From Little League on up, players emulate major leaguers, so Major League Baseball’s pace-of-play problem is trickling down. Four innings into a recent College World Series game here, just seven hits and three runs had consumed 96 minutes. During a coach’s visit to the pitcher’s mound, the other team’s three base runners visited their dugout to confer with their coach. The Congress of Vienna moved more briskly.
One of the six games of the 1948 Boston-Cleveland World Series was 1 hour and 31 minutes; the average, 2 hours. This year the average nine-inning game is 3 hours and 4 minutes, up 4 minutes from last year and 14 minutes from 2010. MLB’s worry, however, is less the length of games than that the length has increased as action — batters putting balls in play — has decreased.
This season, more than 30 percent of at-bats are ending with walks or strikeouts. Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci cites the June 2 Dodgers-Brewers game, won by the Dodgers 2-1 in 12 innings: Of 90 plate appearances, 42 were strikeouts. Only 40 resulted in the ball in play — an average of once every six minutes. Three home runs produced all the scoring.
In one of baseball’s greatest games — the Pirates’ 10-9 victory, on Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off homer, over the Yankees in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series — there were no strikeouts. Two pitchers in this game, the Yankees’ Bobby Shantz and the Pirates’ Elroy Face, were 5 feet 6 inches and 5 feet 8 inches, respectively.
MLB’s problems are related to its players being ever-stronger and increasingly using what baseball people call “analytics,” a.k.a. information. Consider two related facts about today’s all-or-nothing — strike out or home run — baseball:
This April, there were a record 16.5 strikeouts per game. And by June 15, there had been 50 home runs in one day five times, tying the single-season record — set just last year. Pitch velocities and spin rates (which sharpen pitch movement) are up. Hitters, like pitchers, are bigger and stronger (Mickey Mantle was just 5 feet 11 inches and 195 pounds) and are confronting a surge in defensive shifts driven by data about hitters’ propensities: Shifts have increased from 2,357 in 2011 to 28,131 in 2016. So hitters are elevating their swings’ trajectories in order to drive the ball over, rather than through, defenders.
When games should become more exciting, in the late innings, they plod as high-velocity relief pitchers — many 6 feet 5 inches, throwing 95 — strike out batters who know that a home run is a more likely route to a score than getting three consecutive hits off flamethrowers. Verducci says that in 1986 there were just seven nine-inning games in which the winning team used at least six pitchers; 20 years later there were 228.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred says that fans in the ballpark tolerate the sluggish pace of play; they can check the scoreboard, get a beer, chat. But broadcast audiences are dwindling: Even self-described “avid” fans watch an average of only 50 minutes, then drift away.
This year the average time between pitches has increased a full second, to 23.7. With about 300 pitches per game, this deadens things. Manfred says 67 percent of today’s major league pitchers worked under a pitch clock in the minor leagues. Soon, perhaps next year, a clock will require major league pitchers to deliver the ball within 20 seconds (15 would be better) after getting it back from the catcher. This will strengthen the rule requiring batters to stay in the batter’s box between pitches. (A whimsical proposal: Ban batting gloves. No one, from Ty Cobb through Ted Williams, used them, and now they occasion time-consuming fidgets.)
There should be limits on catchers’ traipsing to the mound. (In Game 2 of last year’s World Series, there were 13 hits and 14 mound visits.) Do warmed-up relief pitchers really need eight more warm-up pitches when they reach the mound? MLB packs too many commercials into breaks between half-innings — 2 minutes 5 seconds in the regular season, a minute more in the postseason. In a July 25 game, MLB will experiment with breaks of 1 minute 20 seconds.
MLB’s worsening pace of play will not attract generations shaped by ubiquitous entertainments. To those who deplore “changing the game,” Manfred notes how much it has changed (in 1964, Tommy John’s first career win was a 94-minute complete-game shutout in which he threw 73 pitches) and how much depends on adapting its rules to its realities.