Mark Graban's leanblog.org - Lean Healthcare, Lean Hospitals, Healthcare Kaizen, Lean Thinking, Lean Manufacturing, Toyota Production System

A Confusing Rule That Seemed to Not Be Enforced: Minor League Baseball What are the parallels to other industries, including healthcare?

11

Do baseball games take too long? It's a popular discussion topic in recent years. I grew up playing and watching baseball… I think the game is just fine. It is what it is. It's unencumbered by time, and I'm an industrial engineer who loves stopwatches and efficiency… in most settings.

Our friend Chad Walters discussed the issue of slow games on his Lean Blitz blog, in this post that spelled out some of the MLB rules and this follow up post about MLB “enforcing” a rule by mailing a physical letter to a pitcher instead of addressing the issue during the game.

Workplace question: Would a factory mail a letter to an employee about not wearing safety glasses? Would a hospital mail a letter to a doctor warning them that they were observed not washing their hands before entering a patient room?

As Chad highlighted, MLB wants the pitcher to throw the ball within 12 seconds of receiving it (assuming the batter is ready):

Post continues after ad...

“When the bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives the ball. Each time the pitcher delays the game by violating this rule, the umpire shall call “Ball.”

The 12-second timing starts when the pitcher is in possession of the ball and the batter is in the box, alert to the pitcher. The timing stops when the pitcher releases the ball.”

There is a rule on the books… but it isn't usually enforced, as this ESPN blog discusses:

“Now, you can argue that a pitch clock isn't needed when there's already an existing rule addressing the issue of keeping the game moving along at a brisk and entertaining pace. All MLB has to do is to tell umpires to enforce the 12-second rule. Of course, it's not so easy to tell umpires to enforce the rule when they've ignored it forever.”

Does that remind you of anything in workplaces, rules not being enforced?

Here is more from the MLB website on “pace of game,” including a pilot program they tested in the Arizona Fall League. It's good to do pilots and small tests of change as a way to see if proposed changes are really improvements. That's good PDSA or Kaizen thinking, in a way.

In the AFL games at Salt River, a clock will be displayed in both dugouts, behind home plate, and in the outfield. A pitcher shall be allowed 20 seconds to throw each pitch. The batter must be in the box prepared for the pitch during the entire 20-second period. If the batter steps out of the box during the 20-second period, the pitcher may deliver the pitch and the umpire may call a strike, unless the batter was first granted time by the umpire.

The clock will stop only when the pitcher begins his motion to deliver the ball (and not “when the pitcher releases the ball” as prescribed in Rule 8.04). Beginning the motion of coming to the set position shall be sufficient to stop the clock. If the pitcher maintains possession of the ball without beginning his pitching motion for more than 20 seconds, the Umpire shall call “Ball.”

So “throwing the pitch” doesn't mean releasing it… it means STARTING to throw the pitch. Is that what the MLB rule means by “deliver” the ball? Why does the rule have to be so confusing?

Workplace question: Do you see problems in your workplace that are caused by poorly written or confusing rules, procedures, or standardized work documents?

I haven't been able to find an article online that talks about the rule actually being enforced. How do players, managers, and umpires feel about it? Have there been any controversies? Have games been affected by calling “ball” and penalizing the pitcher for a delay?

A Night at the Minor League “Gemba”

Last week, I had a chance to attend a Daytona Tortugas minor league baseball game. It was a beautiful night, weather wise, and I was happy to relax at a historic ballpark. I had a great time and i'm thankful for that.

During the game, I noticed two pitch clocks that I could see — one by the left field scoreboard and one behind home plate. Compared to a modern major league ballpark where you're bombarded by video displays and blinking lights, these were the only electronic elements in the ballpark. I frankly found them to be a bit of a distraction and they were out of character with the manual scoreboard and other old-school elements of the experience.

The pitch clock was set to 15 seconds… but not consistently. I'd say at least half the time, the clock wasn't reset and restarted for the next pitch, if the bases were empty or otherwise. It seemed like there was some sort of process or technology problem… and I was reminded, as you'll read in this post, that we have to be careful in making assumptions about a problem. We should always ask somebody who knows better, to confirm our suspicion.

Workplace question: Can you think of a time at work when you THOUGHT there was a problem in a process, but that concern turned out to be unfounded?

So, I asked the Tortugas about the clock the only way I could from my seat (via Twitter) and they said it was a Florida State League rule and that it was up to the umpire to enforce it:

I couldn't find anything about the rule on the league's website, but a search led to this video of a timing clock violation from another minor league, where a batter had a strike called against him for not getting back into the batter's box on time.

“The first time we've seen that,” the announcer said (maybe referring to a third strike being called on a batter for that?).

 

Here's video of a pitcher being called for taking too long in a different game… so it DOES happen, at least occasionally:

 

The announcers in that 2nd video were very confused, as you can hear, which is pretty funny. It's interesting to me that the umpires have very clear hand gestures and vocalizations for things like “strike” and “out,” but not one for “pitch clock violation.”

And, it's a new rule, so everybody is just confused? As the announcers wrapped up:

“Long story short… nobody knows what's happening… whatever it was, it's a walk… evidently.”

Funny.

Post continues after ad...

The thing that struck me at the Tortugas' game was how inconsistently the clock was being used (or how inconsistent it seemed) and there were were ZERO penalties for violations of the clock.

What's the point of the rule (and the clock) if you're not going to enforce it?

Workplace question: The same question could be asked about safety glasses rules in a factory or hand hygiene rules in a hospital. Many rules are violated in workplaces and nobody sees it… so there's no reaction and no repercussions. Can you think of examples?

A baseball game has many people watching… and it's at least part of the umpire's job to monitor this (although they have a lot to look out for, the clock being just one more thing).

I noticed that the clock was a total non factor. Even when it hit zero, or would have hit zero had it not been stopped, the umpire never called a violation.

What Happened With the Clock?

At one point, later in the game, I started tracking the use (or non-use) of the clock and the lack of enforcement. From my notes across a couple of innings. Things that would have been violations are in bold italics and situations where it seemed the process wasn't followed are in red.

This is also part of my discovery that it's dangerous to make assumptions about what we THINK is happening…

Forgive the detail below, but, again, I'm an industrial engineer :-)

  • A pitch was delivered with 6 left on the clock
  • Pitch was delivered with 10 left, but the clock started many seconds after the pitcher received the ball back
  • Pitch delivered at 6, but the clock stopped early at 6 a few seconds before the pitch
  • Pitch delivered at 3, but the clock stopped early at 3 many seconds before the pitch
    • This looks like it would have been a violation had the clock continued to zero

It turns out, I was confused by the rule as a fan. A few days after the game, as I started writing this post, I sent an email to the Florida State League and got a nice reply from league president Ken Carson, who clarified that the timing, in their league, is not based on the pitcher releasing the ball (as I had thought), but rather…

“The clock does not run to zero. It stops when the pitcher comes to a set position.  If the clock hits zero and the pitcher is not set, it should be called a ball. If the hitter is not ready at zero, it should be a strike called. Our umpires have done a good job with this. It sometimes gets close… let me know if you have any more questions. Thanks for your interest.”

This is the same as the Arizona Fall League rule. I guess this goes to show it's good to ask a question instead of jumping to conclusions. I appreciate the clarification on the rule… but to the even-more-casual fan, I bet they wonder what the clock is for, if they even notice it.

  • Stopped at 6 (pitcher was set)
  • Stopped at 4
  • Stopped at 3
  • Stopped at 4
  • Stopped at 8
  • The clock didn't start for the next pitch (it stayed at 15)

I discovered another aspect of the rule was very unintuitive and could explain some of the times when the clock was not started for a pitch.

As Carson pointed out in another email (he was very helpful):

“Also, if there is a foul ball, the clock will not be reset [for the next pitch].”

So, some of the times when the clock was not reset and not used for the next pitch could have been after a foul tip or foul ball… I didn't mark that down in my notes because it wasn't clear it affected the clock use.

More pitches:

  • Pitch delivered at 3
  • Didn't start (after foul ball?)
  • Didn't start
  • Stopped at 5
  • Didn't run
  • Stopped at 4
  • Stopped at 3
  • Stopped at 4
  • Didn't run from 15
  • Clock was off / blank
  • Stopped at 6
  • The clock hit zero, but it was then turned off
    • This seemed like a violation but it wasn't called
  • Clock hit zero, then stayed there
    • This seemed like a violation but it wasn't called
  • Didn't run
  • Didn't run
  • Didn't run
  • Didn't run (it seems unlikely there were that many foul balls!)
    • Update: See my comment below with clarification from Minor League Baseball that says the pitch clock doesn't run for the pitch immediately after a “dead ball.”
  • Stopped at 2
  • Stopped at 1
  • Didn't reset or run
  • Didn't run from 15
  • Didn't run
  • Didn't run
  • Hit 0, turned off, then pitch
  • Hit 0, turned off off, then pitch
    • It's possible the pitcher came to the “set” position at or just before zero
  • Pitch delivered at 7
  • Didn't reset
  • Didn't reset
  • Pitch delivered at 7
  • Stopped at 5
  • Pitch at 6
  • Pitch at 6
  • Stopped at 6
  • Stopped at 2 (then many seconds)
  • Stopped at 7 (would have hit zero)
  • Zero, then, off, then zero reappears, then pitch
  • Stopped at 4
  • Stopped at 4
  • Didn't run
  • Stopped at 1
  • Zero, off, pitch
  • Stuck 6
  • Stuck 6
  • Didn't run
  • Stopped at 1
  • Stopped at 5

There are many times when the “violation” was ignored apparently.

There were many inconsistencies in the running of clock. This was the case for both team's pitchers, so it didn't seem like home field advantage.

Do They Really Want the Umpire to Notice?

When the clock hit zero, it was almost always turned off instead of being allowed to sit at “0.”

The home plate umpire never called “ball” when the pitcher seemed took too long. There were no penalties. No arguments from the managers or batters, either way.

There's no horn or buzzer like a basketball shot clock. So, I guess the clock and the timing's not really that important?

The umpire can't watch the clock constantly… he has other things to look at at. If the clock hits zero, the umpire can't be expected to see that immediately. But, if he starts to sense it has been too long, it would be helpful to take a glance up to the scoreboard to see that the clock was sitting on zero so the umpire could call time and assess the penalty of adding a “ball” to the count.

Maybe the umpire could wear a Fitbit type device that could be “buzzed” when the clock hits zero if you really wanted them to notice?

The game went along fine… so why even use the electricity to run the clock if it's not really being used?

What Problem is Being Solved? Any?

So why go through the motions?

Andy Shultz, the assistant director of baseball and business operations for Minor League Baseball, replied to my email and said:

“As for enforcement, the benefit of the doubt is always given to the players. We're not looking to nail players with a ball or strike. The concept is to keep the game moving and avoid any blatant violations. With game times in the Florida State League averaging 2:37 (at the end of April), the MiLB office is happy with how things are progressing. As for individual violations and enforcement by the umpires, each league handles internally.”

So, if the pace of play isn't a problem…. what problem does the pitch clock solve? Was this a solution in search of a problem? They have a rule, but they don't enforce it because they don't want to “nail” people? Hmm.

Do the umpires think the clock rule is dumb? Do they think it's unfair to ask them to enforce it? Are the umpires afraid to impact the game by calling a ball in a situation (such as a full count with the bases loaded) that could lead to a run being scored?

I couldn't find contact info for the league's director of umpiring (he's smart, eh?).

Luke Mauro from the Tortugas replied to my email and said:

“There are all sort of rules in regards to the pitch clock for different scenarios and it's up to the home plate umpire to enforce the violations. We've had one violation all season, as the umpires seem to be pretty lax in their enforcement. However, I will say that pace of play has never seemed to be a problem at this level to begin with.”

Yeah, it seemed pretty lax to me. But again, here's somebody saying that there was no problem to be solved by the clock. I'd agree.

If it was me…. I'd shut the clock down in the Florida State League. That clock is using electricity that could be better used for air conditioning :-)

Workplace question: Thinking about the more important workplace issues. Do you see situations where rules are not enforced? What's the impact of that? Why don't some rules get enforced all the time or never at all? Should some of those rules just be eliminated?

Final workplace question: Are there times when an organization just wants to say they are working on a problem instead of actually taking every step possible to solve it? What's the effect on the organization over time?

What do you think? Other than a suggestion to not use my iPhone's stopwatch during a game? And stop bother team or league officials? :-)

Please post a comment and join the discussion. Subscribe to get notified about posts daily or weekly.

Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and speaker who has worked in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. His most recent book is an anthology titled Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also the VP of Improvement & Innovation Services for the technology company KaiNexus.

11 Comments
  1. Mark Graban says

    Comment from Linkedin:

    Terry “TJ” Meadath, MBA, PMP
    Love the article. As a baseball enthusiast it’s great to see my beloved relaxation sport being equated to work. That’s because I read it as irony. Recreation (to me) is about avoiding clocks, schedules, rules, oversight, etc. So to put so much work into analyzing a pitchers clock (a silly rule to begin with) is the height of irony.

    However the point of rules/measurements/metrics that add little or nothing to a goal and that are rarely enforced is well taken. In my experience sometimes these rules are put in place to show activity when a team is not sure what else to do. It always comes back to the 5 “whys” in reverse. Why are we measuring this? Why do we need to know it.? Why do we care?

    So to return to the baseball metaphor, I wonder if the “problem” that was attempting to be resolved (games take too long) was ever really a problem? To a fan like myself the unknown duration is part of the charm and attraction. So maybe the key is to make sure the problem being addressed is really a problem.

    1. Mark Graban says

      My reply:

      It might be more of a problem in MLB (think of the 4.5 hour Red Sox / Yankees games of recent years), but maybe the media makes a bigger deal out of it than the fans do? And the notion of chasing Millennials?

  2. Sam Selay says

    Hi Mark. Looking at this from a different angle, who defines value? What is value? How long should a game take? An example I use to use a lot is the explanation of value analysis in football. 180 minutes total elapsed time, 60 minutes regulation time, 20 minutes actual play time. Value Add 11% 20/180. Some people may like to only watch the actual play time while others want all the extra “other stuff.” I’m curious to look at this type of analysis from a baseball perspective. Does it matter?

      1. Sam Selay says

        Thanks for sharing the earler blog post. I’m reminded of a recent lean.org post. Are You Prioritizing Efficiency Over Value? by Cameron Ford

        https://www.lean.org/LeanPost/Posting.cfm?LeanPostId=731

        Anyway, if the confusing rules end up being adapted, “improved” and enforced what then? Shorter games? Who does this benefit? Does it add value? Is faster always better? It wasn’t in Ford’s example and I’m sure other patients either.

        1. Mark Graban says

          Right, what effect is there from bringing, let’s say, the average length of a Florida State League game down from 2:37 to 2:30? Everybody involved seems to think length of game is NOT a problem.

          Maybe Major League Baseball is trying to develop habits that will help keep the length of big league games down?

          Per Fox Sports, the MLB length has gone down “from three hours and eight minutes in 2014 to two hours and 56 minutes [in 2015] “

        2. Mark Graban says

          Thinking of Cam Ford’s piece… faster isn’t always better in healthcare.

          If you have chest pain, faster time back to the cath lab is better. Faster isn’t better, however, if people cut corners or rush through their work or incorrectly send the patient back to the cath lab when it wasn’t clinically appropriate.

          We need to use judgment, I think, instead of relying on any dogma that says faster is always better. Sure, Lean leads to better flow, but Lean is supposed to be customer focused. What are their needs? How do we provide quality? Speed shouldn’t detract from quality or the patient experience.

          1. sam selay says

            In Fords case the treatment was correct and efficient, but it lacked communication on self care. Speed did detract from patient experience, which resulted in having to do follow up communication with the hospital to clarify information. Therefore I would say that quality was also less than optimal.

    1. Mark Graban says

      Sam – what is the value of an NFL game? If you’re watching the game with friends and having a few drinks, is that dead time between plays time to talk, trash talk, and have fun? Isn’t that part of the “value add” of watching a game? Maybe.

      Different customers value things different. Some fans want to watch the DirecTV compressed replays of games… if efficiency is all that matters to them.

      1. Sam Selay says

        Mark-The value of an NFL game (or other sports event for that matter) should be viewed from the eyes of the customer. Whether it be a 3+ hour version or a <11 minute version. Good discussion!

  3. Mark Graban says

    I got another really helpful email from Jeff Lantz, senior director of communications from Minor League Baseball.

    He shared their official rules guideline document, which clarifies things greatly. The one page from that document is shared with the “express written consent of Minor League Baseball.”

    https://cdn.leanblog.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/2017-FSL-FTC-Ref-Guide-copy.pdf

    It clarifies that the pitch clock does NOT start on the pitch after a dead ball play, which could explain many of the situations I noticed at the game, as pointed out in the post.

    What is a “dead ball?”

    Examples:
    – Foul Ball
    – Ball in dirt resulting in ball exchange
    – Batter hit by pitch
    – Live ball thrown out of play
    – Ground rule double
    – Homerun
    – Umpire calls “Time”

    Again, this isn’t obvious to the fan at the ballpark. I couldn’t find this document on the Florida State League website.

    I offered the following suggestion:

    One suggestion would be for teams to turn the clock off instead of letting it sit at 15 after dead ball situations.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.