The NCAA Baseball Rules Committee took another step toward addressing college baseball's pace of play dilemma this week, voting to mandate the use of a timing device and enforce in-game penalties for failing to meet time limits. A 20-second limit between pitches and a 90-second limit between innings will be enforced in all regular-season and postseason games in every conference. The proposal still must be approved by the Playing Rules Oversight Panel at its August meeting, but approval is very likely.
Pitchers are already required to start their delivery within 20 seconds of getting the ball back from an umpire when no runners are on base, but that rule has not been enforced until now. The rules committee's proposal will require the second- or third-base umpire to carry a clock and enforce the rule, unless conferences choose to use a visible clock and assign an "back-up umpire" to administer the rules.
If a pitcher fails to start his delivery within 20 seconds, his team will be issued one warning. A second violation will result in a ball being called automatically. If a batter is responsible for the delay, his team will get a warning, and a second violation will result in a strike. The penalties are the same for teams that do not meet the 90-second between-innings limit. The committee recommended a time limit for televised games of 108 seconds, but it acknowledged that the time between innings will continue to be a negotiable point in TV agreements.
The pace of play became a major issue after the 2009 College World Series, when the average game time was a record three hours, 38 minutes. This year that average dropped to three hours, 23 minutes, and the average for nine-inning games was three hours, 18 minutes.
The Southeastern Conference experimented with a 20-second pitch clock (displayed beyond the outfield fence and behind the batter) and a 108-second between-innings clock at its conference tournament this year, and the results were striking. The average nine-inning game at the SEC tournament was two hours, 43 minutes—26 minutes shorter than the average nine-inning SEC tournament game in 2009, and 13 minutes shorter than the average regular-season game in 2010.
Though no violations of either time limit were committed in Hoover, some players—like Mississippi ace lefthander Drew Pomeranz—said they worked faster knowing the clock was in place.
Rules committee chairman Gary Overton (East Carolina's associate athletics director) told Baseball America on Friday that the SEC's data played a significant factor in the committee's decision to apply the time limits across the board.
"We had the numbers that proved just that—that the time per game in the SEC tournament vs. regular season was cut down by a pretty substantial margin, as was time between tournament games from previous years, as was the entire day when multiple games were played," Overton said. "The numbers showed that it had an effect.
"If it's enforced, what it disallows is lingering play with no runners on base. It'll eliminate pitchers from working very slowly. Twenty seconds is very generous, but there are pitchers that do not adhere to that 20-second limit."
The committee also voted to make a slight change to the obstruction rules, in an effort to provide fielders the ability to make a play on a thrown ball during a play at a base. Previously, any contact made between a fielder and runner could be called obstruction unless the fielder had possession of the ball. In the new proposal, a fielder that has established himself will be provided the opportunity to field the throw without penalty.
"We're simply giving a little more availability to the fielder to field the ball," Overton said. "If he's in the act of fielding the ball, we know he can't block a base or the plate, primarily for the catcher. He can't block the plate, but in the act of fielding the ball, he has the right to go where he needs to go to field the ball, and obstruction will not be called."
Last year, the rules committee imposed a moratorium on composite-barreled bats and voted to slightly change the bat testing procedure in 2011—in an effort to make the bats more "wood-like," as American Baseball Coaches Association executive director Dave Keilitz said in Omaha. Previous bat testing emphasized the speed with which a ball exited the bat, but there were discrepancies with different lengths of bats, according to the Associated Press. Researchers for the NCAA believe the new formula will offer a more direct measure, using wood-bat performance as the baseline. Composite barrels will be allowed again in 2011 if they meet the new standards, the AP reported last month.
It's unclear what kind of effect the new testing procedure will have, but it's even more unclear whether the composite-barrel moratorium had any impact.
In the NCAA's postseason trends report, scoring actually increased—from 6.88 runs per game in 2009 to 6.98 runs per game in 2010—and so did batting, from .302 to .305. Home runs were down slightly, from 0.96 per game to 0.94 per game, but that is still higher than the home run rate in any other year since 1999.
Still, Overton said the data did not change his opinion on the necessity of the composite-barrel moratorium.
"We were a little surprised, even with the moratorium on the bats, that offense was up a little," Overton said. "For you and I to say that it's because of better hitters and weaker pitching, or strength programs in effect, or the bats, we may or may not be right. Who knows?"
Indeed, there could be multiple possible explanations for the increase in offense, and one year of data is insufficient to dismiss the impact of the moratorium. In the past two years, BA heard numerous coaches voice concerns about abnormally high exit speeds off composite barrels. This year, we did not hear a single concern about exit speeds from coaches. That's purely anecdotal, but Keilitz agreed that coaches are generally satisfied with the moratorium.
"I think our coaches, at least in Division I, are pleased with the performance that we have now and hopefully again next year," Keilitz said at the NCAA's state of baseball press conference before the CWS. "But then of course, when you put a moratorium on the graphite-barrel bat, many feel that made a difference for this year also."
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