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Philly Baseball Insider

Philadelphia baseball from the majors to the minors.

Anyone for fewer relievers?

It’s the offseason, so in addition to free agency and rumors of blockbuster trades, baseball holds their annual debate on how to speed up the grand old game. First is the debate whether we should be debating the speed of the game in terms of how long a game lasts – the average game in 2018 went three-hours, 43-seconds – or whether it’s the pace of play within the game that’s the issue.

In a recent article on The Athletic (subscription required and recommended), Jayson Stark pointed out that while the length of games is dropping, baseball these days takes three-hours to play. The game had the shortest length of game average in 2018 than it has had since games went two-hours, 58-minutes and 51-seconds in 2013 and Stark doesn’t see it getting much, if any, better.

In another article on The Athletic back in May, Ken Rosenthal pointed out that games used to be much shorter, but that was looking back a number of years. In 1978, the average game lasted two-hours, 28-minutes. and as recently as 1998, games ran about two-hours, 52-minutes.

Rosenthal’s article was a feature about ideas that former Phillies pitcher Jim Kaat had for reducing game times; shorten the game to seven innings. That’s not going to happen, for a number of reasons, but in reading the article, Kaat did bring out some good points. Kaat himself admits his proposal won’t be adopted, but suggests maybe an independent league could try it to see just how it works. While Kaat’s overall proposal isn’t likely to be adopted because of the historical, emotional and financial impact that it would have on the game, as Rosenthal points out, he does have one ancillary idea that just might be worth exploring.

Stark’s article points out that some have suggested limiting pitching changes to speed up the game. That brings up a lot of other questions about concerns over injuries and other ideas that make that a risky proposition. Kaat’s idea though is interesting. Limit rosters to 10 pitchers. Teams would still have a 25-man roster, but only 10 of them could be pitchers.

Here’s why that idea is interesting:

As Kaat points out, it could put a renewed focus on starting pitchers. Starters are barely ever going six innings, let alone seven, eight or nine. In the “old days” teams would have a starter and then a closer. There were other relievers for those days when the starter had a rough day, but in general, the starter went as long as he could and then turned it over to a closer for the final inning, or even two, if necessary. Reducing rosters could get us back to more of that style of play.

Kaat pointed out that when he broke into the majors, there were only 16 teams and were basically about 10 pitchers on a staff. Now, he points out that the number of pitchers in the majors has ballooned to near the 400 mark or more than twice the number for just less than twice the teams.

While fewer pitchers on a roster would reduce the ability of a manager to mix-and-match lefties and righties, a bigger bench would allow for more pinch-hitting, pinch-running and defensive replacements. All of those elements would play well with today’s data driven part of the game.  With fewer relievers and more pinch-hitting opportunities, it’s likely that run production would increase, making for a more lively game.

It would also reduce the pressure on organizations to find good pitchers. Some teams may even experiment with going back to a four-man rotation. And with teams generally keeping their Triple-A teams close to home, shuttling relievers up and down from Triple-A to the majors isn’t nearly as difficult as it was years ago.

If baseball wants to look outside the box for ways to make the game more interesting to fans – although it says here that avid fans don’t really have a problem with the pace or length of the games – then they should truly consider some alternate ideas. Kaat’s idea of seven-inning games is a non-option, but some of his other ideas might be worth considering.

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