Shorter games AND more offense? It’s possible

New commissioner Rob Manfred is clearly not afraid of change. In his first 24 hours on the job, he postulated about a future of the sport that included pitch clocks but excluded defensive shifts, among other tweaks. Unlike the previous commissioner — who famously hated computers — Manfred is a proponent of technology and wants to make sure baseball keeps itself relevant in a changing landscape of how fans consume sports and entertainment. In this day and age of screens everywhere, shorter is often better, and the commissioner seems serious about addressing the pace of play issue in Major League Baseball. 

However, his comments about the shift came in the context of a stated desire to breathe some offense back into a sport that has shifted heavily toward the pitching side of the equation in recent years. With offense trending downward, the league clearly feels there is a point at which rules might have to be adjusted to restore the balance between offense and defense, just as the league took action in 1969 (by lowering the mound) and again in 1973 (by introducing the designated hitter). While I’m among those who do not believe that restricting the shift would have much of an effect on increasing offense, the willingness to consider it as a remedy suggests that Manfred believes that current offensive levels are a potential problem for the sport. 

So on the one hand, the league would like to speed up the games; on the other hand, the league would like the games to include more run scoring. This seems to be a bit of a paradox, given that the act of scoring runs inherently means that more time is spent doing things besides ticking off some of the 54 outs — or 51 outs, if the home team protects a ninth-inning lead — allotted for each contest. More offense means more at-bats and often can mean more pitching changes, and those two things generally mean longer games. 

But how closely does run scoring track with length of game? Is it such a clear relationship that any increase in offense would be immediately met with a corresponding uptick in the number of minutes in a contest? I wasn’t actually sure, so with the help of some data from our friends at Baseball Prospectus and Baseball-Reference, I lined up the average length of game with average team runs per game for each season since 1950. The results are displayed in the chart below. 

As you can see, average time of game has been trending up steadily, and doesn’t actually seem to track the changes in run environments all that closely. The lowered mound in 1969 led to a huge spike in run scoring — in one season, the average went from 3.42 to 4.07 runs per game — but the average time of game actually went down by two minutes during the first year of the current mound height. Baseball added over half a run per game of offense without any corresponding increase in time spent at the ballpark. 

This wasn’t just a one-year fluke. Games actually ran shorter from 1969-1978 than they did in 1968, and only finally got back over that original mark starting in 1979, when the game began its 35-year upward trend that continues on today. And this phenomenon essentially repeated itself in 1994 — when the Steroid Era kicked offense into hyperdrive — as we see run scoring increase rapidly while time of game barely moves at all. Twice in the past 40 years, MLB has significantly increased run scoring, and both times, the average length of the games was essentially untouched. 

And then, maybe most interestingly, we can see that the length of game has really started trending upward over the past five years — the same time period when offense is cratering. At 3.13 hours, the length of a game in 2014 was actually longer than it was in 2000, when the average team scored more than one extra run per game compared to what it scores now. Over the past 15 years, the sport has simultaneously lost 20 percent of its offense while somehow managing to make the games last even longer. 

And this is why people are clamoring for change. To illustrate these duel changes, I graphed the ratio of average runs scored per team by the length of each game, giving us something like Runs Per Hour. In the same mold as Miles Per Hour, this ratio gives you an idea of how many runs you’d expect your team to score if you watched a game for 60 minutes in any given season. Here’s how that ratio has stacked up since 1950.

Back at the beginning of our sample, it was normal for teams to score two runs for every hour their fans invested in the game; in 2014, it was just 1.30 runs per hour. That is the lowest number of runs per hour of any season in the 65 year sample we’re investigating, just barely edging out the 1.34 runs per hour the league put up in 1968. Yes, that same 1968 season that convinced MLB to lower the mounds in order to restore a balance between the hitters and pitchers.  

The lowering of the mound immediately increased the ratio of runs per hour to 1.60 in 1969, and it stayed over 1.50 until 1988, when it dipped down to 1.46 for a couple of seasons. The beginning of the Steroid Era pushed things right back to 1.60 runs per hour, and then things peaked out at 1.72 runs per hour in 1999, but that number slowly declined until 2011, when the runs per hour ratio dropped from 1.51 to 1.43; it has since regressed even farther the past two seasons. 

Watching a baseball game is now a longer commitment than it has ever been before, and yet we’re not being rewarded with the same level of excitement as the game provided previous generations. And this is why we’re now discussing ideas like the pitch clock and limits on shifting, because the game is getting further and further away from the one we all grew up with. 

The pitch clock might indeed help, but as Rob Arthur estimated here earlier this week, even shaving a few seconds off the time between pitches only saves us about 10 minutes per game. If you cut 10 minutes off the current length of game, you’re still pushing three hours, and the clock doesn’t seem likely to immediately add offense back into the sport. So, a pitch clock could be part of the solution, but probably shouldn’t be the entire fix by itself. 

And as the data suggests — perhaps surprisingly so — we shouldn’t be too scared of making alterations to the sport to increase offensive levels. Depending on how those changes are made, it isn’t a guarantee that an increase in run scoring would be followed by even longer games. History suggests that the league really might be able to accomplish both goals at the same time.