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A 'Foul' Way For Baseball To Speed Up The Game

June 15, 2017
Anybody who has been paying attention for the past decade, give or take a few years, knows baseball has been overwhelmed with numbers. Some might say too many numbers. Others simply ask: "When is enough too much?"

And, if you've been paying attention to this corner lately, it won't come as a shock that "After Further Review" has an answer to the question. When the various statistics seemingly outnumber the categories, that should be a clear signal that we've reached the saturation point -- that enough really is too much.

We came to that conclusion recently when somebody came up with the information that the Baltimore Orioles' pitching staff has given up more foul balls than any other team in baseball. Really? We know all about batting average on balls in play (BABIP for the recklessly informed), but is somebody really keeping track of balls not in play?

At least we don't have to worry about averages on BNIP -- a tidy .000. But hold on a minute, maybe there's a silver lining to all this madness. Upon further review, if you'll pardon the plug, maybe this fascination with foul balls could lead to something big in MLB headquarters, where commissioner Rob Manfred's priority to speed up the game seems to dominate efforts of the marketing department.

In an era in which new parks are designed to make modern look old fashioned and where "going back to the basics" is chapter one in a managers' strategy handbook, maybe this new-found devotion to the impact of the foul ball can lead all the way back to the basics -- back to the sandlots. How about the "four fouls and you're out" rule? 

It's a guaranteed way to speed up the game -- certainly faster than the lame automatic intentional walk. And it would surely be more acceptable than the idea of placing runners on first and second when overtime games reached the 12th inning (which was done during the World Baseball Classic and is at least under consideration by MLB).

It would not only speed up the games, but also save money -- the two main reasons it was such a staple in "choose-up games" on the sandlots, one handed down from generation to generation, but mostly abandoned with the advent of organized playground games.

Laugh if you will, but this isn't any more farfetched than some of the ideas that have been suggested about speeding up the game. Kids on the sandlots back in the day were way ahead of their time. There was no more than one ball in play at a time -- and it took time to get it back in play every time it was not in fair territory (or unfairly hit to coin a term). It also reduced wear and tear on the ball. "Four fouls and you're out" put a premium on getting the ball in play and preserving the ball to see another game.

Only kids on the sandlot could keep it so simple. I can't imagine Manfred won't take a look at an idea so revolutionary it was in place a century ago. I mean, the intentional walk was basically banned because it supposedly was boring. Well, using that guideline, the only thing more "boring" than a foul ball is ... well ... four, five, six, seven or eight of them.

Adopting such a radical rule might also resolve a pet (admittedly personal) peeve about these too often praised "quality at bats" by hitters, who, quite unintentionally, manage to prolong at-bats with a string of foul balls (some no more than mere "tips"). They draw praise for being unable to do what they are trying to do. 

How many times have you heard an announcer say "that was a great at-bat by so-and-so," when, in effect, it was a prolonged exercise in futility. With pitch counts being the priority they are today, it might have been a productive at-bat for the team, but it surely wasn't because the batter did anything positive. He was trying to put the ball in play for crying out loud. He was trying to do something positive, like get a hit. He wasn't up there trying to fail eight or nine times. He wasn't trying to hit a foul ball (they don't do it on purpose, believe me).

Somebody like Orioles right-hander Dylan Bundy (reportedly the O's most "fouled-off" hurler) can throw seven or eight quality strikes in a 10-pitch sequence, all of which result in foul balls because the batter fails to make significant contact, but the guy swinging the bat with no evidence of success is credited with a "great at-bat." I never quite understood that rationale. It seems like the pitcher deserves something more than a "nice try" and an inflated pitch count that gets him closer to a premature exit.

The baseball industry has put a premium on starting pitchers, especially when it comes to salary. It has also put limits on him based on the number of innings and/or pitches. If baseball is so intent on speeding up the game, and if it wants to get a better return on its investments, then maybe it's time to start looking for ways to keep those starters on the field longer -- not only for the good of his team, but for the benefit of the fan.

Believe me on this one -- I like baseball, warts and all, the way it is. But I hate pitch counts -- the one statistic that, in this opinion, has taken complete control of the game. Baseball has to find a way to extend starting pitchers beyond the arbitrary (and many think unnecessary) limit of 100 pitches. 

I think the way to do that is to find a way to make them last longer -- to throw more pitches, to be more significant to the outcome of the game. And if there aren't any other ways to do it, if it takes what would be a radical but not so revolutionary rule, even one that dates back to the sandlots, then so be it.

Maybe "four fouls and you're out" could be enough that isn't too much.

Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com.

Issue 234: June 2017