MLB’s 4-Hour Games May Spur Even More Rules Experiments

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Charlie Morton, a starting pitcher for the Atlanta Braves, is ending his 14th big league season, so he’s been around long enough to experience how pitching in Major League Baseball has become the untamed beast it is today.

He’s made 306 starts, 15 in the postseason, barely getting through five innings in Tuesday’s Game 3 start in the National League Championship Series.

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Morton gave way to four Braves relievers, as the Dodgers came from behind in the eighth inning to win, 6-5. Los Angeles used nine pitchers on the day, and went through 40 pitchers overall in the five games since Game 4 of its NL Division Series victory over the San Francisco Giants, which came down to the last pitch.

Rule changes to prevent all that may be coming.

The Dodgers are down 3-1 and are on the verge of losing the best-of-seven series Thursday night in Game 5 at Dodger Stadium. They have only themselves to blame. The Dodgers have taxed their bullpen to the max and burnt two of their starters—Max Scherzer and Julio Urias—in high-leverage relief innings just to get to this point. The two were ineffective in their succeeding starts.

That was the potential cost, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said.

“If you look at all four teams that are remaining, we’re all in the same situation,” said Roberts, whose team had four hits during Wednesday’s 9-2 Game 4 home loss, in which the Braves had to use a one-inning opener and five other relievers. “We’re doing what gives us the best chance to get through this series and win four games.”

The Braves will have Max Fried, one of the best starters in the league for the second half of the season, to try to lock down the series. Fried threw six innings of two-run, eight-hit ball in a Game 1 win at Atlanta.

The Dodgers are out of starters and will be forced to use the bullpen in what now is the most crucial game of the year. They were well aware of being short. Clayton Kershaw and Justin May are out with injuries. Trevor Bauer is ineligible as MLB investigates him under its domestic abuse program.

The Braves also have their pitching issues, but skipper Brian Snitker said he isn’t predisposed to manage like this.

“It is different,” he said. “I mean, I was raised in a culture that existed on starting pitching.”

So were the Braves. A generation ago, they appeared in five World Series, with one title, led by Hall of Fame pitchers Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz, who all took the ball and pitched deep into games.

Those days are over. This year’s NLCS Game 3 lasted 4 hours, 14 minutes, to play just 8 1/2 innings. There were 340 pitches tossed in the game.

It took 4:04 to play Tuesday’s night’s nine-inning Game 4 of the American League Championship Series at Fenway Park, in which Houston came from behind to defeat Boston. The two teams combined to use 11 pitchers and toss 298 pitches.

The Astros lead that series 3-2 with a possibly decisive Game 6 at Houston Friday night.

Morton said he doesn’t expect any of this to change any time soon.

“The swing and misses are at a premium, and the flexibility that managers feel like they have with bullpens, openers, you’re seeing it with different guys in different roles,” Morton said. “And the name of the game is run prevention. As long as it’s working—and I think it’s working really, really well—I just don’t think that without altering the rules of the game you can’t really fight against it because it’s been proven effective.”

MLB may be contemplating more rules changes in ongoing collective bargaining for a new Basic Agreement. The old five-year deal expires Dec. 1, and there’s a possibility of the owners locking out the players by then if a new agreement isn’t reached.

November promises to be a frenzy as the clock ticks down.

Right now, the first shift has been to “the three-batter minimum,” Morton pointed out.

In general, the rule stipulates, with some caveats, that a relief pitcher must face at least three batters when he’s brought into a game. As the above overuse of pitchers illustrates, the rule hasn’t done anything to curtail managers from deploying relievers.

The MLB Players Association didn’t agree to adopt that rule, anyway. There’s a stipulation in the current agreement that allows MLB to institute a rule a year after announcing a desire to do so. The owners have been reluctant, though, to implement without compliance from the players.

MLB was going to limit the number of active pitchers on the 26-man roster to 12, but that rule was temporarily abandoned the past two seasons because of health and safety concerns involving the coronavirus. There was no limit this year, but most clubs carried 13.

Expect a diminished number of active pitchers on the roster next season.

Other new rules now tested in the Arizona Fall League are a 15-second pitch clock, only two pick-off attempts with a runner on first base per batter appearance, larger bases, and two infielders on either side of second base with none playing any farther out than the infield skin. That totally would eradicate the penchant to shift infielders on almost every pitch.

It’s all designed to speed up the tempo of each game.

At Salt River Fields in Scottsdale, Ariz., the automated strike zone is also on display. The MLB umpires’ union has already agreed to work with the league on that testing. And once the players sign off on it, implementation in the Majors seems likely.

MLB already has an advanced tracking system in each of the 30 big-league ballparks that’s used to grade the ball-strike performances of every umpire. An umpire must grade at 90% or better to call the game from behind the plate during the playoffs.

The MLBPA ardently has been against the use of pitch clocks, which have been tested with some success in the low and unaffiliated minor leagues. The 15-second clock was tried six weeks into this past season in a lower minor league and by the end shaved 21 minutes off of every game.

A 20-second clock was utilized two years ago in the Arizona Fall League, and games averaged about 2:30.

A nine-inning Major League game averaged a record 3:10 this season, up from 3:07 during the pandemic-shortened, 60-game 2020 season and 3:05 in 2019, an alarming trend.

The multiple pitching changes have a lot to do with it, Snitker admitted.

“I would obviously much rather have four starting pitchers at this point,” he said, “but it’s where we’re at, and we have to adjust and adapt accordingly.”