How to fix baseball

Photo: Boston Globe

I’ve always loved baseball. But it’s gotten slow and boring, and young people are losing interest. It’s time for some radical changes.

Veteran sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy summed up the problem in the Boston Globe. It’s an average of 3 minutes and 45 seconds between balls put in play. There are interminable waits between innings and while managers visit the mound to make changes or just chat. Pitchers face just one or two batters. And the strikeouts! For the first time this year, there are more strikeouts than hits. It takes an average of three hours to play a game.

Great pitching and strikeouts are fun, but let’s be honest. We like to watch home runs and hits to the outfield. We like to watch great fielding plays. We like to watch action! Even as I write this in a city where the Red Sox have baseball’s best record, I’d like to see more action.

Rule changes can make a big difference in a game. Think of how the 24-second clock and the three-point line changed basketball. It’s still basketball. You still have to get open and put the ball in the basket, and you still have to dribble when you move with the ball. There’s just less waiting around for something to happen.

So here are my suggestions on what to change in baseball. Some of these are radical ideas, but they’re intended to improve the experience without changing the fundamentals — pitching, hitting, fielding, baserunning — and without putting a clock on it.

  • Call balls and strikes electronically. Yes, I know the “K-Zone” display we see on TV isn’t completely accurate, but it’s still more consistent than umpires. Make it better. Then use it to call balls and strikes. I’m happy to have the umpires bellowing the results, but at least we won’t have to see batters bellyaching about the raw deal they’re getting. And after that, tune the technology to call safe and out on force plays.
  • Require player substitutions after a player has three strikeouts. Three strikes and you’re out . . . and three strikeouts and you’re out of the game. That ought to cut down on the strikeouts. This rule will require more and better bench players, of course. We’ll make room for them with fewer relief pitchers (see next suggestion).
  • Starting with the fourth pitcher, batters get four strikes. There are too many specialist pitchers in the bullpen, resulting in too many strategic pitching moves and starters that only go an average of six innings. Three pitchers in a game is fine. If the manager uses a fourth pitcher, the batters get an extra strike. Result: Managers will leave starters in longer and use fewer relievers (and have fewer of them on staff). Pitch velocities will drop as pitchers conserve their strength, and hits will go up. And there will be more room on rosters for bench players.
  • Random shocks for pitchers who take too long. . .  Pitchers take about 18 seconds between pitches — even though the rule says they should take no more than 12. That’s why we spend so much time listening to announcers prattle on while the pitcher contemplates what to do next. So let’s make it exciting. Have the ball deliver a small and annoying electric shock at a random time for a pitcher who takes more than 15 seconds to deliver the ball. Don’t do it every time — it’s more worrisome if it happens at random intervals, say, about once every five violations. Pitchers will comply and waste less time between pitches. And, as demonstrated, pitchers who wait less don’t throw the ball quite as fast, which will lead to more offense.
  • . . . and for batters who take too long, too. Allow batters to step out and call time out at most once per at bat. If they ask for time again, they may get the random shock treatment from their bats, just like the pitchers.
  • Free crotch-punches for headhunting pitchers. The brawls that break out because of perceived slights between teams are boring. If you like seeing athletes hit each other, watch wrestling — the scripts are better. Ejections haven’t been effective in deterring this stupidity. So I propose a new rule. After the second solid hit-by-pitch at waist height or higher — or the first, if the umpires have warned the teams — the batter is allowed to approach the pitcher and punch him solidly in the crotch. This will deter headhunting far more effectively than the rules now in place.
  • Every roster must include a woman. Unlike football or basketball, baseball accommodates a wide variety of body types. There are plenty of women who have the talent to play baseball — but they’re too smart to participate with the game the way it is now. Mandate that every active roster include a female player, and you’ll add interest to the game across all genders and make the strategy interesting. It’s unlikely there’s a woman capable of 100-mile-per-hour fastballs, but once this rule is passed, we’ll likely see women as catchers, knuckleball pitchers, submarine-type relievers, and pinch runners. I’d tune in to see that.
  • Player get to personalize their hats. Players’ desires to personalize their look are now limited to facial hair, gold chains and gloves; as a result, their personalities can’t shine through. Let’s let players put whatever they want on their hats (next to the team logo, of course). Everything from sponsorship deals to nonprofits to political protest will play out on the baseball caps. That ought to create a spectacle worth tuning in for.

My suggestions won’t change the essence of baseball (although, admittedly, they’ll tilt things a little more in favor of batters over pitchers). Unlike others, I’m not suggesting limiting the game to seven innings, starting extra innings with a player on second, or putting the game on a clock (yuck!). I just want baseball pitchers to pitch more than a few innings, hitters to make contact instead of striking out, and everybody to concentrate on what they do best. If that requires shaking things up a bit, then so be it.

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  1. Funny: Years ago, I had my own ideas about fixing baseball:
    1. Let the batter make a face (hideous or funny), or wear a mask (or Joker makeup, or Groucho eyebrows, or a bulbous nose) to freak out the pitcher.
    2. Let the pitcher wear a mask to freak out the batter.
    3. Let the outfielder wear a clown-size glove.
    4. Let the outfielder toss his glove in the air to intercept a home run; if he catches the ball (with or without the glove attached to it), it’s an out. If the ball falls to the ground, at least the batter can be held to second or third base.
    5. Color the ball orange so let the fielders don’t lose sight of it against the night lights.
    6. Allow a hollow bat half-filled with a heavy liquid that will flow from the handle to the sweet spot as the batter swings.

  2. I enjoy your blog, but honestly there are so many truly informed people thinking about this, why not just link to one of those articles. Baseball has some real problems but what some see as boring is merely a symptom. Addressing the symptoms won’t fix the game.

    Not exactly a blog post about clear writing.

  3. I have a couple of baseball fans in my house. I have noticed that when the game is moving with homers and base runners they stay and watch. After 3 strike outs from the smoking hot pitchers they may stay seated however, they
    are also flipping channels and talking about other things. I have heard people say “it’s like watching paint dry” Good topic !

  4. Funny stuff, Josh. When I was reading Dan Shaughnessey’s article, I, too, thought about electric shocks to lollygagging pitchers. More fun even than watching a home run!

  5. Two of my biggest beefs about baseball 1. there is an official MLB strike zone but Homeplate umpires are allowed to call balls and strikes based on their personal interpretation . Game announcers will say that the homeplate umpire for that game has a high , low , narrow or wide strikezone.
    Therefore on a 4 game weekend series there can be four different strikezones . BRING IN THE ELECTRIC EYE !

    2. When a player is running from base to base on a play and any part of his body touches the base before the ball arrives in the opposing player’s glove , he should be SAFE . End of play . But as the player is running hard , he cannot stop on a dime and his leg will slide off the base . The opposing player can then tag him out .
    WRONG ,WRONG WRONG .The player has already made contact with the base . Sliding off because he was running fast should not make him an out .

  6. Probably time to revisit this one, Josh. Mid-season turn and the new rules haven’t broken the game. Your closing paragraph could use another look.