Over the past decade, the duration of MLB games has risen nearly ten minutes on average, peaking last season at three hours and five minutes per game. With more frequent pitching changes, lengthier at-bats, and league-wide increases in both walk and strikeout rate, many baseball fans have expressed their distaste for a game that is increasingly becoming devoid of action. As a result, baseball has fallen out of favor with the next generation of fans, who now view the game as a three-hour slog largely bereft of the action that other major sports provide. In an era in which the itch for instant gratification can be scratched instantaneously by a quick scroll through the endless feed of GIFs and memes on one’s Instagram feed, the patience required to invest three hours to watch a baseball game has become increasingly rare among young sports fans.
It is no wonder then that out of all of the major American sports, baseball fans are by the far the oldest. According to Nielsen’s ratings, the average age of a baseball fan is 53 years old, compared to 47 for the NFL and 37 for the NBA. The graying of the baseball-watching demographic has not gone unnoticed by the MLB Commissioner’s office as Rob Manfred and company have made speeding up the pace of play the main priority,
In the past two offseasons alone, Rob Manfred has implemented new pace-of-play rule changes such as instituting the automatic intentional walk, placing a limit on mound visits, and shortening the time between innings. In addition, rules have been put in place to speed up the time between pitching changes as well as more stringently enforcing the 2017 rule change that required the batter to keep at least one foot in the box during at-bats. While all of these measures signal a step in the right direction, all these measures in conjunction do very little to make baseball games shorter.
Technically speaking, Commissioner Manfred has every right to unilaterally implement a pitch clock which would likely have a greater impact on the pace of play than all the aforementioned rule changes put together. Unfortunately, the mere mentioning of instituting a pitch clock has been met with vehement opposition from the players themselves. Out of respect for the players, Manfred chose to put the pitch clock on the backburner, but at this point, its eventual implementation feels inevitable.
With all of this in mind, it should come as no surprise that through mid-April we are once again experience record highs for game duration, with the average game length at 3 hours and seven minutes (up two minutes from a year ago). Superficially, the increasing length of MLB games in 2018 may seem worrisome for the fans that are sick of watching games drudgingly drag on. For those of you whose enthusiasm wanes the more drawn out the games become, I am here to offer you some good news.
I should start by saying that game length once again reaching its historical peak for the third year in a row, there are external factors that may be playing a role in skewing that figure.
The primary culprit for the longer average game time has been the unusual frequency of extra-inning games in the early going. So far this season, over 11% of games have gone into extras, easily the highest such rate in MLB history. To date, there have also been seven different games that have lasted fourteen innings or longer, including an 18 inning contest between the Cubs and Marlins on opening weekend, a 16 inning thriller between the Dodgers and D’Backs just three days later and most recently a 16 inning offensive struggle between the Twins and Indians in Puerto Rice.
With such a small sample size, these outliers have undoubtedly skewed the data, but if we adjust for the historical rate in which games go into extra innings and apply that to the limited data set we have available to us in 2017, the average game length drops six minutes, down to 3 hours a 1 minute.
It is true that even after taking this consideration into account, an average game duration over three hours would mark the 3rd highest average in MLB history. The two averages higher were in 2016 and 2017, so relative to recent trends, games are indeed being played in a more efficient manner.
The caveat regarding the increase in extra-inning games had to be stated for the purpose of this article, but if you read that consideration with the hope that the needle was all of a sudden pointing in the right direction, I regret to inform you that was the last good piece of news I can offer you in regards to this growing trend.
If we agree that the high frequency of extra-inning games is unsustainable and anomalous and that the average game’s duration actually is shorter than usual, we must consider the factors that are making this the case. Just a warning, none of these reasons should invoke any optimism.
The first explanation for why the average nine-inning games have been shorter thus far is simply the lack of offense around the league. If you have turned on a game this year that was being played pretty much anywhere but California or Florida, you may have noticed the brutally cold conditions that players have had to contend with all month. Just three weeks into the season, there are have been as many postponements as the entire season prior. Factoring in the limited number of off days and team’s travel schedules, many teams have been forced to suit up and play through these miserable conditions anyways.
The Cold Weather Theory:
With freezing temperatures and regular snowfall categorizing a significant number of early season games, hitting conditions have been far from ideal. This theory is bared out in the numbers. So far this season, the league-wide on-base percentage is meager .316, the lowest mark in 35 years. When runners are struggling to reach base, the game adopts a more uptempo pace free of the necessary, but time-wasting strategies that pitchers must use to control the running game. With a runner on first, pitchers are careful to vary hold times, take long sets before stepping off, and perhaps most annoyingly, pick over to first base several times an at-bat when base stealers occupy the bag.
As we finally break free from what has seemed like an endless winter, these low on-base figures are poised to increase. It has been shown in the past that as temperatures rise, so does offensive production. Therefore, as we escape the frigid doldrums of this extended winter and the sun begins to show its face, we can expect a significant surge in offensive production. When there are more runners on base, there are more runs scored, which means longer and more laborious innings for pitchers. More offense also correlates with more frequent pitching changes and more relief pitchers taking the mound (according to the “Pace” statistic on Fangraphs, relievers take significantly longer between pitches).
The Continuation of Three True Outcome Baseball:
For most people reading this, I probably don’t need to remind you that we are at the peak of what has been coined the “Three True Outcome Era.” Walks, strikeouts, and home runs (these outcomes are considered “true” because they are largely independent of external influence) are once again at an all-time high. The more batters strikeout and walks, the more pitches they are bound to see and obviously, a greater number of pitches necessitates a longer game. To contextualize these two factors are related, consider the following:
The average batter has seen 3.93 pitches per plate appearance in 2017, a slight increase from 3.89 in 2017. In 2016, this figure was at 3.87. In 2015? 3.83. In case you haven’t noticed, the linear climb of pitches per plate appearance seems to be steadily increasing year after year. It is easy to scoff at what may seem like a minuscule difference between these numbers, but if we stop to consider the impact across a full season of play, it becomes evident that this is an unwelcome trend by major league baseball. If the 3.93 pitchers per plate appearance figure hold up (stats like these normalize fairly quickly so there is little evidence to suggest that this figure will change dramatically throughout the course of the season), this would mean the average game would have seven to eight more pitches per game.
Once again, an extra seven or eight pitches per game hardly sounds like a reason to sound the alarm but considering that the average relief appearance is roughly 15 pitches long, then these extra pitches are the equivalent of half an extra pitching change per game. Teams already set a record with an average of 3.44 relievers per game and if we consider that the time it takes for a manager to come out to the mound to pull his pitcher, a reliever to trot in from the bullpen and throw six-to-eight warm-up pitches, an extra pitching change a game could alone boost the average game time by a few minutes. Not to mention, the more managers sub out pitchers, the more time we are forced to watch commercials rather than baseball.
Strikeouts, walks, and home runs continue to cement themselves as the offensive hallmarks of the modern offense. Teams are steadfast to the idea that the best way to optimize run production is by trading away more frequent contact for home runs. While watching guys walk to first or whiff is the antithesis of excitement, teams concern themselves with whatever they feel is going to put runs on the board, even if the byproduct is a less watchable product. One can only hope that this modern philosophical change fades out as the league self-corrects for the downside of such a power-happy approach, but if this trend subsists, we can bank on less action and longer games for the foreseeable future.
While Manfred has been passionate and outspoken about his desire to implement changes that produce a more watchable product, but due to the justifiable reluctance from the players, only marginally incremental progress has been made. I know most people view the slight rule alterations as futile and in practice, they are probably right. An automatic intentional walk or one fewer mound visit does nothing more than take a few seconds off of each game, but at the very least I believe Manfred deserves some credit for laying the groundwork that more impactful rule changes like a pitch clock may rest on.
At the end of the day, there is no question that it is not the rules themselves that are producing longer games, but rather the changing offensive philosophies and more matchup-focused bullpen usage. The game of baseball will always be regarded as “slow” compared to other sports, but as the sport falls out of favor with the younger generation, the commissioner will have to disrupt the timeless nature of the sport, which will drive the tradition-loving, baseball purists into a frenzy. When the short term outcry is weighed against the future popularity of the sport, the wishes of those who are indignantly resistant to any kind of change will be forced to adapt. When we look back at baseball history, there have been far more disruptive changes to the game than the addition of a pitch clock, and necessarily so. At the end of the day, all progress is precarious and all changes are uncomfortable. Human beings don’t readily accept change, especially changes to the thing they love. It is true that discontent is the first necessity of progress, but it is also the catalyst for innovation and improvement — two things the came is in desperate need of.