For 3 hours 54 minutes, the Padres and Dodgers … well, they mostly did nothing besides toss the ball back and forth between the pitchers and catchers, then every few minutes swap the pitcher out for a fresh one. The Dodgers won, 5-1, in what felt more like a battle of attrition than an athletic contest.
By comparison, Game 4 of the NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat started about a half-hour earlier than the Dodgers-Padres game and finished at 11:39 p.m., when the baseball game was still in the sixth inning. The basketball game, completed in a sparkling 2:29, could have tipped off at 11 p.m. sharp and still beaten the baseball game to the finish line.
And the Dodgers-Padres game wasn’t an isolated event. That same night, Game 2 of the American League Division Series between the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays lasted 3:43 — with the Yankees setting a postseason record by striking out 18 times. And on Sept. 30, Game 2 of the Yankees-Cleveland Indians first-round series took a staggering 4:50 — the longest nine-inning game in baseball history. (And that doesn’t even include a pair of short rain delays.)
But this isn’t another get-off-my-lawn diatribe about the out-of-control length of baseball games — though they are longer than ever, with an average nine-inning game requiring a record 3:07 during the 2020 regular season, a number that has swollen to 3:29 this postseason (through Tuesday night’s games). Much of that difference can be explained by the longer between-innings commercial breaks in the postseason. But not all of it.
The problem for baseball isn’t so much the length of games but the pace of play, and despite the compelling story lines in these playoffs — young superstars such as Ronald Acuña Jr. and Fernando Tatis Jr., blue-blood franchises such as the Dodgers and New York Yankees, the novel coronavirus survivor narrative of the Miami Marlins and the rejuvenation of the villainous Houston Astros — it sits below the surface like a dark undercurrent, representing an existential crisis MLB has yet to get its arms around.
Take the Dodgers-Padres game. In nearly four hours of baseball, there were only seven hits — none of them home runs (a rarity in this era of all-or-nothing at-bats). But there were 14 walks (10 of them issued by the Padres) and 21 strikeouts (14 from Dodgers hitters), and there were a total of 12 pitching changes, eight of which occurred mid-inning.
The Padres alone deployed nine pitchers, tying an MLB record for a postseason game. Yes, in fairness, they were forced to scramble when starter Mike Clevinger was hurt and had to leave in the second inning — but it was already the third time in four games the Padres have tied that particular record.
If you define excitement in baseball by athletes in motion — a ball in the gap, an acrobatic catch, a crisply turned 6-4-3 double play or even a routine popup — you would have been bored by Game 1 of Dodgers-Padres, in which, amid all the walks and strikeouts, there were just 39 balls put in play across nearly four hours of baseball. That’s one ball in play every six minutes.
Baseball, especially this postseason, has become a game made for highlight shows: three and a half hours of inaction punctuated by a couple of stunning, 450-foot homers. Wow — those sure are exciting. Be sure not to miss them on the next morning’s “SportsCenter.”
The entire 2020 postseason, in fact, has only exacerbated some of the disturbing trends that have gripped the sport in recent years — with pitchers who throw harder and spin the ball faster than ever before, hitters whose only weapon against all that heat and spin is to swing for the fences and front offices that have deduced a parade of fresh relievers is more effective than a starter going seven innings. This isn’t a new problem, but it’s one that keeps getting worse.
This season, a record 36.1 percent of all plate appearances ended in either a walk, strikeout or home run — i.e., outcomes that do not involve a ball put in play. This postseason (through Tuesday), that percentage is up to 38.8 percent.
In perhaps the most extreme example, the Atlanta Braves and Cincinnati Reds combined to strike out 37 times across 13 innings in Game 1 of their first-round series — as many strikeouts as there were in the entire 1990 World Series — and 42.4 percent of batters failed to put a ball in play.
It’s not as if baseball hasn’t been aware of the ominous trend lines — which are even more concerning when combined with a fan base that skews older and a media and entertainment landscape that keeps getting more crowded.
In past years, Commissioner Rob Manfred has made it a priority to get the pace-of-play problem under control, by (among other things) floating the notion of a pitch clock — which has yet to appear in the majors outside of spring training — and instituting a three-batter minimum for relievers beginning in 2020, a rule change that has had a negligible effect.
This year’s coronavirus pandemic, which upended baseball’s regular season and diverted attention from other issues, forced Manfred to put aside that project to focus on simply getting through this season. But in an interview with The Washington Post before the start of the postseason, he vowed to return to the pace-of-play issue once the pandemic recedes.
“To the extent we get into a more normal environment and were having normal conversations about the game,” Manfred said, “I think you will see a clearer focus on those action-related items, in terms of the way the game is being played, as opposed to just [focusing on] the time of game.”
The distinction between time of game and pace of play is an important one. Lopping minutes off the back end of games is easy, as baseball saw in 2020 — when doubleheaders were shortened to seven innings per game in the interest of expediting a chaotic, pandemic-altered schedule loaded with dozens of makeup games. (Seven-inning doubleheaders, Manfred made clear, will not be used in future seasons.) Making the game more exciting and action-packed is far more difficult.
“I have never, never been a time-of-game person. Because of the interest in the pitch clock and the conversations behind that, people seize on the idea that it’s all about time. It’s not about time,” Manfred said. The issue is “how the game is being played, the amount of action in the game and how that relates to the entertainment value of what we’re providing to our current fans and the fans we’re trying to capture.”
Whatever MLB decides to try — and it has explored everything from moving the mound back by two feet to reducing the number of pitchers a team can carry (to force teams to rely on starters deeper into games) — it is too late to help the 2020 postseason. Even if you love the game — especially if you love the game — it can sometimes be difficult to watch.