Can a Simple Nudge Speed up Baseball? (Daryll)

In the 2008 book Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, the University of Chicago professors set out to make the world a better place using libertarian paternalism. This term essentially means that people are free to make whatever decision they like – but sometimes we can set them up to make better decisions. This form of helping while not mandating the decisions people make is called a nudge. Perhaps baseball can learn from these ideas as they try and speed up the game without driving a wedge between the commissioner and the players.

For example: look at company sponsored 401(k) plans. Thaler and Sunstein note to start that 401(k) plans are already in of themselves a governmental nudge to help people save for retirement. With company pensions mostly archaic, the 401(k) was introduced into the tax code to allow for companies to provide retirement money for their employees before tax deductions. Many companies even offer matches of a person’s salary up to a certain percent. The problem here is that most people don’t take advantage of any of these advantages. Why?

Well, for one, people don’t always understand it and having a lot of choices can be so exhausting people just don’t make any decision at all, resulting in no 401(k) enrollment. (I do promise we will get to baseball). Also, not having money taken out of a paycheck is always nice so why mess with a good thing? Studies have shown over and over if people can’t figure something out they go with the path of least resistance – which is to do nothing at all. What if something could be done to give people a choice still but to encourage better decision making long term? How can companies use choice architecture to help employees enroll in a 401(k)?

The answer is changing the starting point entirely. When people who start a new job are defaulted to be enrolled in a 401(k) program enrollment goes up dramatically. Their freedom of choice is maintained because they can check one button and not be enrolled. Guess what though: most people don’t. This does affect contribution levels but for the moment we will stop the discussion here. You can read more here. Now, how does this apply to baseball?

This blog has tackled the idea of how to speed up the game of baseball recently as MLB Commissioner Ron Manfred continues to make that his main stump to rally on. Giueseppe wrote here what Don Mattingly thinks about some of the ideas and how a change in strikeout perception would help speed things up for one. Indeed, an idea like changing the fundamental rules of the sport regarding tie games would NOT be considered a nudge, but a radical mandate where the reaction to it has not been surprising at all.

What else could be done?

I see pace of play being governed by three main categories: Pitchers, Hitters, and Managers. Sometimes the easiest truths are the most obvious. Within those categories I will identify several ideas that could be looked at, then settle on which one I think is best and how we can best nudge the game NOW  to speed up the game with the overall intent making the game more enjoyable to watch not just for younger fans but even older ones who get tired of 5 hour Yankees/Red Sox games and car commercials.

One challenge facing MLB here is the old idea that no one likes to change. Players would have to have buy in and see WHY this matters. For one, MLB doesn’t lose any valuable advertising dollars by making the game move faster during the innings.  MLB could come up with an advertising campaign talking to players about why it wants to speed things up a bit: keep people more interested, fans distracted by their phones with lulls in the action, and talk about the numbers and just how much time is wasted during a 9 inning game.

The players and MLB are ultimately on the same page: they love this game of baseball and want it to continue to thrive both financially and from an attendance standpoint as it has done for the last several years. So how can we all help do this?

PITCHING

Yes, pitching is absolutely crucial to playing a nine inning game of baseball. Some pitchers are notoriously slow workers, some work fast, and many others are in between. Since you can’t really regulate what happens during a game (though the proposed idea of changing the strike zone would do that – but is that fair to pitchers who are paid to strike hitters out as much as hitters are paid to hit the ball and not strike out), let’s look at what can be controlled by pitchers in the course of a game.

They can control how much time they take to throw the ball between pitches and throws to first base to stall throwing the ball to the plate. They control shaking the catcher off for a sign, which really just adds to their overall time between pitches, and they can also somewhat control the time it takes to warm up between innings or as an inning is started.

The most impartial here is simply to look at the time between pitches. Sometimes just providing information can be used as a nudge. For example, when you see how many calories are in the latest Taco Bell creation – it doesn’t tell you can’t eat it – but it will hopefully discourage you from eating that fried chicken taco shell for every meal if for no other reason than the social discouragement from realizing you know every Taco Bell worker on a first name basis. Not to mention the 20 pounds you gained in a month.

Currently, time between pitches is tracked as one of the many minute details in Major League Baseball so this would not require anything new to be measured.

However – what if MLB stadiums made a name for this stat like Pitch Delivery Efficiency (PDE for short, not to confused with PED) and added it to the standard statistics displayed on the scoreboard. For example, early in the 2015 season it was pointed out Jon Lester never held runners on first base.In 2015 he had runners steal 44 bases to just 13 caught steals.That is just a 20% CS rate compared to the 28% league average. In 2016 however his CS% jumped to 32% to the leagues 27%. Well done sir. Recognition helps produce results.

If it was out there in the open, would pitchers care? If the current average was determined to be 15 seconds for example, if pitchers who were above that number by 5 seconds be shown in red and pitchers ahead of the average be shown in green?

Another option would be to have a large timer similar to a play clock looming behind home plate. The penalty for violating the clock could be as simple as a small fee ($25/violation) to actually awarding the hitter with a ball. The choice isn’t taken away – but they have to decide if it is worth shaking your catcher off 5 times and now facing a 2 ball and no strike count instead of just 1 ball.

A final option might be more of a reward option than punishing for failure to abide pushed by Buster Olney among others. What if pitchers who throughout a whole season who “did their part” by keeping their in between pitch times under a certain number shared in some of the profits from MLB in the 2017 season? They would likely have to have thrown a certain number of pitches to qualify, but it would take the negativity out of the situation and simply reward those who do stay expedient throughout the season.

As far as roll out for the last idea or any system determining what the “appropriate amount of time” is – MLB just move cautiously. They should start with a goal number, but it would be foolish to start the reward program there. My guess is that they could shave 3-5 seconds off of the current league average just with a few of these incentives, which if the rest of the game stayed equal and the average game features 240 pitches (120 for each team),  would start be decreasing “dead time” by 12-20 minutes already.

With the 2016 average MLB game time being 3 hours would already be a 10% cut in game time. For the first year or first half the season, they should make it a very conservative number several seconds off of their end goal. It should really be quite close to last year’s league average so that most pitchers wouldn’t have to change – much. Then if they just move up that number 2 seconds every half season until the number decreases down to their goal number and see how if they can even push it farther. Just like once you start 401(k) deductions it is easier to increase by 1% each year without feeling it in your budget, the same should hold true in this case.

HITTING

Hitters, like pitchers, face a problem between pitches. Part of that problem of course is that the pitchers aren’t ready to pitch, just as pitchers would argue part of their problem is hitters standing outside of the batter’s box and walking down the base line every pitch they don’t like. In order to make our system fair and equal for both – we have to come to some ground rules.

A couple of years ago, MLB tried to fine players who stepped out of the box for too long. For some, this actually did seem to work. Others saw it as MLB policing gone wrong, and basically disregarded the policy and paid the petty fines. David Ortiz for one was one of these players, who certainly had enough money to do so.

So how can that nudge be improved upon so that the hitters actually care? Short of setting up a perimeter where hitters are zapped with an electric shock if they stray too far from the batter’s box, how we can make grown men getting paid millions of dollars change habits they’ve been developing for years?

To start, I don’t think MLB was exactly on the wrong track two years with the letters and petty fines issued to those who did spend too much time outside the box between pitches. I would be interested to see the stats on hitters say in 2015 and 2016 to see if the warnings had any significant effect on their time between pitches. My guess is there is some economic number where players making maybe under $5M a year care just a little bit more about even the fines than the ones making $15M a year. The letters act as a social nudge because it can be assumed that THEY are getting the letters while the majority of players are not. If players think they are slower than others, and knowing that they really probably could speed it up between pitches, it will be much easier to do so even without a financial penalty. No one likes to stand out – especially a guy fighting to stay in the major leagues and a couple years ago was riding a bus in Billings, Montana.

Just as with pitchers, hitters who stray out of the box longer than a determined amount of time(5 seconds?) might get back in the box only to find themselves now down in the count 0 balls and 2 strikes instead of just the one it was a second before. Again, I’m less enthused about this idea because it very quickly elevates to an arbitrary decision of the person keeping track of the time between events and is more likely to get people upset about the whole idea than to be in support of it. Promoting conflict isn’t the answer, getting hitters to speed themselves and the pitchers up though would help get everyone on board with the idea.

Players would also start realizing some selfish results: they get to bed earlier (or get to go out to the clubs earlier, certainly not correlated events), they are more well rested because the other team’s hitters are speeding up too, they stand out in left field for less amount of time between pitches too. No one would want to be “that guy” who takes 25 seconds walking around and checking his batting gloves when the league average is down to 10 seconds.

MANAGERS

Tony LaRussa is retired from managing, so that helps. Unfortunately we still have the Giants bullpen which lulled us all to sleep in the 2016 NLDS. To be fair – no one could get any outs so it is less on Bruce Bochy than his pitchers. However, last year baseball set a record for most pitchers per game at 4.11. In 2005 that number was 3.71. In 1980 this number was 2.56, in 1945 it was the last year under 2 pitchers per game at 1.89.

No wonder people get tired not only of how long it takes between pitchers once they are on the mound, but then they see a new one every two batters as the game gets closer to the end. It should be going faster, right?

A lot of talk has gone into limiting pitching changes, and overall I like this idea but think a few actions can take place to make its implementation go smoother.

First of all, they should start the number high. What if managers each got 5 pitching changes a game. I don’t see this one getting a lot of play due to injury concerns though and there are too many variables for a hard and fast rule. Of course, often teams find themselves in 17-3 drubbings where no one can seem to get anyone out, so what you don’t want from the rule is injuries from pitchers being left in too long because their manager has left them in too long. The other aspect is that you don’t want to punish managers who are trying to use saber-metric influenced decision making in pitting match-ups just the right way.

I believe a simpler solution would be to make the pitching changes be initiated right when the manager steps out of the dugout. No stalling on the mount anymore. Also catcher mound visits should count as a coaches visit. Currently pitchers get two visits before the manager has to make a move. If this rule was implemented you wouldn’t have a catcher come up before one batter, a pitching coach the next, and THEN the manager to take him out. If he needs that much help take him out.

These nudges towards quicker decision making, hitters and pitchers being ready quicker, and other suggestions would help eliminate the dead time during the game without affecting commercial times and therefore revenue. For fans who are at the ballpark, one of the great aspects of the experience is the leisure pace of the game. Yet keep that for between innings as the time to socialize and watch the mascot races.

Like helping people invest in their retirement plans, leadership of MLB can help the players speed up the game without coming across as an authoritarian regime trying to ruin players rhythm, get players hurt and impose their will on them. Knowledge of what is going on, social nudges encouraging more speed, and incentives to reward compliance can help without having to order more speed and risking unnatural decisions by players which could result in injury. The future health of baseball might just depend on it.

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