OPINION: After a month of baseball's new rules, it's time to rejoice

·3 min read

May 5—When he was a New York Mets baseball broadcaster, Ralph Kiner once explained how cold weather can shorten by 25 feet the distance a flyball travels: "If the fence is 338 feet (away) and you hit the ball 338 feet, you'll be 25 feet short." Baseball produces more numbers than numeracy.

This season, however, the revived national pastime (more about that designation anon) is giving the nation a lesson in how to put the spring back in its step by taking numbers seriously enough to decisively modify them. Even if, inexplicably, you are not a fan, pause to appreciate major league baseball's solutions to the problems caused, paradoxically, by everyone in the game behaving reasonably on the basis of accurate data.

Stuffed to the gills with "analytics" (baseball-speak for information) about pitchers' "spin rates," batters' "launch angles," etc., baseball sagged into longer nine-inning games — 3 hours and 5 minutes on average last season. Pitchers standing 6-foot-5 and throwing more than 95 mph were overwhelming the game with velocity. It seemed sensible to try to score with one mighty home-run swing than by stringing together hits.

So, soon there were seasons with thousands more strikeouts than hits. As games lengthened, action became rarer. Batters put fewer balls in play: One-third of at-bats ended in walks, strike outs or 360-foot saunters, i.e., home runs. Batted balls that 15 years ago would have been hits, or fielded by feats of extraordinary athleticism, were turned into routine outs by shifts positioning three infielders to one side of second base. (Such shifts are now banned.)

Fans responded by yawning, then disappearing. Annual attendance declined from 79.5 million in 2007 to 64.5 million last year.

Major League Baseball's solution this season? Change some rules, beginning with adding a pitch clock: Pitchers must deliver the ball 15 seconds (20 with runners on base) after receiving the ball from the catcher, otherwise a ball is called. If the batter is not ready with eight seconds remaining on the clock, a strike is called. Few such infractions are occurring; people adjust when they must.

In this season's first 383 games, scoring was up over this point in the 2022 season. The average nine-inning game took only 2 hours and 36 minutes.

In arguably baseball's greatest game — game seven of the 1960 World Series, when the Pirates beat the Yankees 10-9 on a walk-off home run — there was constant action (there were no strikeouts) packed into — wait for it — 2 hours and 36 minutes.

Writer Jayson Stark notes that in 2022 there were 232 nine-inning games at least 3 hours and 30 minutes long, more than one a day for six months. If 2023's games are on average 25 minutes shorter than last year's, this will effectively spare position players, in a six-game week, from the equivalent of a full game on their feet.

Some self-described "traditionalists" regret this restoration of traditional baseball — the game as played and experienced through most of the 20th century. Real conservatives, who are forever being told "you can't turn back the clock," should rejoice that MLB has done this.

Baseball is reconnecting with its past and is poised to reclaim the title of national pastime. It temporarily lost this to the NFL, which, like boxing, involves the public deriving pleasure from watching athletes accept a high risk of brain damage.

Baseball has revived itself by remembering something that is encoded in America's DNA, something that has been intensified by life lived at digital speed: impatience. One of professional baseball's founding fathers, A.G. Spalding (1850-1915), noted, "Two hours is about as long as an American can wait for the close of a Base Ball game — or anything else, for that matter."

George Will's email address is georgewill@washpost.com.