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MLB’s pace of play problem is getting worse

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Data from the 2021 season’s first four dates indicates longer and longer games.

Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

You might have noticed the pace of play during the Cubs’ Opening Day loss to the Pirates.

It was... slow. It didn’t help that there were 365 total pitches thrown, and 15 walks issued by 15 pitchers combined between the two clubs. The game ran four hours — and it wasn’t even close to the longest nine-inning game played that day! That dubious “honor” went to the Royals and Rangers, who played a 14-10 slugfest with even more walks than happened at Wrigley (17 in all) in four hours, 26 minutes.

Those are outliers even in today’s languidly paced game known as baseball. Over the 2021 season’s first four days, there have been 44 games played that didn’t go to extra innings (I didn’t count extra-inning games in this analysis, wanting to keep this to games of nine innings only, as that’s comparable to the other numbers posted below.)

The 44 games this year averaged three hours, 16 minutes, which is significantly longer than the 3:07 average for 2020 or the 3:05 for 2019. (Those numbers are also for nine-inning games only.) Beyond that, of the 44 games, only 14 were completed in under three hours.

In 2018, the average game length had dropped to just over three hours, supposedly due to the mound visit limits imposed that season. In 2017, the average was 3:05, in 2016 it was 3:00 and in 2015 it was 2:57. Here’s a chart showing game length averages prior to 2015:

Beyond The Boxscore

As you can see, there was a very long period of time, from around 1950 through the mid-1980s, when games averaged somewhere around two and a half hours. But then game times began creeping up to the point where three hours almost seems “fast.”

Back in 2017, SB Nation’s Grant Brisbee wrote this article comparing similar games (scores, hits, etc.) from 1984 and 2014 and concluded:

Time between pitches is the primary villain. I tallied up all the pitches in both games that we’ll call inaction pitches — pitches that resulted in a ball, called strike, or swinging strike, but didn’t result in the end of an at-bat or the advancement of a runner. These are the pitches where the catcher caught the ball and threw it back to the pitcher, whose next step was to throw it back to the catcher. Foul balls didn’t count. The fourth ball of a plate appearance didn’t count. Stolen bases didn’t count. Wild pitches didn’t count. Just the pitches where contact wasn’t made, and the pitcher received a return throw from the catcher.

There were 146 inaction pitches in the 1984 game.

There were 144 of these pitches in the 2014 game.

The total time for the inaction pitches in 1984 — the elapsed time between a pitcher releasing one pitch and his release of the next pitch — was 32 minutes and 47 seconds.

The total time for inaction pitches in 2014 was 57 minutes and 41 seconds.

That’s it. It’s the time players spend standing around, adjusting batting gloves, getting signs, taking deep breaths before pitches (yes, you have seen this, and if you haven’t, watch the next game you see closely), basically not playing baseball. (Incidentally, Grant’s article is well worth your time if you haven’t previously read it.)

Rob Manfred’s changes that are supposed to improve pace of play — the automatic intentional walk, limits on mound visits, the three-batter minimum — literally cut seconds off the length of games. Here’s an article by Cliff Corcoran at The Athletic showing the math on what the three-batter minimum would have done in 2019:

Over the course of the 2,429 major-league games played in 2019, those 691 pitching appearances work out to just one every 3 1/2 games. If, in every case, the new rule eliminated the mid-inning pitching change entirely, it would have made the average time of a major-league game in 2019 (drumroll, please) … 34 seconds shorter.

Thirty. Four. Seconds.

After rounding, the rule would have reduced the average time of game from a record of 3:10 to a record of 3:09.

Thanks, Manfred, for giving us 34 seconds back.

The single thing that would truly improve pace of play and shorten games is the pitch clock. Period, end of story. When the pitch clock was instituted in Double-A and Triple-A in 2015, game lengths decreased anywhere from 11 to 15 minutes, per this New York Times article.

Granted that the 44 nine-inning games played so far in 2021 is a small sample size, but the way the three Cubs games so far have gone (average game time 3:26, and the Cubs didn’t bat in the ninth in two of the three), not to mention the 13 MLB games that have gone 3:30 or longer, doesn’t bode well for Manfred’s current pace-of-play initiatives.

Manfred could have unilaterally imposed the pitch clock at any time over the last few seasons but chose not to do so. Many pitchers who have come up through the minor leagues over the last five years ought to be used to the clock by now, and I hope it’s one of the things agreed to in the new CBA that will (hopefully) be completed after this season.

In the meantime, get ready for longer baseball games in 2021. And for those of you who say, “Hey, it’s more baseball!”, that isn’t correct. It’s the same amount of baseball — nine innings — only it takes longer than it should. Let’s get that pitch clock instituted and get the average nine-inning game length back to about 2:45 or so.