If the early, and very preliminary, returns are any indication, baseball will have to go to the second phase of its speedup plan to have an impact in the American League.
The past weekend was the start of what is expected to be a trial run in an effort to pick up the game's pace. But, contrary to some belief, there were no new rules to be enforced.
Instead, the commissioner's office issued a set of guidelines intended to quicken the game without undue distractions. They revolve mainly around eliminating 20 seconds between each half-inning, making pitching changes quicker and getting the hitters and pitchers to avoid unnecessary delays.
Hitters are asked to stay within three feet of the batter's box at all times, pitchers to deliver the ball within 12 seconds when the bases are empty, and managers to signal as soon as they step on the field if they desire to change pitchers. The definitive word here is "asked," which is not to be confused with "told" or "instructed," which means the operation, at least at this point, is voluntary.
"The idea is to make the game more interesting for the fans," said umpire Al Clark, who briefed the Orioles and White Sox before the start of their weekend series. "What we're doing is asking all the clubs -- from the general managers to the managers, the coaches and players -- for their cooperation."
The umpires bear the brunt of carrying out the new guidelines, which are the suggestion of former umpire Steve Palermo.
"None of the umpires is going to be hard-nosed about this," Clark said. "We're just going to remind them of what we're trying to accomplish -- to step up the tempo. The feeling is, if we can get the games down to about 2 hours and 35 or 40 minutes, it will be a better attraction for the fans."
When baseball announced a few weeks ago that the new guidelines would go into effect, the average time for a major-league game was 2 hours, 53 minutes, about the same as a year ago. Because of the designated hitter rule, which produces more runs and more pitching changes during an inning, American League games generally have averaged five to eight minutes longer than those in the National League.
However, there was a much more drastic difference in games played during the first two days after the speedup guidelines went into effect. The overall average was 2:41, but the 14 NL games averaged only 2:32, and the 13 AL games that went nine innings took an average of 2:51.
Not all of that can be attributed to scoring, although Oakland and Toronto produced 29 runs Saturday in 3:31. In Friday night's games, for instance, there were 63 runs scored in the AL, 58 in the NL, but there was a 13-minute difference (2:44 to 2:31) in the average time of game.
Obviously, it's going to take a while for the new guidelines to have an effect. But before they're noticeable, Phase 2 of Palermo's speedup plan might have to come into play.
That would raise the pitching mound from 10 to 12 inches and increase the size of the strike zone. But be forewarned, those measures require the approval of the players association -- and there are more hitters than pitchers in the union.