On Sunday, May 14 — Mother’s Day — the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays played a game at Fenway Park that may have qualified as the worst viewing experience in baseball history. The game, played in blustery, wet conditions, was an 11-2 blowout. The Rays won, and nothing much of consequence happened.
The most notable thing about the game, in fact, was how long it took: 4 hours 32 minutes, the longest nine-inning game in a decade and the third longest ever. An NBA playoff game between the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors in Oakland, Calif., tipped off about two hours later and finished at almost the exact same time.
It was the sort of game, bloated by inaction, that drives Rob Manfred, baseball’s commissioner, batty. “We continue to struggle with time of the game, mound visits, pitchers that don’t deliver the ball properly,” Manfred told reporters this month at Coors Field in Denver.
A cursory glance at the box score and play-by-play data from that May 14 game shows there were six mid-inning pitching changes, two replay reviews and 370 pitches thrown (74 more than in an average game this season). What was less obvious was the subtle, uncharted dead time — catchers’ mound visits, batters stepping out of the box, pitchers holding the ball — that has combined to make the sport, in the view of many fans, a nightly slog of boredom.
What there was in that game — and what there is in every baseball game these days — was a lot of standing around.
Manfred, armed with focus-group and survey data suggesting younger fans are increasingly turned off by the game’s glacial pace, has been on a crusade to improve baseball’s pace. In February, visibly frustrated, he decried a “lack of cooperation” from the MLB Players Association over pace-of-play issues and implied he could use unilateral powers to impose changes in 2018 if there is no progress in negotiations.
“Anything that makes your game more attractive to your fans is something you should consider doing,” said Andy MacPhail, Phillies president of baseball operations. “But change is something our game has a hard time absorbing sometimes. We have to figure out what we can do, without changing the appeal of the sport, to try to have more action.”
Despite some highly publicized but chiefly cosmetic rule changes this year designed to speed up play — the introduction of the “automatic” intentional walk and a time limit on replay reviews — baseball has actually gotten even slower, with an average game this season requiring 3 hours 8 minutes, the highest in history, 14 minutes longer than in 2010 and four minutes longer than just last year.
Four of the five teams with the longest average time of game reside in the American League East: the Rays (3:21), Red Sox (3:20), Yankees (3:15) and Orioles (3:13). That 4:32 game at Fenway Park? It was unusually long but not by as much as you might think: Boston already has played 11 games 3:45 or longer this season, only four of which went to extra innings. The Rays also have played 11 games of 3:45 or longer, six of which went to extra innings.
While it’s true there are seemingly intractable trends conspiring to add extra minutes to (and subtract actual action from) games — chiefly, an increasing emphasis on pitch velocity, which leads to more strikeouts, more walks, more home runs and more overall pitches but fewer balls in play — baseball’s leadership is less concerned with the game’s total length than with its pace.
“For most fans, particularly for our hardcore fans, we provide a great entertainment product day in and day out,” Manfred said. “Pace of game might not bother them. But we’re also interested in capturing new fans, particularly young fans, and we think that a little focus on pace of game, while always respecting the tradition and history of the game, will always help us with the younger group.”
As a result, the game appears closer than ever to adopting the most substantial measure possible to speed up the game without altering its fundamental nature — a 20-second pitch clock — possibly by the start of the 2018 season. Manfred is in active negotiations with players’ union leaders over pace-of-play issues, including the potential adoption of a pitch clock; an MLB spokesperson cited those talks in saying Manfred could not be interviewed for this story.
But in Denver this month, Manfred explained why pace and not length is the target: “Time of game is often what happens on the field competitively,” he said. “How many runs get scored, how many guys on base, how many times you change pitchers. Those are things I’m not looking to control. Because that’s about the competition. That’s up to the clubs. [But] pace of game should be the same whether it’s a 2-1 game or an 11-10 game. And that means [batters] in the box, the pitchers delivering the ball, avoiding 22 visits to the mound.”
Manfred isn’t wrong. Analytics website FanGraphs has been charting “pace” — a measure of the time between pitches — since 2007, and this season’s average leaguewide pace, 23.8 seconds, is the highest in that span, 2.3 seconds longer between pitches than a decade ago.
Simple math shows what that means: If there are 296 pitches per game, as there have been this season, an extra 2.3 seconds between each one equals an extra 11 minutes — of absolutely nothing happening — per game.
And conversely, if baseball could reduce its pace to a flat 20 seconds between pitches — unlikely to be achieved in practice because of necessary exceptions to the 20-second rule for foul balls and other events — it could theoretically shave nearly 19 minutes from the average game. Only three of 83 starting pitchers with a qualifying number of innings average less than 20 seconds between pitches, led by Cardinals right-hander Carlos Martinez at 19.1. The slowest, Matt Shoemaker of the Angels, takes 26.7.
There appears to be a tangible benefit to pitchers who stall: A recent study by FiveThirtyEight.com concluded that for every extra second a pitcher waits before delivering his pitch, his velocity increases by 0.02 mph. It doesn’t sound like much, but a 10-second delay would lead to an increase of 0.2 mph, and since every full tick of velocity is worth 0.3 runs per nine innings, if a team’s entire pitching staff added 10 extra seconds, the resulting mph increase would equate to 10 runs saved per season.
It appears some teams may have figured this out. Pitchers for the Rays, for example, have added more than 3½ seconds between pitches this year, according to FanGraphs, going from 22.3 seconds in 2016 to 25.9 in 2017. It’s no wonder the Rays lead the majors in average time of game.
Despite a 2015 rule change that barred hitters from leaving the batter’s box between pitches — and which helped spur a one-year decrease in average time of game, from 3:02 in 2014 to 2:56 in 2015 — they, too, are known to stall. The Rays’ Logan Morrison is the worst offender this season, with the highest “pace” among qualified hitters, 29.3 seconds.
The reality of Manfred’s unilateral powers has left the union leadership, which generally opposes a pitch clock, without much leverage other than to negotiate the least onerous version it can.
The players traditionally have been more resistant to rules changes than management, especially changes — such as a pitch clock — that would affect what they view as their craft. Earlier this year, union chief Tony Clark advocated educating fans about the game’s quiet nuances rather than changing the rules to suit those fans’ shrinking attention spans.
A pitch clock is “not something the players want to jump on board with, at least not with some specific exceptions,” said veteran Braves catcher Tyler Flowers, his team’s union representative, who declined to reveal what specific exceptions the players may be seeking. “There are plenty of situations that come up that we never think of, where you’re going to need to not be under that time limit. I’m not a fan of it to begin with, but if it is forced upon us, there needs to be exceptions that come along with it.”
Pitch clocks have been used in the developmental Arizona Fall League since 2014 and in Class AA and AAA since 2015 — with penalties of a called ball for an offending pitcher or a strike for a hitter — and they work. In the first year of a pitch clock in the minors, games were on average 12 minutes shorter than the year before, and minor league games are generally about 15 minutes shorter than MLB games.
Some in the game who oppose a pitch clock in the majors say the problem will resolve itself over time, when a generation of players arrives in the big leagues already having adapted to the clock in the minors.
“I don’t think we need a pitch clock,” Brewers Manager Craig Counsell said. “They’re already training minor leaguers. . . . I think once the majority of the league has played under those sets of conditions, it will change. It will take a little while.”
But Mets General Manager Sandy Alderson disagrees, saying players will revert to stalling if the disincentive — a pitch clock — is removed.
“The notion once kids are exposed to a 20-second clock, it’s with them forever? No, we all revert to a default position,” said Alderson, who worked on time-of-game issues as MLB’s executive vice president for baseball operations from 1998 to 2005. “Especially with men on base, what happens is, they lose the habit and we lose continuity from minors to majors.”
Pitchers who hold the ball and batters who stray from the box are not the only factors slowing down the pace of play, of course. The increasing reliance on specialized bullpens, which creates a parade of managers strolling to the mound to make mid-inning pitching changes late in games, is another major factor. Teams this year are using an average of 3.1 relief pitchers per game, up from 2.5 in 2000 and 2.0 in 1990. Alderson suggested requiring each reliever to face two or even three batters before he could be replaced, which he said not only would speed up the game but alter the late-inning dynamics to produce more comebacks and lead changes.
“You would change the balance of power in the late innings of games,” Alderson said. “We don’t have the same frequency of lead changes that we see in other sports, because of the dominance of bullpens these days.”
In his public statements, Manfred has sounded cautious on pushing for changes on reliever usage, wary of altering a fundamental rule of competition. But a limit on mound visits — primarily from catchers — could be among the changes he seeks. One suggestion would be to permit teams a predetermined number of such “timeouts” per game but otherwise restrict mound conferences. Even some catchers agree the constant confabs between catchers and pitchers have gotten out of hand.
“To be honest, I think it is a little overdone now,” Nationals catcher Matt Wieters said. “Because these are big league pitchers who know what they’re doing. I want the freedom to be able to go out there if I need to say something. But I’ve never been one to make three trips in an inning. I think it’s become a little excessive. It’s probably turned into more of a reassurance check.”
If a catcher can admit his brethren stroll out to the mound too frequently, perhaps pitchers can someday acknowledge they don’t need to hold on to the ball so long between pitches and hitters can find it within themselves to stay in the batter’s box at all times.
But there is little to suggest such things will happen organically, and the average baseball game will continue to be about as long as a screening of “Gandhi” unless somebody does something.
That somebody, it appears, is Manfred, and that something, inevitably, is a pitch clock.