We have all heard the complaint about how baseball games take too long. The doomsday prognosticators expect that baseball’s popularity will die off, as the younger generations want a faster paced game, with non-stop action and excitement. While a typical game lasts nine innings, baseball does not have a time limit, unlike other sports. There is no way of knowing if a game is going to take two hours or five. Even some players, such as Anthony Rendon of the Washington Nationals, find the game “boring” to watch on television.
However, there is no denying that the baseball games are, on average, taking longer to finish. According to Tom Verducci’s article earlier in the year, the average baseball game, over the past ten years, has taken almost a half hour longer to complete. Meanwhile, there has been a 13.3% decrease in the amount of runs scored.
Verducci assigns blame for the increased length of the typical game to the usual suspects. Specialized bullpens, defensive shift and pitchers and hitters taking far too long between pitches certainly do not help to accelerate the pace of play. However, there may be other reasons that do not readily come to mind. At the top of the list may be the widespread usage of sabermetrics and how that approach has trickled down to the field of play.
With the sabermetric approach, getting on base is a valued commodity. It is expected, if not demanded, that players take more pitches. Strikeouts, which had previously been considered a terrible outcome, have become nothing to worry about. Walks are just as good as hits, even if they only serve to move a baserunner over by one base. The mindset has become that it is important to drive up pitch counts and get into the opposition’s bullpen as quickly as possible.
That thought has lead to an increase in pitches per ball in play, even as the percentage of balls put into play has decreased. As Verducci pointed out, over the past ten years, there has been a slight increase in the amount of pitches per ball put into play, from 5.12 to 5.45 pitches. At the same time, the percentage of balls put into play has dropped from 57.10% in 2004 to 54.04% this season. Meanwhile, it has taken an extra 32.4 seconds to put a ball in play, increasing from 2:56.4 minutes to 3:24.8 minutes in the last ten years.
In his article, Verducci points out the slow pace of play, with pitchers stepping off the rubber and batters going through routines between pitches as the reason for the delay. David Ortiz, Troy Tulowitzki and Jose Molina are notable for their ways of delaying a game, be it with their rituals before stepping into the batter’s box or by taking constant trips to the mound. While those antics are certainly a part of the problem, the fact remains that players are taking longer between pitches because there are more pitches per game. It is rare to see a batter swing at the first pitch of an at bat, even if the ball is right down the middle of the plate. Perhaps the games are taking longer because hitters just do not swing as much as they used to.
Then, even when those balls are being put into play, there have been an increasing number of outs. Defensive shifts, based on statistical analysis of where players tend to hit the ball, are taking away multiple hits each game. As those shifts have become more prevalent, scoring has decreased because it has become harder to get on base. More pitches and fewer baserunners results in a much longer game.
There is certainly nothing wrong with sabermetrics. Teams such as the Oakland A’s and the Tampa Bay Rays have been able to use advanced statistics to compete with teams with much higher payrolls, in large part because of the sabermetric revolution. There is a much deeper understanding of statistical analysis now than there has ever been in baseball.
Yet, that revolution, and the deeper understanding of the game, may be the very things that are causing baseball’s expected demise. The younger generation has become used to the instant gratification that comes from video games and non-stop entertainment at their fingertips; they may not be as interested in the mental chess match that makes baseball such a great game. They may want action, which baseball just does not provide at this point.
There are certainly ways to increase the pace of play. However, sabermetrics, for all the positives they have brought to the game of baseball, may be the root cause behind why games are taking longer than they ever have.