Dylan’s song title rings true, but are MLB’s changes enough?

Bob Dylan wasn’t referring to baseball when he wrote and recorded “The Times They Are A-Changin’” back in the early ‘60s.

But these days the title of that hit song sure seems apropos.

As you may have read or heard, Major League Baseball has approved significant rules changes, effective in 2023, intended to return the game to its sprightly pace of yesteryear.

Some are better than others, in my opinion. But none of them were necessary back then.

Take shifts. I remember the Cincinnati Reds putting three infielders on the right side of the diamond when Stan Musial came to bat.  They did it because their eyes and their experience told them that Stan The Man was likely enough to pull the ball that a third fielder on his pull side might improve their chances of retiring him.

They didn’t have computer analysis telling them to do it, much less data specifying exactly where to position each fielder. And they didn’t put anyone 30 feet into right field to improve that guy’s angle on sharply hit balls.

So, my reaction to the new prohibition on shifting is mixed. I hail requiring all infielders to play on the dirt, but I say if a team wants to put a third fielder on one side of second base, let ‘em. Even now I wonder why more hitters don’t bunt or try to hit the other way.

Requiring pitchers to work more quickly, and batters to be ready to hit without stepping out of the batter’s box and readjusting their batting gloves after every pitch, certainly will speed things up. Thus, they are good steps, and shouldn’t negatively affect performance.

But I do have a problem with legislating how often the pitcher can throw to first with a runner there, as well as restricting how long he can pause before either throwing to the plate or to first. That alters the strategic conduct of play.

If you wonder about Bob Dylan in all of this, as an example of then and now I researched Cincinnati’s 1956 season to compare it with Colorado’s first 144 games this year. 

Those Redlegs, as they were known during the original preoccupation with Russia, played 155 games that year, the extra game a seven-inning tie that was replayed in its entirety. The average length of their games was two hours and 29 minutes, considerably faster than the Rockies’ average of 3:07 through 144 games this season.

Eighty-one of those 155 games were completed in less than 2:29, and five others lasted exactly the average. The ’22 Rockies played only six of their first 144 in less than Cincinnati’s 1956 average.

Cincinnati and Philadelphia actually played a nine-inning game in one hour and 38 minutes that year—even with 16 baserunners. Colorado’s fastest game in ’22 was last Friday’s 2-1 loss to the Cubs, played in 2:10.

To be complete, Cincinnati did have a game that lasted four hours and four minutes in ‘56. But that one went 15 innings. Cincinnati used only two pitchers—TWO.  

Twenty-one of Cincinnati’s 155 games went extra-innings, a combined 36 additional innings. The ’22 Rockies played 12 through 144—but only 17 extra innings, thanks to the abominable “ghost runner” on second to start every half-inning of extras.  Still, this season’s games last 38 minutes longer.

In Cincinnati’s 155 games in 1956, the Redlegs and their opponents averaged 9.45 runs per game. Through 144 games in ’22, the Rockies and their foes averaged 9.85. Unlike the Rockies’ games this season, those in a pennant race would figure to take longer. Still, this season’s games last 38 minutes longer.

What, then, explains the time difference? The biggest factor is neither batting gloves nor throws to first, but how pitchers were used then and how they work now.

Cincinnati starters finished third—THIRD—in the National League with 47 complete games—FORTY-SEVEN. Besides making 130 starts, the same five guys also appeared in relief 83 times —EIGHTY-THREE.  Three guys pitched more than 200 innings.

The ’22 Rockies had ONE complete game through 144 games, the league leader four. Only two regular Rockies starters have worked out of the bullpen—neither while part of the rotation. No Rockies pitcher will reach 200 innings, even with a 162-game regular-season schedule.

So, while the title of Bob Dylan’s protest song is as right today as it was then, albeit in refernece to other matters, baseball fans might still sing the blues come 2023—changes or not.

Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 14 books, eight of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at dennydressman@comcast.net.