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Pace-of-Play Proposals Could Be Hostile to Innovation

This is Alexis LaMarsh’s first piece as part of her July Residency at FanGraphs. Alexis is a communications student at Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri. She enjoys breaking down numbers and exploring the cultural side of baseball. She has written for her own site, Pinch Hero, as well as Cardinals blog St. Louis Bullpen. She plans to present research at Saberseminar in August. Alexis can also be found on Twitter @clutchmarp.

With action on the field subject to an increasing number of starts and stops and the average time of game climbing in recent seasons, commissioner Rob Manfred has stressed taking active steps to reverse the trend. In 2018, MLB implemented new pace-of-play rules, including mound-visit limits and timers on inning breaks and pitching changes, part of a continuous effort that has been underway since 2015.

The effects on game length are still unclear. Per Baseball Reference, the average time of a nine-inning game last season was three hours and five minutes. Thus far in 2018, it’s down to two hours and fifty-nine minutes. In a recent interview with The Athletic, Manfred credited the league’s recent rule changes for the dip in game time, as well as improvements in the game’s pace, though his comments to that effect were relatively vague.

While it’s certainly possible that this year’s initiatives have led to slightly shorter games, Manfred’s claim suggests that he is perhaps missing a larger, more critical point: more than any superficial pace of play component, what happens at the plate appears to ultimately decide the pace and length of games. The current trends on the mound and in the batter’s box suggest that there may be a limit to the efficacy of pace-of-play initiatives. That’s of particular concern in light of the drastic steps the league has discussed to further address the issue. In service to the goal of shortening games and increasing action, MLB may end up adopting a posture that is hostile to innovation.

Part of the pace-of-play issue is what’s being thrown. In the past 16 years (for which the data is available on FanGraphs), fastball usage has trended downward, while offspeed and breaking-ball usage have trended upward:

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