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Nick Cafardo | Baseball notes

MLB works on its fast ball

Improvement seen in speeding up games

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / June 8, 2008

A detailed and ongoing study conducted by Major League Baseball, results of which were obtained by the Globe, has revealed that since existing speed-up rules were enforced starting May 23, game times have improved overall by two minutes on average.

The average time of game as of May 22 was 2:51, but it's 2:49 since May 23. What's interesting is that time of game had increased from 2006 and 2007 from 2:47 to 2:51 at the start of this season.

MLB analysts also track the average number of seconds between pitches as a major indicator of pace of games. This stat is formulated by taking the total time of the game (minus commercial breaks) divided by total pitches. It enables the analysts to "look at non-network and network games on a level playing field."

In that category, the overall number has risen from 26.4 seconds in 2006, to 26.6 seconds in 2007, to 27.4 seconds in 2008. However, since the enforcement of speed-up rules, 26.8 seconds are lapsing between pitches.

The Red Sox have improved noticeably in their time between pitches - from 29.5 seconds before May 23d to 27.6 through last Thursday's brawlgame with Tampa Bay, an improvement from 13th to 11th in the league.

The slowest after Boston since May 23 are the Yankees at 28.0 seconds (29.9 prior to May 23), Cleveland at 28.1 (formerly 28.3), and Tampa Bay at 28.5 (formerly 28.1). The best are the Angels and Oakland at 25.4 seconds.

Through Thursday, Boston's time of game after the enforcement was 2:51, which was seventh in the American League. The biggest offenders post-enforcement are the Indians (3:12), Rangers (3:11), and the Yankees (3:06), the only three teams running at more than three hours, while Tampa Bay is right on the cusp at 2:59.

The Angels remain the American League's speediest team, with games averaging 2:35.

In the National League, the speediest between pitches are the Nationals at 25.5 seconds and the slowpokes are the Brewers and Mets at 27.2 and the Dodgers and Padres at 27.4.

There's also the issue of total pitches per game. They can add up when you have patient batters coupled with poor pitching staffs. In that regard, it figures that Rangers games average 322.6 pitches, slightly more than the Indians (321.5) and Yankees (303.9). Surprisingly, Red Sox games rank fifth in the AL with 284.1 pitches per game. That's a sign that their own pitching staff is economical while their patient lineup may be slightly less patient than in the past.

MLB spokesman Patrick Courtney said teams will be constantly apprised of the findings as time goes on. If a team or two is showing higher time-of-game numbers, they'll be hearing from MLB.

MLB vice president of umpiring Mike Port is pleased with how his umpires have enforced the rules. Port points out that the pace has improved without any detriment to the game.

"More can be done," said Port. "Two-thirds of the players are in compliance and are well-intentioned. It's the one-third we need to have climb aboard."

Port said he and the umpires understand the routines and idiosyncrasies some players have, and they don't want to inhibit them, but the idea is to keep the inaction to a minimum.

Umpires have begun to get on hitters about stepping out of the box, and time out has been denied in a couple of cases. In one case, a National League hitter was told three times not to step out of the box, and when he ignored the umpire's wishes, he was rung up with a strike.

There have been charges that umpires have wider strike zones, but Port rejects that based on his numbers and the umpire evaluating system. It seems far-fetched that an umpire would hurt his accuracy ratings to speed up games by calling more strikes.

"We have QuesTec in 11 ballparks around baseball, and an independent firm provides us numbers on the non-QuesTec fields in regards to umpires," said Port. "Our numbers show that the percentage of called third strikes in the QuesTec parks is almost identical to called third strikes in non-QuesTec parks."

This is an issue that will be on the front burner for some time, according to Port. There will be more enforcement if compliance is not met by the "one-third" he spoke of.

Only twice last season, said Port, did umpires enforce the 12-second rule (the time between the catcher throwing the ball back to the pitcher and the pitcher delivering the ball) with no runners on base. It's rules like that that will be watched a little more closely.

The Great debate

Playing the Fame game

Is Mike Mussina (259-148 lifetime) heading to the Hall of Fame?

Bert Blyleven, 287-game winner: "He's got Hall of Fame numbers, but I don't think he should get in before Jack Morris or myself. You had guys like Jim Kaat and Tommy John, who won over 280 games who didn't get in. If you compare Jack's numbers and my numbers against him, it's not even close. But playing in a big market and all that . . . in the end, it's up to the writers. People say he didn't win 20; well, it's hard to win 20. You've got to have some luck along the way. But Mike's pitched well for a long time. He's been the ace in Baltimore and at times for the Yankees, and looking at his year this year, he knows how to pitch."

Deacon Jones, veteran scout, Baltimore: "I think he's heading toward borderline close. It's a pivotal year for him and he's come up big with nine wins. If he's reinvented himself into a Greg Maddux, he could go for a couple more or three years and get up to that 300 wins because I get the feeling that's what it might take. There are enough guys in major league baseball still learning to play that he might fool them for six innings. I think voters should consider that he pitched in the AL East all of his career so he went up against tough competition. He's borderline, but he's starting to make a case for himself."

Ellis Burks, special assistant to Cleveland general manager Mark Shapiro: "With the way he's pitching, I'm sure he's going to get another contract. That knuckle-curve he had was nasty. Now he's got that pitch that starts in on the outer half of the plate to lefthanded hitters and cuts back in. He's a master with that baseball. Those old guys like [Tom ] Glavine, Maddux, and Mussina, they just know how to pitch. Hall of Fame? Who says you have to win 300? He just might anyway."

The football option play can be
a tough one to run up against

A few questions for Red Sox executive consultant Lou Gorman on keeping baseball draft picks away from football:

The Sox drafted Casey Kelly in the first round out of Sarasota. He has a full scholarship to play quarterback at Tennessee. I know you've had experience with this.

LG: "In Kansas City, we had George Brett, Willie Wilson, and Clint Hurdle heavily recruited in football and then in Boston we had Greg McMurtry and Trot Nixon. All of them were tough. We won most of them but we lost McMurtry."

The toughest negotiation?

LG: "In the end, probably McMurtry. He was a local kid from Brockton and I had gone to Stonehill with his coach, Armond Colombo, and felt that we had a great chance to sign him. Having seen Willie Wilson, I felt McMurtry had better talent - more power, stronger, and he was very fast. I think he would have been a great major league player. But Bo Schembechler was the coach at Michigan at the time and he was on Greg, telling him he'd play in the Rose Bowl and get to the NFL. It seemed every time we were getting close, someone from Michigan would call and help in their recruitment. I remember meeting his parents and we had agreed on the terms, but the parents wanted another couple of days to think about it. I knew once we didn't have a signature, we were going to lose him."

And Trot came down to the wire.

LG: "Yes. If he had enrolled in his first class or taken part in practice, we would have lost him. I remember I think it came down to the last day at 11 p.m. that I sat with Trot's agent, Ron Shapiro, and we hammered out the deal. Trot was ready to be a quarterback at North Carolina State and in speaking to their coach, he felt that Trot was one of the most competitive young men he'd ever met."

How tough was it to convince Wilson?

LG: "He was a great tailback out of New Jersey and he had every football team in the country after him. He was so fast, but we had a couple of issues. One, he was a catcher and we needed to change his position because we wanted to utilize his speed. He also struggled as a righthanded hitter, but after we signed him, University of Maryland was still calling him and watching him in case he gave up baseball. So I waited until he got to Double A and then we made him a switch hitter, figuring if he can just get the ball on the ground lefthanded, he'd beat it out. I remember speaking to the late Elston Howard, whose son played football in New Jersey and was familiar with Willie, and Ellie told me Wilson was the best high school running back he'd ever seen. That's what we were competing with."

Etc.

Touching the bases
Apropos of nothing: 1. It took Joe Mauer 186 at-bats to hit his first homer this season; 2. With Barry Bonds's court date set for next March, let's get him back in baseball. He's exciting; 3. The Phillies have used the same five starting pitchers all year; 4. The Matt Wieters era behind the plate can't start too soon in Baltimore. Ramon Hernandez has declined rapidly; 5. Yeah, must be the coaches' fault in Seattle.

Florida destinations
The Red Sox were approached by the city of Vero Beach about moving their spring training operation to the former Dodgertown. However, the Sox declined the offer and will continue to pursue a future home with Lee County and Sarasota. Dodgertown was once considered the premier spring facility in baseball, but the Sox appear to want their own identity, with a stadium that can accommodate their fans. The City of Palms facility houses 8,000 or so - not enough for Sox fans who fly to Fort Myers in droves. They often get shut out of tickets, just as they do in Boston. While Sox chief operating officer Mike Dee doesn't want anything as big as 20,000, word is the Sox are trying to negotiate a 10,000- to 12,000-seat stadium with standing room for about 1,500.

Quite a catch for Marlins
The Marlins feel they might have drafted the next Joe Mauer in Kyle Skipworth, a Riverside, Calif., high school catcher, with the sixth overall pick. It marked the first time since 1992 (their first draft) that they've taken a catcher first. "It's a great honor to be compared to someone like Joe Mauer," said the lefthanded-hitting backstop.

Getting there, slowly
Old friend Matt Clement, trying a comeback in the Cardinals organization, will make his second start at Single A Palm Beach today. In his first start since shoulder surgery in 2006, he went six shutout innings and topped off at 88 m.p.h. That's somewhat below what he threw in Boston, but the feeling among Cardinal staffers is that his velocity will get back to his normal 92 and 93 as he begins to trust his shoulder after each outing.

Frankie goes to town
The feeling among baseball people earlier this year was that Frankie Rodriguez would likely not be re-signed by the Angels because they felt they'd gotten the very best of his career. However, there's reason to reconsider since he has amassed 24 saves (21 straight). This from a guy who started the year with two bad ankles. K-Rod has modified his violent delivery and lost a couple of miles per hour off his fastball. Doesn't seem to matter. He has been the most dominating closer in the game, though he's not likely to maintain a 63-save pace. Rodriguez said he's been motivated by those who said he was losing it. "To me it's a challenge to prove people wrong," he said. Said one scout, "Imagine if he had two good ankles? I think the Angels will re-sign him, but if they don't, a lot of teams will be ready for an arm like that."

A fence-buster in Posey
Not much has gone right for Brian Sabean and the Giants of late. Barry Zito is a bust. Noah Lowry might be lost for the season. But with the fifth overall pick, the Giants by all accounts hit one out of the park by selecting Florida State catcher Buster Posey. Posey led Division 1 hitters in average (.468), RBIs (86), slugging (.897), OBP (.572), and was fourth in homers (24). Five of those dingers came in 19 at-bats in a regional tournament last week. He's also thrown out 41.8 percent of base-stealers and saved six games as a backup closer. He may not be far from the majors, which is good timing for Giants, considering the aging Benji Molina (34).

Short hops
Talk about old school. Former Servite High (Anaheim) teammates Ben Francisco and Ryan Garko combined to go 9 for 11 with 7 RBIs and 5 runs for the Indians in a 15-9 win over Texas last Tuesday. Francisco was 5 for 6, a career high in hits, while Garko was 4 for 5, with a career-high 6 RBIs . . . Eric Gagné won't be the Brewers' closer when he returns off the disabled list next week. Salomon Torres is 5 for 5 in his absence, so Gagné will assume the setup role he failed at in Boston . . . Correction from last week: Luis Aparicio is not the only nonpitcher in the Hall of Fame who played only one position. Another shortstop, Ozzie Smith, did it as well . . . From newstalgist Bill Chuck: "Derek Lowe is one of three players with at least 10 years of major league service who has never been placed on the DL, along with Brad Ausmus and Livan Hernandez." . . . Happy 66th birthday, Pete Magrini.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com

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