Nippon Professional Baseball is taking on a mole hill as if it were challenging Mt. Everest. This year's targets in the war on wasted time are the seconds squandered by pitchers while the bases are empty.
No one wants to make light of NPB's desire to speed up the game, especially after its success in 2008. But the amount of time wasted by pitchers with no one on is insignificant.
Last year, NPB urged players to speed up inning and pitching changes and shaved nearly five minutes off each game. Despite that success, the games remained pitifully slow (3 hours 13 minutes in 2008) with endless numbers of pickoff throws and trivial pitching changes. Combating these serious dangers to the game's energy level would require changing the game's rules. Unfortunately, NPB is not empowered to do this, so it must wait for the next cold day in hell when Major League Baseball's rule committee acts to restore the game's speed.
This year, NPB, under its new slogan "Let's sho time"--with sho being the Chinese character for reduction--has decided that a pitcher working with none on will deliver the ball within 15 seconds of the time he receives the ball and the batter is prepared for the pitch. Failure to do so will require umpires to call a ball.
"I think all pitchers would think the same, that this isn't baseball," Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters ace Yu Darvish was quoted as saying in The Yomiuri Shimbun. "You go to the resin bag, take a look around and by the time you're set, you have to deliver in three seconds."
It may not be baseball as Darvish or other pitchers envision it, but it's fair to everyone.
There is, however, unintended irony in Darvish's words. The rule isn't baseball, since the official rules require the pitcher to deliver within 12 seconds, not 15.
This returns us to baseball's biggest failure: a smug but perverse pride in not altering its rules in order to preserve the game's energy and balance.
Every other major sport occasionally alters its rules to preserve its energy level and balance. Baseball's biggest move in this area was the introduction of the designated hitter in 1973. The DH has its detractors, but it was a real attempt to add energy to the game.
Otherwise, MLB and NPB do what the Japanese government often does: simply change the interpretation of existing laws. The 12-second rule has existed, but MLB and NPB have chosen to ignore it along with the definition of the strike zone, the requirement to actually force the lead runner on a double play and the prohibition against obstructing bases.
Apologists can argue that baseball's charm is its timeless quality, that the game is the same as the one played by their grandfathers. But no one's grandfather ever twiddled his thumbs while the pitcher kept a runner pinned to first base with 12 pickoff throws and countless looks to the bag.
Baseball, which used to be a battle of speed and wits between runners and fielders, is now a plodding war of attrition in which managers change pitchers at the drop of a hat for little significant gain, and overfed sluggers who can't run or field are some of the biggest stars.
With one stroke, the rules committee could do something really useful, such as eliminating the pernicious practice of sending in pitchers to face one batter. Who benefits from the current tactic? Certainly not the fans. No one pays to watch the game halt so a fringe lefty can make an entrance, throw eight warmup pitches, four or five to the batter and then leave the game. It seems the only one to benefit from it are the pitchers themselves.
The same can be said for moving to reduce the number of pickoff throws somehow. It would change the way the game is played, but unless one likes those tedious grinds between pitcher and runner, that would seem to be a good thing. If stolen bases become more frequent and the game becomes faster in both the physical and temporal sense, that, too, would be a plus.
No managers would be happy with changes that drastically alter the way they wage their on-field wars. But without the kind of dramatic rules that other sports adopt, baseball will never regain the energy that made it America's pastime 140 years ago.