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Arizona Fall League 2014: It's the final countdown

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An immaculate night for baseball at Salt River Fields, saw the Rafters squeak by the Saguaros 1-0. But attention was somewhat drawn by the large, ticking clock behind the plate...

"Yes, baseball games take longer than it seems they should. During the season that can be a bore. But in a close game in October, the hours only heighten the tension in the theater because there's no clock ticking off the minutes and the seconds."
-- Dave Anderson, New York Times, 1995

"20... 19... 18... 17... 16... 15..."
-- MLB, Arizona, 2014

There's no doubt that major-league games are increasing in length, going from 2:55 in 2010 to an average of 3:08 last season. If it were the result of more things happening, that might be one thing, but over the same time, the number of runs per game decreased from 4.38 to 4.07. It's not even that there are more plate appearances or pitches per PA: both of those also declined in that period. Is the length of the game a problem? Some think it's one of the factors leading to the aging demographic of baseball viewers. Last year, for the two Championship Series, kids 6-17 made up just 4.3% of the audience, down over 40% from a decade prior.

Major-league baseball certainly thinks it's a problem. MLB's Joe Torre said, "There have been a number of owners that have heard complaints from their fans that the games are running too long. We’d like to be able to cut the game 10-15 minutes and get it around the 2:50 mark to get it a little more reasonable for people coming to the ballpark... It’s something we have to study, and we’ve got smart people on it." The prototype created by those "smart people" was on view at Salt River Fields last night, in the first full-scale test of the proposed changes. And to be brutally honest, the results hardly seemed like the product of baseball's top minds.

The main change was the presence of several digital clock, both behind home-plate and in the outfield, so visible to both pitcher and hitter. Most obviously, when the ball was returned to the pitcher, the clock started counting down from 20 seconds, imposing a time-limit per pitch. Don't throw the ball before the countdown reaches zero? A ball is called by the umpire and added to the count. Similar, obviously longer, countdowns were also in place between innings, and for pitching changes, with same penalties for non-compliance: an automatic ball if the umpire deemed the pitcher responsible, an automatic strike if it was the hitter's fault.

Countdown

Distracting, isn't it? As a spectator, I found my eyes inexorably drawn toward the clock during an at-bat - accompanied by the theme from 24 in my head. I can only imagine what it was like for the pitcher. Remember Game One of the 2007 NLDS, where Cubs fans in the home-plate seats were flashing a neon sign, until the umpires cracked down? Imagine that for every pitch. Word was that Archie Bradley found the clock a distraction during his season-opener last week, and the display color was muted before last night. Though since Bradley's second start, in Surprise (where the clock isn't used) was no better, it sounds more like an excuse than a reason.

The potential problems are obvious. I'm certain, with a crowd bigger than the 831 in attendance at SRF last night, you'll get chants of the countdown, like WWE fans at the Royal Rumble. [In a twisted way, I wouldn't mind if the last few seconds were accompanied by a klaxon, like on American Ninja Warrior, to add drama!] I suspect some evil attendees at certain stadia - hello, Philadelphia! - might attempt to screw with the pitcher by a fast count, reaching "3... 2... 1..." when the clock still had longer to go. And, since the clock starts when the ball is received by the pitcher, the hitter doesn't have to be ready to receive, so can dawdle, effectively sending the pitcher into hurry-up mode.

Deciding who's responsible is another issue. One penalty last night came when the clock ran out between innings. The home-plate umpire called a ball against the Rafters, but the home coaches complained the hitter wasn't ready to receive the pitch, and he ended up walking on four pitches. While he didn't score, it's easy to see how this kind of thing can turn a whole game. The impact certainly won't be limited to speeding up proceedings: it will also add a new tactical dimension, likely unintended and perhaps unwanted. For instance, a pitcher stepping off the rubber is eliminated, as the clock continues until a throw, be it to home or first. The cure may be worse than the disease.

AFL 2014-10-14

What of the game itself? It was a rarity for the AFL, a pitcher's duel - for comparison, the other two games played yesterday, resulted in 26 runs scored. Both starters here were in top form, combining for nine shutout innings. The Rafters' Mark Appel, a Houston prospect, was particularly impressive, giving up one hit over four frames, bringing some serious cheese with six strikeouts. [The Rafters' staff fanned 13 in total] Both men were helped by some excellent defense, particularly from the infield, where Boston's Deven Marrero was a human vacuum at shortstop for the Saguaros, sucking up everything in the middle infield.

The Diamondbacks on view had a quiet night. Unfortunately, we didn't get to see any of our pitchers - I was hoping for Enrique Burgos or Jimmie Shefy, but neither reliever was used. Brandon Drury was missing too. However, we did have Evan Marzilli in left-field and Peter O'Brien started at first-base for Salt River. Marzilli showed good speed up the line to leg out an infield hit on a high chopper, and went 1-for-3. O'Brien was hitless in his three at-bats, with a pair of strikeouts: I was reminded of Mark Reynolds, in that you get the sense if he makes contact, the ball will go a long way. But it is a pretty big "if". He looked solid enough at first, but I'd rather have seen him behind the plate.

Neither side managed a hit with an RISP, going 0-for-8. The best scoring chance over the first seven innings probably went to Salt River. After Marzilli's single led off the second, another hit and a groundout put runners on the corners with one down. But the top prospect in all baseball, according to mlb.com, the Twins' Byron Buxton, was picked off first, and Marzilli was left on this. It was the bottom of the eighth, when this was decided: Andrew Aplin lined a ball down into the right-field corner, and pinch-runner Taylor Featherston came all the way around from first to score the go-ahead run. Surprise stranded the tying run on third, and Salt River improved their record to 6-1.

AFL 2014-10-14

Other random notes. Saguaros 2B Sean Coyle was ejected by home-plate umpire Doug Vines, after striking out in the sixth. It's the first time I've seen an ejection in the AFL, which is normally a very mild-mannered, laid-back kind of league. I can only presume he said something as he was walking back to the dugout. If MLB is looking to speed up the pace of games, they should examine instant replay, as the two reviews last night seemed to take forever. [In both cases, the ruling stood] That said, last night's contest was over in 2:14, six minutes less than ANY Diamondbacks game last year so maybe, overall, the changes did have the desired effect. Of course, a 1-0 score didn't hurt!

At $8, it is astonishingly good value for any seat in the house (or move as you see fit), to see some of the game's top young players in action, in a very relaxed and informal setting. We were sitting two rows behind Superfan Susan, and despite the wretched season, her enthusiasm was every bit as strong and vocal, in probably her 100th or more game of the year, as it was in spring training. Such devotion can only be admired. However, a minor complaint for the evening: Mrs. SnakePit had her heart set on hot chocolate during the late innings, only to be denied by the sole open concession stand not serving any hot drinks at all. There's only so much diet soda one can consume, y'know...

But all told, it was an excellent evening, and if you haven't taken in an AFL game, you are missing out on one of the valley's hidden treasures. Thanks to Songbird for hanging out with us, and a tip of the cap to the various other SnakePit readers who stopped by to say hello over the course of the evening. At the end of the night, I had only one thought on my mind. When does spring training start?

AFL 2014-10-14