You haven’t seen the life sucked out of a baseball game until you’ve witnessed Cubs catcher Willson Contreras visiting the mound over and over again. You could lay pipe for a pitcher’s drinking fountain from the path he has beaten at Wrigley Field.
Major League Baseball has put in a new rule that limits visits to the mound to six per nine innings, and if one word could sum up what this means, it would be “hallelujah.’’ I don’t have statistics at my fingertips to tell me how often Contreras trotted out to see if he and a pitcher were on the same page last season. The light that has permanently gone out of my eyes suggests it was about 145 per game.
The intent of the new rule is to speed up the pace of play, which too often creeps and crawls when it should be ambling or whiling away a summer afternoon. We’re not asking that every inning be a fast break. We’re asking that every inning go the way it’s supposed to go naturally, without the eye-rolling interruptions of Contreras and others. Contreras argues that he has important information to exchange with his pitchers, but there were times last season when it looked like he was lonely or wanted to trade Pokemon cards.
“What about a tight game or extra-inning game and you have to go out there?” he said recently. “They cannot say anything about that. That’s my team. If they are going to fine me, I’ll pay the price.”
Contreras might change his tune when he realizes an umpire can eject him for making too many visits to the mound.
This is not about what Contreras needs as a catcher or Jon Lester needs as a pitcher. It’s about you, the viewing audience, the people who pay for the tickets that help pay for the players’ salaries. It’s about whether today’s fans want to sit through games that averaged three hours, five minutes last season. Some don’t. Many more could-be fans down the road won’t.
“The diehards don’t care about the length of the game,’’ Indians manager Terry Francona told the Arizona Republic. “They don’t want any changes to the sport. But I’m not sure you can fill up your ballpark with them.’’
Exactly. People have all sorts of options when it comes to their free time these days, and many of those options involve staring at some sort of device. The modern attention span is the time between blinks. The health of the game is at stake, and MLB is responding appropriately.
The new rule doesn’t have anything to do with pitching changes, which is too bad. If officials were really serious about speeding up the game, they would apply official salve to Joe Maddon’s itchy trigger finger. The Cubs manager has pitchers coming in and out of games like worker ants. I know: He’s keeping them fresh for the latter part of the season. Meanwhile, we’re catatonic by the eighth inning. There has to be a better way than five relievers and a boatload of warm-up pitches from the seventh inning on.
Lester argues rightly that technology has made stealing catchers’ signals easier. But the answer isn’t more mound meetings in which he and Contreras have deep conversations while talking into their gloves. The answer is in figuring out a system in which signals can be changed regularly during games without conferences.
“There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take (mound visits) away, it takes away from the beauty of the baseball game,” Lester said.
There is beauty in the way a game can meander one moment and boil over the next. But there is no beauty in artificial pauses. We can’t do without replay now. We can do without other stoppages that bring the game to a halt. Listen to the crowd grumble when catchers repeatedly jog to the mound. That sound you hear is fun being escorted out of the old ballpark.
Contreras has recently found his voice, and it has quite the decibel level. He caused a stir at the Cubs Convention last month when he said he was going to be a better catcher than the Cardinals’ Yadier Molina and the Giants’ Buster Posey.
No big deal. He’s an emotional kid, and, who knows, he might end up being right. But he’s living in a mask-enclosed bubble, and he doesn’t seem to understand the immediate impact of his words. The new rule limiting mound visits isn’t about him or his ability to do his job. It’s about saving the sport from death by boredom.
The game is slow. Speed it up. Everybody on board? Good. Let’s get moving.