MLB Games Are Getting Longer... And Longer...

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There's new searchable information at baseball-reference.com. So I did some searching.

As most of you know, I think major-league baseball games are too long. We've discussed the reasons for this before, and I bring it up again because the great folks at baseball-reference.com have added searchability by game length to their Play Index, something I've been hoping they'd do for quite some time.

Before I did some searching through the bb-ref archives, I took a look at this tool at Baseball Prospectus, which allows you to get the average length of a major-league game (and at minor-league levels, too, but I'm focusing solely on MLB here) for any year in history. Once again, if this topic doesn't interest you, please pass it by.

Here is the average length of a MLB game, starting with this year and going back at 10-year intervals to 1954, and then ending with 1950, the earliest year in Baseball Prospectus' database:

2014: 3:09
2004: 2:51
1994: 2:58
1984: 2:40
1974: 2:29
1964: 2:35
1954: 2:31
1950: 2:23

That's a pretty clear trend. The blip up in 1994 might be due to the shortened season, where there were 600 games fewer played than in 1993. In 1993 the average length of a MLB game was 2:52.

What I was more interested in was short games -- games of less than two and a half hours, which is now about as short as a game goes, and especially games running shorter than two hours. The latter is an endangered species.

In MLB history since 1914 (as far back as bb-ref's database currently goes), there have been 19,855 games that have had a game time of 1:59 or shorter. (That number is for nine-inning games only. There have been 411 extra-inning games in MLB history that lasted less than two hours, all but five of them before expansion began in 1961, and 902 games shorter than nine innings of that length. I'm excluding those from this article, except to mention one post-expansion Cubs game that qualifies for the former list -- a rather famous game, too, Opening Day, April 6, 1971, when Billy Williams' walkoff homer off Bob Gibson won it for the Cubs in the 10th inning -- in an game that ran 1:58.)

Anyway, the overall average is thus about 197 such games per season, but the average doesn't tell the story. Only 78 games of that length have been played since 2000, an average of just six per year, and the last such game was nearly two years ago, June 27, 2012, a 1-0 Astros win over the Padres in Houston that was completed in 1:58.

For the Cubs, it's been even longer. The last Cubs game that had a running time shorter than two hours was September 25, 2009, a two-hit shutout of the Giants by Carlos Zambrano in San Francisco, and the last such game at Wrigley Field was June 21, 2002, a three-hit Jon Lieber shutout of the Cardinals.

But it's not just the sub-two-hour game that's vanishing. There have been just 55 games played in 2014 running less than two and a half hours, just two of them involving the Cubs, neither at home (May 10 at Atlanta and June 1 at Milwaukee). The last sub-2:30 game at Wrigley Field was August 19, 2013 against the Nationals (2:14). Since then, the Cubs have played 47 home games, all longer than two and a half hours.

I know what you're going to say. Baseball doesn't have a clock. It shouldn't matter how long it runs. Baseball is timeless.

All of those things are true. Nevertheless, slow-paced games are dull (that doesn't mean all long games are dull, but many long games tend to be slow-paced). Slow-paced pitchers (I'm looking at you, Edwin Jackson) drive their fielders nuts with their trudging around, looking up and down, messing-around-on-the-mound routines.

Some of the things responsible for lengthening games are not going to change. Longer TV commercial breaks have added at least 30 seconds per half-inning over the last couple of decades -- that's 18 minutes per game right there. Multiple mid-inning pitching changes slow the game down, too. I'm not going to blame replay review, because I don't think that has added that much to the average game time. Some games have no reviews. Other reviews go more quickly than the arguments that managers and umpires would have had in their stead before this year.

What I will blame is the constant stepping out of hitters from the batters' box, and pitchers taking an inordinate amount of time between pitches with no one on base. Umpires have been lax in enforcing a rule already on the books -- 12 seconds max between pitches with no one on base. Enforcing that rule would be a good starting point, I think, to speeding up the pace of baseball games.

We're likely never going back to sub-two-hour games. Pity, as those games, often great pitching duels, could be tense and fun. But it would be nice to knock the current 3:09 game average down by 10-15 minutes or so.

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