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MLB Games Are Too Long. How Can They Fix That?

Here are some ideas on how to speed up major-league games; the average game now takes more than three hours.

Jason Miller

You've surely noticed that the average length of a major-league baseball game has been creeping upward for many years. The Wall Street Journal noticed -- in this long article they chronicled not only the length of games, but the amount of time the ball is actually in play. That's less relevant to me than how long the games take. It's worth reading the entire article, but you won't get to the meat of it until this paragraph:

One of the most frequently blamed reasons for turning games into snorefests are the pitching changes. In our three-game sample, we totaled three inaction categories related to pitching changes. There was one catcher visit to the mound, for 52 seconds. There were three mound visits without a pitching change that averaged a minute and 19 seconds each. There were five in-inning pitching changes (all including a mound visit, of course) that averaged 3:11 per pitching change.

All part of the game, right? But then there's:

Also included in the "down time" were the arguments with the umpires, a highly visible part of any manager's job. Our games contained two small squabbles—Indians Manager Terry Francona discussed a foul tip (1:05) and Reds Manager Dusty Baker had a mild argument over a successful stolen base attempt by Washington (just 30 seconds). 

These delays tell us that instituting a replay system wouldn't take much longer than these arguments; some arguments last quite a bit longer than the ones in the WSJ sample. Finally:

Some of the most unpredictable moments in the game, in our games at least, were injury "timeouts." In our three-hour game, Joaquin Benoit had to have his fingernail trimmed by the trainer for 55 seconds. In the slugfest, Drew Stubbs needed a minute and 33 seconds worth of medical attention after fouling a ball off his knee. In the same game, a trainer tended to the home plate umpire's wrist for 38 seconds after he got hit with a foul ball. Finally, in the pitchers' duel, Jordan Zimmermann had to have his forearm checked out after getting hit by a batted ball for 1:04.

A fingernail trimmed? Really? This couldn't have been done between innings?

Something has to be done to speed games up. For example, the Cubs have played just four games this year in less than two and a half hours -- a game length that used to be fairly common. As recently as 2003, the Cubs played 30 games in 2:30 or less, and 10 years before that it was 53 games of the 162-game schedule in that length of time. They're on pace for only seven such games this year, and if they keep up the present pace, 84 Cubs games this year will last three hours or longer (they've already played four nine-inning games this year that took more than three and a half hours). According to the WSJ article:

The average MLB game this season is three hours and three minutes, according to the firm Stats LLC.

That's way too long. What can be done to speed games up?

First, I think hitters should stay in the batters box between pitches. The incessant stepping out, adjusting gloves, taking practice swings, then taking more swings once stepping back in, has gone way over the top. Stand in there and be ready for the next pitch!

On a related note, MLB should start enforcing Rule 8.04, which states:

When the bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives the ball. Each time the pitcher delays the game by violating this rule, the umpire shall call "Ball." The 12-second timing starts when the pitcher is in possession of the ball and the batter is in the box, alert to the pitcher. The timing stops when the pitcher releases the ball.

The intent of this rule is to avoid unnecessary delays. The umpire shall insist that the catcher return the ball promptly to the pitcher, and that the pitcher take his position on the rubber promptly. Obvious delay by the pitcher should instantly be penalized by the umpire.

If this means a 12-second clock has to be installed at MLB stadiums, so be it. The rule doesn't apply when there are runners on base, but at least this would speed up at-bats when the bases are empty. Here's an analysis from Beyond The Boxscore noting how much times teams, and specific pitchers, take between pitches. Note that link is from after the 2010 season -- those times are likely longer now. (More on this at this FanGraphs article, also from 2010.)

The one thing noted in the WSJ article that could really speed things up might be more controversial; that would be limiting mound visits, both by catchers and by managers and coaches. Something that drives me nuts is this: a pitcher gets in trouble, so a reliever begins to warm up. The catcher goes out to the mound obviously to stall so the reliever can get ready. He'll stand there until the umpire goes out to tell him to get back behind the plate and play ball. As soon as the catcher gets into position ready to play, then the manager or pitching coach comes out. At times, this visit isn't even to replace the original pitcher, but to stall yet again. By this time, perhaps up to three or four minutes' worth of time has been wasted. Games that go quickly through six innings often come to a screeching halt in the seventh or later when these shenanigans are going on.

I'm not sure exactly how you could enforce this, except by limiting catcher visits. If you really wanted to push for faster games, you could limit the number of mid-inning pitching changes. To me, the platoon advantage received by doing this is overrated much of the time; some managers use as many as four pitchers in an inning, which can really slow the game down. Passing a rule like this would force managers to make more efficient use of their bullpens, something a certain manager and team we know well could actually use.

But something has to be done. Baseball games are way too long, says Amalie Benjamin in the Boston Globe:

Five years ago, Major League Baseball sought to address its pace-of-game problem, issuing a directive to players, coaches, and umpires to — so to speak — make it snappy. From 2008 to 2011, games averaged around 2 hours and 51 minutes. After a bump to 2:55:58 in 2012, game times this year through Thursday are averaging 2:57:53 — a mark that would tie the 2000 season for the all-time high.

In 1963, when Vin Scully was in his 13th year as Dodgers broadcaster, games averaged 2 hours and 25 minutes. What could have added a solid half-hour since then?

The "through Thursday" in that quote refers to games through June 6; the WSJ article indicates the average is even longer now. Part of the added half-hour is more TV commercial time, 30 seconds per inning more than in 1963; obviously, that's not going away.

Baseball is a game where pacing is important; the slow pace in general gives fans a chance to talk strategy, history and other things during breaks in play. But the pace is getting way too slow. As the Boston Globe quote states, MLB tried to do something about this five years ago. It's not working. They need to try something else. And quickly, please.