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The fascinating experiment of the Atlantic League

Are baseball games too long? If you think so, you'll probably want to pay attention to the Atlantic League for the next couple months.

Independent leagues are usually good for a wacky promotion or five every year, and they're also good for some old-fashioned stunts. They have to be good at that stuff; hustling to sell tickets to unaffiliated ballgames is an art.

Sometimes the stunts include well-known, former major-leaguers. Bill Lee pitched (and won) a game in the North American League last year (his perfect game was broken up by a Kalaika Kahoohalahala single). Sometimes the clubs try to make an impression with a memorable promotion, such as "Dress Up Like a Sports Criminal" night. And sometimes the former players and promotions can form a nice synergy. Indie leagues will try all sorts of things, mostly because they have to.

This experiment, though, might be the best one of all. From a press release:

The Atlantic League of Professional Baseball Clubs, Inc., today announced plans for a season long experiment to explore ways to reduce the average time of a nine-inning Atlantic League baseball game and to improve the pace of professional games regardless of length. Extensive data will be collected this season to assist in evaluating suggested changes.

It's not just a silly promotion or giveaway, or a noteworthy roster move involving a player you remember. It's something worth studying, something useful. The proposed changes:

  • Calling the strike zone as the rulebook dictates (i.e. more pitches above the belt)
  • Enforcing existing rule against hitters leaving the batter's box
  • Pitchers get eight warm-up pitches, unless it takes over a minute to deliver them
  • Pitchers have to deliver the ball within 12 seconds of receiving it
  • There will be 90 seconds between innings
  • If a game goes over two hours, 45 minutes, both managers, all of the umpires, the home GM, and the official scorer have to submit a report to the league office
  • hahahaha

Oh, man, that last one is going to troll some people fierce. TPS reports are now coming to baseball. Don't forget the cover sheet.

Here's something the Atlantic League doesn't have to think too much about: commercials. So if you're looking for an apples-to-apples comparison between what they're doing and what MLB could do, this ain't it.

But it's possible to play baseball games that don't last three hours. Heck, here's the first game of a doubleheader in 1926, and here's the second game. Total time? Two hours and seven minutes. For both games combined.

I guess the biggest question is if MLB really cares about the length of games. If people have a problem with it, they aren't showing their displeasure at the box office or by not watching local broadcasts. And shorter games means fewer commercials, even if you don't' monkey around with the time between innings. Fewer commercials doesn't have to lead to less money -- if the supply of ad spots goes down, maybe the demand goes up, and the prices go up, too -- but it most certainly could hurt revenue. There are smarter people whose job it is to know this, and some of them are working for MLB.

I think while most of us would push a magic button to shorten games by a half-hour, MLB, Bud Selig and the collected owners don't really have a reason to care right now, which is kind of a shame.

At the very least, though, we'll get a chance to see if it's possible to make some substantial chances to the average length of a professional baseball game, even if the Atlantic League isn't a perfect comp for MLB. Maybe one day things won't be going so well for baseball, and instead of the DH, maybe the league will figure that attacking three-hour games is the way to make a difference.

The last Long Island Ducks game was an 8-2 game that lasted just over two-and-a-half hours. Even if you don't think there's any way for MLB to compete with that, it'll be fascinating to see how short they can make the games with the new rules.