What pace of game problem?

A week and a half ago, I had the privilege of seeing my first ever game at Fenway Park in Boston. I sat in the center-field bleachers and watched the Astros jump out to a 5-1 lead, before David Ortiz hit two home runs and the Red Sox roared back for a 10-7 win. The game, however, took 3 hours and 50 minutes to play. For me, a guy who was soaking in the Fenway experience and didn’t want it to end, I didn’t mind a bit. Then again, by the seventh inning, the guys who spent the whole game heckling Astros center fielder Dexter Fowler decided that they’d seen enough and went home. Or at least they went somewhere else. Can’t say I missed them.

I’m told by reliable sources (i.e. my wife) that not everyone loves a four hour baseball game. In fact, in the discussion that followed the election of Rob Manfred to the job of commissioner of baseball, I kept hearing the topic of the “pace of the game” come up. In a sport that has had to deal with labor issues (read: potential strikes) and performance enhancing drugs over the past few years, I heard several people proclaim that the biggest challenge facing Mr. Manfred was the fact that that games are a bit too long.

Perhaps you’ve heard the arguments. Baseball is too slow a game to hold the attention of young fans. There’s too much downtime when nothing is happening. Young fans are more interested in football and basketball, which move faster. And so, people have proposed all sorts of crazy solutions. In fact, the Atlantic League, which is independent of MLB, is experimenting with some of these measures. The pitching coach now has a limit on the number of trips per game he can make to just visit the pitcher, and the much-discussed “pitch clock” is supposed to be enforced.

In theory, MLB already has a pitch clock. According to the rule book, once the batter is in the box and the pitcher has the ball, he must throw a pitch within 12 seconds, or be charged a ball. (Yeah, I’ve never seen that one called either.) There have been other “solutions” proposed, including the elimination of the mid-inning pitching change (except for injury) and even reducing the length of a game to 7 innings.

Before we perform surgery though, maybe it would be better to diagnose the patient first?

Warning! Gory Mathematical Details Ahead!

First off, it is true that games are getting longer. Here’s a graph of average game length, in minutes, from 1960 to 2013. The trend is clearly upward and since the 60’s, games now last approximately half an hour longer than they used to. But we can see that the biggest shift actually took place between the mid-70s and the mid-80s. In 2013, the average game lasted more than three hours.

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The question of what’s taking so long is harder to get at, but we can at least try.

Dawdling pitchers?

Because of the Pitch F/X system, we do have data on the average length of time between pitches, but only back to 2007. Lately, it’s gone from 21.5 seconds in 2007 to roughly 23 seconds in 2014. That might not seem like much, but in a game that features 300 pitches, it’s an extra 7.5 minutes. However, we do have good pitch count (and time of game) data back to 1993, so we can get an idea of how many pitches were thrown per minute of game time. We can see in the graph below that the game has gotten faster from the 90s to the early 00s, and then slower again since then. At this rate, we would expect a 300 pitch game to take about 10 minutes more now than it did 10 years ago.

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Passive hitters?

One thing that is interesting to note is that the number of pitches thrown per game has seen somewhat of an increase in the last 20 years (again, we have data back to 1993 on that one), although looking at the graph below, we see that for most of the last 20 years, the average has been somewhere in the range of 280-290 (split between the two teams). Again, 10 extra pitches translates to a few extra minutes. A few years ago, I wrote about teams that have taken to running up pitch counts in recent years (cough*Yankees-and-Red Sox*cough) and who tend to playextremely long games against each other every Sunday night as a result. The idea is that if you “work the count,” eventually you reach the soft underbelly of the other team’s bullpen. But, this doesn’t appear to have overly influenced league totals and the idea of overly patient hitters being to blame for long games doesn’t hold up league-wide. Even so, there’s no rule fix that solves for this issue. You can’t order hitters to swing.

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So, yes. Pitchers really are taking a little extra time and batters are taking a few extra pitches. Baseball is a game where the incentives are actually stacked in the favor of the pitcher dawdling a bit. Baseball is a release-and-retrieve game where it pays for the pitcher to be at peak strength and fully sure of his strategy when he throws the ball. If that means taking another moment to get fully settled, then so be it. There’s no clock and no penalty for him to do it. In basketball, if a team takes more than 24 seconds to shoot, they lose the one thing that enables them to do their job, the ball. In football, if a team takes too long to run a play, they lose some of the territory that they conquered. In baseball… he just takes longer to throw the next pitch.

But would a pitch clock actually cut down on game time? As the rule is written, with no runners on base, the pitcher is supposed to throw a pitch within 12 seconds of him getting the ball and the batter being in the box and ready to receive it. The umpire is also supposed to urge the batter to stay in the box as well. Let’s say that umpires actually enforced the rule, it wouldn’t mean a pitch every 12 seconds. The pitch has to travel to home plate, the umpire has to make a call (ball/strike), and the catcher has to throw the ball back. All of that takes time, plus the batter may want to take a quick stroll to collect his thoughts. Still, over 300 pitches, each second (on average) saved is worth about 5 minutes of game time. If baseball could somehow get the time between pitches down by about 15 percent, it would save them 15 minutes.

How to do that? The soft sell probably wouldn’t work. We have a proof of concept right now. But the problem with a hard rule is that there’s the question of when to start the clock (and there would have to be a clock). As soon as the pitcher receives the ball? What if the batter steps out? The clock would have to stop then. So, perhaps we would outlaw the batter stepping out as well? The idea is great, but the execution might bedevil it.

But let’s move on.

Too many visits from the pitching coach?

Another common complaint is that all too often, it seems that the pitching coach takes a quick trip out to the mound, and he and the pitcher and catcher have a discussion about current events. After 45 seconds or so, the home plate umpire walks out and gently prods the pitching coach to go back to his dugout. MLB play-by-play data suggests that there are slightly more than four (4.04, according the ever-dependable Rob McQuown of Baseball Prospectus) coaching visits to the mound that do not result in a pitching change in the average game, or two per team. (The Atlantic League has restricted teams to three such visits during the course of each game.)

MLB could restrict teams from making such visits (or perhaps a team might get one per game), but even figuring that such visits burn through two minutes, they would be saving a total of four minutes per game. Additionally, the pitching coach will often go out to talk to the pitcher simply as a delay tactic to give a reliever more time to get ready. Sure, using the mound visit as a tactic for delay would go away, but somehow, I suspect that a pitcher might find a sudden need to throw over and “check on” the runners. Several times.

Too many mid-inning pitching changes?

And then there’s the visit to the mound that does result in a pitching change. And a trot in from the bullpen (with entrance music!) And eight warmup pitches. And then everything gets started again. This one is easier to track over time. We see that over time, this has become more common, but that the average game only has two of these changes.

Again, MLB could outlaw the mid-inning pitching switch (or restrict teams to one), but it probably wouldn’t make a lot of difference in the overall pace of game, and it goes against the rules of free substitution. If the offense can pinch hit at will, then the pitching team should be able to respond.

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Getting rid of instant replay?

Would baseball games be shorter if the umpires didn’t run over to put on those silly looking headphones when there was a close call? Probably. In May, I crunched some numbers and found that the average challenge took about 2 minutes and there’s one every other game, on average, according to MLB. Instant replay was also responsible for “returning” about 1.5 to 2 percent of the runs that are scored in baseball to their rightful owners. Instant replay has made it so more calls are now correct. Sure, we can shave a minute off the average game, but at what cost?

Chopping time between innings

What’s fascinating is that there’s an obvious place where baseball could save 17 minutes off a game. Shorten between-inning breaks by a minute.

Oh right, commercials. Suddenly, the “pace of game problem” isn’t a problem when it comes to things that actually make money.

A problem is only a problem if you look at it as a problem…

If baseball really wanted to shorten games, it could take a few of the steps above. Eliminate social mound visits (or limit to one). Eliminate mid-inning pitching changes (or limit to one). Eliminate instant replay. Implement even a modest pitch clock (although good luck getting the players union to agree to that!) Allowing for the fact that some of the rule changes would spawn some workarounds, you might save 20 minutes off the average game. All it would cost you is the clock-less-ness of baseball, the idea of free substitution, and a small piece of the integrity of the game. In other words, baseball would become a different game and for not much benefit.

Even if baseball could lop half an hour off the average game, committing to watching a full game is now a two-and-a-half hour commitment rather than a three hour one. The changes could also eliminate some of the dead time in the middle of the game, and maybe that would be enough, but people would still find something to complain about then.

What I find interesting is that baseball seems to have a pace of game problem because everyone says that it does. The average game lasts 3 hours, but then the average NFL game lasts 3 hours (they usually schedule two blocks of games on Sundays, three hours apart). They huddle in the NFL between plays to talk it over. There can be as many as 12 timeouts in an NFL game where the coach and the team have a little pep talk. The NFL invented instant replay. Yet, there is no “pace of game” problem in the NFL.

Maybe the problem isn’t that baseball games are too long, but that they are unpredictable in how long they will be. I’ve spoken of the average game, but as I experienced in Boston, a game certainly can last almost four hours. Is the problem that there are more games going “extra long.” Again, below we can look at the time of game from 1960 onward. The blue line is the percentage of games that exceeded the three hour mark. We see that more than half of games in 2013 hit the three-hour mark, which is up sharply from the 1960s. But the green line, showing the percentage of games that last past the three-and-a-half hour mark is somewhat flat. Only ten percent of games go that long nowadays. The red line showing four-hour games has been almost entirely flat for 50 years. Sure, extra-long games do happen, but they are comparatively rare. It seems that if there is a problem, it’s that a baseball game now mostly takes three hours to play rather than 2:45. I doubt that the extra 15 minutes is as big a problem as everyone seems to think it is.

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Baseball is a game where players stand around and look at each other a lot, and even from pitch to pitch, there’s not a lot of action compared to the movement on the basketball court or football field. I can respect that some people like football or basketball more because of that very sense of frenetic movement. And that’s fine. Baseball could try to become more like basketball and football, if it wanted to. But what’s the rush. The steps that baseball could take would not reduce overall game length or the downtime within a game by a great deal. Maybe it’s just time that baseball recognized that there are people out there who enjoy a slower game and stopped trying to be all things to all people.

I might be alone (but I’m writing this column!) in that I like the extra time to think. I like how the game develops slowly and where I can focus on the chess match being played out between the pitcher and batter, rather than 10 or 22 players all running around at once. I’d put forth that baseball doesn’t have a “pace of game problem.” It has a marketing opportunity.

Right now in United States culture, there’s a cultural expectation that people should want everything to be fast and over-stimulating. People who like things to be slow are just… slow. And for some people, that sort of breakneck pace is the speed that they like to live at. It’s a neurological thing. Some people just need a lot of stimulation and quickly. That’s neither good nor bad. It just is. Baseball might not be the game for them. And (repeat after me, everyone) that’s OK. For some reason, baseball fans seem overly distraught that someone out there might have a different favorite game.

There’s nothing wrong either with liking things to be a bit more leisurely, a little more Sweet Caroline than speed metal. There are plenty of people out there who like it that way, and we buy tickets. And hot dogs. Baseball should simply embrace the fact that it is a slower game and market itself accordingly. It’s a feature, not a bug. There’s no pace of game problem because there’s nothing morally superior about playing rushed games that take two and a half hours instead of three, no matter what United States culture tries to say. I could just as easily say that those other sports have a pace of game problem because they move so fast that you don’t get the opportunity to really appreciate all the intricacies of what’s going on.

So, the next time someone mentions that baseball games take such a lonnnnnnnnnnnnnnnng time, I recommend you answer with, “Yeah, I know! Isn’t that great?”