the intentional walk to speed up the game, but they should be more worried about instant replay.

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has lived a pretty charmed life as commish since taking over before the 2015 season; the steroid boom that occurred during the Bud Selig regime has largely been dealt with, there was a smooth and quiet negotiation of a new collective bargaining agreement, the Cubs’ curse-breaking run led to the Series’ highest average ratings in 12 years, and the league just took in record revenues for the 14th consecutive year. So, what’s a commissioner to do when through luck, timing, and profits there isn’t much to complain about? Well, make up a problem by saying intentional walks take too long, of course!

Okay, let me backtrack a little first.

The average Major League Baseball game takes right around three hours. Which is long. Longer than Titanic­. And, not just the movie, the average baseball game is now longer than it took for the actual Titanic to sink in the first place.

So, after taking over, Manfred stated that one of his goals was shortening the length of games. In 2014, the average game time ballooned to a record high of three hours and two minutes. And, in part due to his changes (which included a countdown clock in between innings and a rule preventing players from stepping entirely out of the batter’s box during an at bat), the average game time in 2015 decreased to a brisk two hours and 56 minutes.

However, this past season, the average game time bounced back up to three hours.

To rectify this, Manfred and Major League Baseball recently made a formal proposal to the MLB Players Association to eliminate the need to throw four straight balls in order to complete an intentional walk. Instead, the manager would simply signal to the umpire, who would then allow the batter to take his base.

According to the commissioner’s office, this change is designed to help improve the “pace of action” of a modern baseball game and “eliminate dead time” which, supposedly, would help to increase television ratings or fan involvement or something.

However, this argument is both specious and misguided, and if Manfred truly wanted to shorten the average MLB game, the instant replay review system is where he should look first.

In 2016, there were 932 intentional walks in 2,475 total games, which was the fewest in a full season since 1964, and works out to the lowest rate in baseball history at only about 0.19 per game. In fact, this number has been trending downward for more than a decade now, and in 2016, there were less than two thirds as many intentional walks as there were just 10 years ago.

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So, even if each intentional walk takes one whole minute, with intentional walks occurring only 0.19 times per game, we can assume that eliminating the four-pitch intentional walk would save about 11.4 seconds per game. In case you were wondering, this is two and half seconds faster than the fastest inside the park home run Statcast has ever recorded (14.05 by Byron Buxton), and nearly three times less time than a Big Papi home run trot.

A recent study by Microsoft found that the human attention span is now only 8.25 seconds. If that is correct, then the typical viewer would have more difficulty paying attention to a David Ortiz home run trot than an intentional walk.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m no intentional walk super fan. Frankly, I don’t care too much if they stay or go. However, if Manfred and the commissioner’s office are actually committed to shortening the length of games for 2017, they’ll need to do a lot more than sacrificing the intentional walk. They should instead look to the instant replay review system.

One of the most significant changes in recent baseball history, the instant replay system has been polarizing since its inception. But, no matter your personal feelings about it, there’s one thing that everyone can agree on: it takes time.

The average replay review last season took about one minute and 36 seconds (according to RetroSheet), with the longest being a Slide Interference (aka ’Chase Utley slide rule’) call between the White Sox and the Orioles which lasted a whopping six minutes. After the review determined that the runner was safe, White Sox manager Robin Ventura argued the call, and was ejected, which added an extra 90 seconds to this total. All in all, this one groundball to the third baseman in the third inning of an April game took seven minutes and 45 seconds to complete.

This near eight-minute play is not the norm, and about a minute and a half is the average length of a review, but they definitely add up. In 2016 there were 1,531 replay reviews over the 2,475 game season, which works out to a 0.64 reviews per game. Over the course of the season, replays accounted for 2,449 minutes and 40 seconds of standing around, or roughly one minute of added time per game. Fifty seconds more than that of an intentional walk.

In fact, even the Hit By Pitch review (which was the fastest average review of those that made up more than 1% of all total reviews), still took one minute and 26 seconds on average last season.Image title

It’s simple; the replay review system is currently taking too long to make the correct call.

The Tag play, for example, makes up 40.1% of all instant replay reviews, and takes an average of one minute and 42 seconds to complete. Of the 614 total tag play reviews, the greatest proportion of those reviews are concerned with the tiniest fraction of an inch difference between the baserunner’s foot popping up off of the base. Because of the nature of the play, the current tag play is more akin to the catch/no catch review in the NFL; a lengthy review that is only indiscernible through the aide of multiple angles, slow motion, and zoom.

Speaking of the NFL, many cite increased stoppages in play as a reason for the recent swoon in NFL ratings. Major League Baseball would be wise not to emulate them. Except for in one aspect.

As NFL games began to lengthen due to replay reviews and other factors, in 2005 the NFL lowered the review time limit to 60 seconds. According to FiveThirtyEight, this change immediately took several minutes off of the total game length.

Perhaps, Rob Manfred and the commissioner’s office should think about setting a similar time limit on MLB reviews because if Manfred and the commissioner’s office are really concerned about losing viewers because of the occasional minute-long intentional walk, they should be even more worried about attention wandering because of upwards of six minutes of watching grown men wear headphones.

Edited by Jeremy Losak, Julian Boireau.

Who led Major League Baseball in intentional walks in 2016?
Created 2/10/17
  1. Paul Goldschmidt
  2. Bryce Harper
  3. David Ortiz
  4. Mike Trout

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