DUNEDIN, Fla. – As a steady rain pushed back the start of Thursday’s workouts for the Toronto Blue Jays, a group of players sitting by the TV debated the looming introduction of the automatic intentional walk and other rule changes.
Sarcastically, Russell Martin chimed in and suggested that if Major League Baseball really wanted to quicken the pace of games, they could eliminate players circling the bases after a home run. Then he turned to a reporter nearby and said, you can Tweet that.
Post-workout, at the request of a handful of reporters, the five-time all-star catcher had plenty more to say about the automatic intentional walk and other rule changes the league is trying to shoehorn into the game.
The gist? He really doesn’t like them.
"By no means are intentional walks automatic, until now. Now they are. So they’re speeding up the game," said Martin. "My thing is, if they really want to speed up the game, then when a guy hits a home run, to speed up the game should a guy, just like in softball, when he hits it, should he just walk to the dugout? It’d be quicker. I’m just wondering, at what point do we just keep the game, the game? Or, how about this calculation: take all the intentional walks that were made in the last couple years and calculate – or maybe just ask to see if they have that information, to see if they really did their homework. Is it really that important to speed up the game (with this rule)? Because how many games did we play last year where we didn’t have one intentional walk? That’s something I’d like to know."
Well, last season the Blue Jays received an intentional walk in 15 different games and issued one in 10 games, both occurring in the same contest twice. Overall, big-league teams issued 932 intentional walks in 2,427 regular-season contests, with the 10 issued by the Blue Jays the second fewest in baseball and the 16 they received tied for the least in the majors with Cleveland and the White Sox.
At an average of one intentional walk every 2.6 games, the impact will be minimal. As Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said, "It’s good if it saves the game 20 seconds maybe, I don’t know."
Still, during a media availability last week in Lakeland, Fla., commissioner Rob Manfred made clear he wants changes made to promote action and reduce dead time. "What we want is a well-paced game with action regardless of time of game," he said.
In eliminating the four pitches, pitchers aren’t at risk of throwing the ball away and Gibbons noted that some have trouble throwing four intentional balls. On occasion, pitchers have thrown the ball to the backstop allowing runners to score. Some have trouble regaining the zone afterwards. And sometimes, a team may have ulterior motives.
"It’s called getting your bullpen ready so the guy doesn’t blow out his arm on the mound," said Martin. "‘Speed up the game, speed up the game.’ How about we just give guys – the human being – time to warm up on the mound after maybe something’s happened in the game? I’m not a manager, but I’m just trying to put myself in the position of a manager. OK, we’re up by one run or two runs and our bullpen’s been taxed and we’re trying to save their arms, and then the other team walks, ball gets away, guy gets to second base. When the coach visits the mound to talk to his player, it’s not like the player necessarily needs somebody to talk to him.
"It’s because the guy (in the bullpen) needs time to warm up, man. It’s the same thing when you throw over to first base, like, eight times in a row. It’s not like we’re trying to keep the guy close. The guy maybe has two stolen bases in 18 years. It’s because the guy needs time to warm up. At what point does that become a problem with guys warming up in the bullpen? Sometimes it’s just strategy to give guys a little bit of time to warm up."
“My thing is, if they really want to speed up the game, then when a guy hits a home run… should he just walk to the dugout? It’d be quicker.”
The dead time eliminated may lead to new dead time in its place, as Toronto Star columnist Richard Griffin noted that once a team signals walk, the following batter will still require time to loosen up in the on-deck circle, time the four balls thrown would have provided.
"I get it. I understand what they’re doing," said Martin. "I don’t know if they’re really thinking about absolutely everything. And it would just be nice to have the option of, like, ‘Hey, we’re going to try this for a little bit and we’re just going to see how it goes.’ If it works, it’s fine. Instead of just being like, ‘Hey, we’re doing this, and you have to deal with it.’ Are they working with us or are they just telling us what to do? That’s my issue."
Manfred said last week their pace of game initiatives were based on fan focus groups that identified dead time and a lack of action as two issues. Martin wonders whether the real motivation for the pace of game initiatives isn’t to make the game fit better into TV broadcast windows.
"It would just be nice for them to be like, ‘Hey, it’s about money and we’re making these adjustments because we’re going to get more money, and it’s about money and that’s it,’ instead of disguising it with ‘we’re doing this for the fans,’" he said. "Save it. I’m tired of hearing that same lame excuse all the time. Just be honest. If they’re honest about it, we’ll get over it. But don’t hide behind the fans. What, they asked every single fan in baseball if they would agree and the fans voted like it’s a democracy and 51 per cent of the fans that watch baseball decided, ‘You know what? We don’t think the intentional walk is necessary and we would like to speed it up a little bit.’ Give me a break. That’s how I feel."
Martin feels similarly about Major League Baseball’s desire to raise the strike zone a couple of inches at the knees in order to generate more balls in play, something Manfred hinted that he’d be willing to unilaterally impose after referencing the players association’s "lack of co-operation."
Moving the zone is important to Manfred, who pointed to data showing that hitters have more trouble making good contact with the low strike. Martin believes the human element is an important consideration for umpires, and argued that an evolution in the way catchers frame pitches and call games based on scouting is partly responsible.
"The other way is to just make (the zone) a computer and then how I catch the ball doesn’t even matter anymore," said Martin. “I could knock the ball down, I could be super lazy back there, it doesn’t change a thing. You know how easy that would be, for me to be back there and not even care about how I catch the ball? That’s not baseball to me. You could get anybody back there to catch, you could get a college kid back there to catch and as long as he’s catching the ball, no matter what it looks likes … so what I do, my skill, its value just goes down, 100 per cent. And everything I’ve worked on my whole life to help a team win just makes no sense anymore, it’s nothing. Which is fine. If it’s consistent, it’s cool and then you have robots and you have the zone and every time it’s a different hitter up there, the zone is perfect to his height. It’s just, if they want to make the game more robotic then I say go ahead, but if they want to keep the game natural, fun and human then it’s like what are we doing? That’s just, once again, it’s just my opinion. I’m just one person, what do I know?"