MLB Isn’t Really Addressing Its Pace Problem

What’s interesting and disappointing about the pace-of-play changes revealed on Monday by Major League Baseball is that they do not actually address pace of play itself — that is, the actual frequency of action, the elapsed time between pitches. The reduction both of commercial break time and mound visits will have some effect, certainly, but those issues are more closely tied to overall time of game. They address stoppages of play not the pace of play itself. The more pressing issue is the frequency of pitches.

The one truly pace-related mechanism that many suspected would be employed, the 20-second pitch clock, had met resistance from players and was not unilaterally implemented by the commissioner’s office, perhaps an act of goodwill in this winter of discontent.

The clock would have been a game-changer, as only four — four! — of the 462 major-league pitchers to throw at least 30 innings last season recorded pitch paces of 20 seconds or less.

So, to Brett Anderson, Adam Conley, Amir Garrett, and Brent Suter: keep on keeping on.

As for everyone else, pace remains the real problem.

Ideally, the pace of a game would be brisk enough to keep an audience member from feeling compelled to look at his or her smartphone — or, for the home viewer, to flip between channels — between every pitch. Heck, football teams are now running plays faster than major leaguers are throwing pitches. While baseball is enjoying unprecedented revenue creation, free-flowing sports like soccer, hockey, and, to a lesser extent, basketball might better captivate future audiences.

While the average FanGraphs reader might not care much about pace, the commissioner cares for a reason — and I suspect he is concerned with generating future paying customers.

The time between pitches jumped by 0.6 seconds last season to a PITCHf/x-era high of 24.3 seconds. That’s a full shot clock in the NBA. Baseball continues its historic march to inactivity. Jeff wrote about pace on Monday and touched on something I want to address here again: getting batters to stay in the box.

While pitchers might be taking longer breaks between pitches in order to throw at something closer to max effort, this author has long suspected the real issue is with the batters.

Back in 2014, 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 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 1963, a major league game averaged 2 hours, 25 minutes. In the 1970s, the average game time sat around 2 hours and 30 minutes. (By 2014) the sport has added nearly 40 minutes to the length of an average game.

Much of the time between pitches was mere dead air, a batters standing outside the box.

Said then-commissioner Bud Selig during a press conference in Pittsburgh that summer:

“A guy gets in the batter’s box, ball one, and now he’s adjusting all this crap he has on… And I’m thinking to myself watching the game, ‘What is he adjusting? He hasn’t swung the bat.'”

The following season, MLB introduced new pace rules that, most notably, required batters to keep one foot in the box at all times unless they had fouled off a pitch, taken a swing, or met some other exception. Violators faced monetary penalties. It’s interesting how even a relatively small monetary penalty incentives behavior change. And then, baseball and the players curiously agreed to do away with the penalties. The behavior gains evaporated.

While pitchers certainly operate at signature speeds — if “speed” is a word that could rightly apply to whatever Pedro Baez is doing — they don’t appear to be the ones driving the action. Consider the dip and spike of both trend lines in the following chart relative to the implementation and then removal of fines for batters.

While a clock would help — and I suspect we will inevitably have a clock — baseball did not need a clock in 2015. A simply monetary penalty and enforcement of an existing rule was enough to change behavior and quicken pace. Rule 6.02 (c) 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.”

Last summer, I asked Zack Greinke about pace and the research by Rob Arthur that suggests it’s in part tied to velocity. Greinke thought batters were the primary culprits.

“I noticed that,” Greinke said of pace. “Maybe I am walking off the mound more… but hitters take longer, too. Like in Chicago, I am waiting for Avisail Garcia seconds every time because he walks around… I’ve noticed I’ve been waiting more on guys, I’ve had a lot of two-strike counts. [Greinke’s strikeout rate jumped by 6.7 percentage points between 2016 and -17.] I feel guys take more time after two strikes. I’ve been surprised because my [pace] number is higher. I’m betting because there is more swing and miss than ever, and guys are going to take more time.”

Maybe Greinke is on to something.

There were 209,635 two-strike offerings last season, up from 205,666 in 2016 and 199,571 in 2015, according to Baseball Savant, which switched to Statcast pitch-tracking data last season.

So the two-strike surge — and even more thinking outside the literal box by batters during those higher-leverage counts — might be further slowing pace. It should also increase the importance of adhering to Rule 6.02 (c).

The changes announced Monday should shave some minutes off each game. But they do not address in a significant way the flow of the game from pitch to pitch. Flow is more important than gross time of game. In 2015, we saw change was possible without a clock. The clock-less sport might be inevitably headed to a digital clock ticking down, but perhaps baseball ought to simply enforce a rule that already on the books.

Until then, the pace will continue to slow.

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

Good article. Has there been a study that compares the duration of pitcher at bats vs. designated hitter at bats?