LOS ANGELES — In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, in the home clubhouse beneath the ancient stands of Fenway Park, in the aftermath of Boston’s win over the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 1 of the World Series, Red Sox Manager Alex Cora went to congratulate left fielder Andrew Benintendi, 4 for 5 with three runs Tuesday night, on a game well played.
“Great game,” Cora said.
Benintendi’s weary reply: “It’s past my bedtime.”
He may not have even known it, but at that moment, Benintendi was speaking for the entirety of the baseball-watching universe — at least the portion that resides on the East Coast of the United States. Tuesday’s game, completed in a regulation nine innings, had started at 8:11 p.m. Eastern time and ended at 12:03 a.m., making its time of game a tedious 3 hours 52 minutes. And it wasn’t even close to being the longest of this postseason.
Unlike the local working folks or schoolchildren, Benintendi had the luxury of sleeping in the next morning ahead of Game 2 on Wednesday night — which the Red Sox also won, in a turbocharged 3:12, to take a two-games-to-none lead over the Dodgers in the best-of-seven series, which continues Friday night at Dodger Stadium.
The glacial pace of play this postseason, coupled with scheduled start times that have been as late as 8:39 p.m. Eastern time, has revived an old, persistent and — some would say — tired (no pun intended) criticism: that the sport of baseball is doing a disservice to fans by forcing them to choose between watching the endings of the most important games of the year or going to sleep at a reasonable hour. And it may be contributing to the Series’ disappointing television ratings, with viewership for Game 2, despite the marquee matchup of major-market teams, reportedly down 15 percent from last year’s Game 2 between the Dodgers and Houston Astros.
The start times, at least, are a simple matter of economics. Major League Baseball and its broadcast partners — for the World Series, that’s Fox Sports — are seeking to maximize viewership for MLB’s showcase product, period. The 8 p.m. hour (all World Series games have a scheduled 8:09 p.m. first pitch this year) hits the sweet spot between reaching prime-time viewers in the East and giving those in the West an opportunity to finish work. That is unlikely to change.
“There is a little bit of East Coast prejudice in these questions” about earlier start times, Commissioner Rob Manfred said before Game 2. “We are cognizant of the fact we are trying to serve [West Coast] fans as well. I understand game times can be difficult. It’s hard when games finish late. [But] we’re trying to strike a balance and get the window where we can give the most people in the country a meaningful opportunity to watch the game.”
At the all-star break, when asked about the possibility of playing at least one daytime World Series game, perhaps as a sort of outreach gesture to young children, Manfred shot it down:
“We play more daytime postseason games than any other sport,” he said. But “when it comes to the World Series, we do what any business would do, [which is to] put the games on at a point in time when we are going to attract the biggest audience.”
The problem, though, is less about what time the games start and more about when they end. The plodding, attritional style of play of postseason baseball has never been more evident or acute.
After successfully shaving five minutes off the average time of a nine-inning game this regular season, from 3:05 in 2017 to 3:00 in 2018 — primarily by instituting a rule limiting teams to six mound visits per game — baseball has lost all that ground and then some in October. This postseason, the average nine-inning game has lasted 3:36, up from 3:29 in 2017. So while postseason games were 24 minutes longer than regular season games in 2017, the gap is 36 minutes this year.
Postseason games are always a half-hour or so longer than regular season ones, partly owing to longer commercial breaks and partly to the higher stakes involved on every pitch.
But the year-over-year increase from 2017 suggests something else has changed this postseason. Already this month, there have been four nine-inning playoff games that exceeded four hours, tied with 2016 for the most in history; as recently as 2012 there were none.
The shifting patterns of pitcher usage in the modern game have undoubtedly had an effect, with earlier and more frequent pitching changes throughout the sport — epitomized by the Milwaukee Brewers “bullpenning” their way through the National League Championship Series against the Dodgers. Only one starting pitcher this postseason has recorded an out after the seventh inning: the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, who threw eight scoreless innings against the Atlanta Braves in Game 2 of the Division Series.
Game 1 of the World Series, for example, featured a staggering 12 pitchers, 24 position players, 24 strikeouts and 308 pitches. The Dodgers, in particular, are adept at emptying their bench and bullpen on a nightly basis to leverage matchup percentages.
“There’s a lot of talent out there, a lot of athletes. It’s fun,” Cora said. “I know people talk about pace of play and all that, but at the end [of the season], from now on people don’t care. Four hours, 4½ hours, it doesn’t matter. Because there’s a lot of talent out there.”
The biggest culprit slowing down the games this month might be a relatively new development within the sport: the widespread and persistent paranoia over sign-stealing in the digital age, which has manifested itself in a couple of mini-scandals over the past 13 months, as two teams, the Red Sox and Astros, have been caught using an Apple Watch and a smartphone, respectively, either to relay stolen signals or to protect themselves against it.
That paranoia, in the absence of unlimited mound visits, also has manifested itself this postseason in the time-sucking phenomenon of pitchers and catchers using the sort of lengthy, complex, ever-shifting signals for calling pitches that were once reserved for situations in which a runner was on second — but now using them on every pitch.
“It slows [the game] down,” Astros Manager A.J. Hinch said during the American League Championship Series. “We can utilize multiple signs with nobody on base. . . . So it’s very complicated, [and] you can blame it on [complex pitch-signals] sometimes.”
It is widely expected throughout the industry that baseball will eventually, perhaps as soon as next season, institute pitch clocks to keep games moving. Under such a system, which Manfred has made a policy priority, pitchers and hitters would have 20 seconds between pitches to be ready for the next pitch and home plate umpires would be able to add a ball or a strike to the count to penalize slackers. With an average of 24 seconds between pitches in 2018 and an average of 297 pitches per game, that, at least theoretically, could shave nearly 20 minutes off the average game.
But the pitch clock will be too late to save the 2018 postseason from the dreaded midnight fade-out. However many World Series games are left — a minimum of two, a maximum of five — we can be sure of this: They probably will play out slowly and end late.