Baseball’s Pace Changes Making Only Mild Impact

The commissioner’s office has been concerned with the game’s pace of play for some time now — and for good reason, as the game has never been as slow as it was last season. Nor is time of game simply the issue. Perhaps more relevant in the smart phone, attention-deficit era, the game was never slower in terms of time elapsed between pitches.

This author believes patrons do not have an issue with the total time of game so much as that time elapsing between pitches and the increasing lack of action.

While the threat of unilateral pitch-clock implementation was not realized this offseason, other pace-of-play initiatives were, including the limitation of mound visits.

As I wrote back in February, some of the measures in place don’t really address pace. Cutting commercial time between innings, for instance, addresses total time of game — which is down five minutes to a flat three hours per contest — but pace of the action is probably more important.

Pace had increased just about every year since PITCHf/x started time-stamping pitches in 2008: from 21.2 seconds for starting pitchers and 22.7 seconds for relievers in 2008, to 23.6 seconds for starters last year and 25.3 seconds for reliever, each a record. There is also a relationship between this slowing down and the velocity increases, as Rob Arthur found for FiveThirtyEight.

To really address pace, you need something new, like a pitch clock or the better enforcement of rule Rule 6.02 (c), which states “if the batter refuses to take his position in the batter’s box during his time at bat, the umpire shall call a strike on the batter.”

For this author, it is the batters strolling outside the box to take their practice cuts and readjust equipment — seemingly out of ritual rather than necessity — that has played a larger role in the slowing down between pitches than the pitchers holding the ball.

For example, back in 2014 as a newspaperman, I placed a stopwatch on every batter who stepped out of the box with both feet during a Pirates-Cardinals game at PNC Park. What I found is that it was indeed the batters — not so much the pitchers — who are playing a significant role in slowing down the action.

What happened 190 times that evening was a batter left the batter’s box after a pitch.

The Tribune-Review used a stopwatch on every batter that game. After the beginning of an at-bat, each time a batter left the batter’s box with both feet, the clock began. When the batter returned to the box, the clock stopped. Pirates and Cardinals hitters spent a combined 39 minutes, 51 seconds outside the batter’s box. The average stroll outside the box took 12.58 seconds.

In 2015, baseball elected to better enforce the rule and attached fines to batters who fled the box when no foul ball, swing-and-miss, or ball in the dirt occurred. Guess what happened. Behavior changed! Yes, incentives can indeed change behavior.

We saw a dip in pace. The next season? Fines were eliminated in the middle of the 2015 season, and by 2016 everyone was back to their sluggish ways. Baseball was back on it’s “turtle” setting.

So are the new pace rules working? To an extent.

Due to the elimination of mound visits and perhaps the fear that, if they don’t hurry up, they’ll be facing a pitch clock next season, starters have cut the average time between pitches by half a second to 23.1 seconds this year. The average time between pitches for a reliever is also down half a second to 23.8.

Improvement? Yes. Significant improvement? Not really.

This season’s pace is still the second slowest on record for starting pitchers and third slowest of the Gameday era for relievers.

There’s only so much limiting commercial breaks and mound visits can do. Yes, more balls in play would help, but there figures to be unintended consequences with any change to the ball or strike zone. The only way to ensure a quicker game is to enforce the rules as is, or to remove all doubt by putting a clock on the only major professional North American team sport without one.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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6 years ago

Anecdotal but it seemed when hitters risked a small fine for stepping out of the batters box they actually you know STAYED in the batters box. Did the union put a stop to that? A minor detail yes but every little bit helps.

6 years ago
Reply to  southie

That was a main point in the article…that almost 40 minutes out of a game was spent on batters out of the box during the year before the fines were enforced. The year after, when the fines were enforced, the pace of play sped up by almost a second per pitch.

6 years ago
Reply to  southie

How about an electric fence ?