Pace of play has dominated the MLB news cycle over the past few weeks. As teams and sports networks try to balance the increasing time of games, bang for advertising buck, and interest of younger fans, everyone seems to have ideas on how to “shorten” the game.
There is one camp of fans (myself included) that don’t believe much needs to be done. I love the timelessness of baseball. It is a stress relief just to spend an afternoon or an evening watching what I believe to be the most beautiful game on the planet. I believe that putting a time clock in any aspect of the game, limiting mound visits, or limiting pitcher changes deeply affects the strategy of the game.
On the other side of the coin, certain fans demand more “action”. Baseball, intrinsically, happens in spurts. I understand the viewpoint of the group, however, because sometimes it can be a bit much to watch a batter step out of the box for 10-15 seconds between every pitch. It can be frustrating to see a pitcher shake off 4 pitches and make the catcher run out to the mound. People have become so dependent on being entertained that they quickly get bored with the game. A newer generation of baseball fans, especially, does not react well to the current setup.
I have heard every wild and crazy idea from implementing a pitch clock, to establishing time outs, to beginning extra innings with runners in scoring position. The general idea seems to be that the “time” of the game doesn’t matter as much as the downtime between plays. However, I’m here today to let you know that action plays are what has actually increased the overall time of a game.
In 1989, baseball games averaged 2 hours and 50 minutes. This was the generation of baseball that I grew up watching. I loved watching pitchers dominate. The late 80s and early 90s were when the Greg Maddux’s of the world could pitch a complete game on 80 pitches. Obviously, Maddux was a freak of pitching efficiency nature, but pitchers in general were more efficient.
In 2016, the average length of a game was 3 hours and 26 seconds. That is an increase of 9.4%. This definitely knocks a greater chunk of time out of your summer if you watch a lot of games. I estimate I probably watch 130-140 baseball games a year, so I spend almost 24 hours more watching baseball now than I would have 25-30 years ago. Not that I’m complaining.
The thing with this increase though is that I believe it is not derived from hitters or pitchers spending more time between pitches. It isn’t necessarily that advertisements last longer. Look at pitch counts and pitching efficiency between those two years. According to Baseball Reference, the average amount of pitches in a game in 1989 was 272. In 2016, it was 296, which equates to an increase of 9.2% which is of course directly proportionate to the increase in game time.
Strategy has evolved in baseball. Hitters are taught to take more pitches. I believe pitchers work around more batters to pick spots they feel they will succeed better in. A lot of this derives from the analytic boom in baseball. There is simply more information available, so players know each other so much better. I think the days of “rare back and fire strikes” is becoming a thing of the past. Hitters can’t simply look first pitch fastball any longer. They take more pitches, foul more pitches off, and help their teammates see more of what pitchers have.
Ultimately, while I believe there can be tweaks here and there to make baseball a more watchable product for a generation that craves action, I don’t the pace of play “problem” lies in the downtime areas that are being so heatedly discussed. Baseball has always been a smart game. It is, in my mind, the team sport that can most balance out a pure talent disadvantage that any team may have by strategizing to utilize strengths. With the onset of sabermetrics and analytics, this has been magnified.
I know I’m an old school baseball fan. I love baseball the way it is. I also know that there will be some changes in the future with the makeup of the game. I understand that, and I actually applaud it. Change is inevitable. Whatever needs to take place to ensure the health of the game, I’m on board. I just hope whoever makes those changes does it in a way to hold on to the integrity of the game.