MLB Pace Has Never Been Slower. Who’s to Blame?

Pitch clocks are likely coming to an MLB stadium near you in 2018, according to a report by Buster Olney from earlier this month.

There’s a practical reason for the introduction of the clock and for the commissioner’s interest in it: the game keeps slowing down. In fact, in the pitch-tracking era — and likely in the history of the sport — the pace of game has never been slower than it was in 2017.

While pace of game and time of game aren’t entirely the same thing, they’re certainly connected, and the average length of game was a record three hours and five minutes last season. That’s up from three hours and 42 seconds in 2016.

The average Red Sox game required three hours and 20 minutes to complete last year, the longest in baseball. The Yankees? They were second, at three hours and 16 minutes. The quickest? The Padres, at three hours flat.

Replay and commercial breaks have played a role in slowing the game, certainly. Pitching changes, too. The biggest factor is twofold, though. First, there has never been less action in the form of balls in play. And second, never has there been more elapsed time between pitches.

We don’t have the benefit of knowing exactly how quickly the game was played prior to pitch-tracking because we didn’t have the benefit of the automated timestamps that accompany the pitch data. But we know games have grown by about 40 minutes in length in the last 40 years.

Jeff Sullivan addressed the issue recently, noting that most of the delay comes with runners on base (hat tip to Sean Dolinar) and that the introduction of a clock might have only a modest effect.

Jon Roegele has his doubts, too, about how dramatically a 20-second clock would change a game. He researched changes in minor leagues that have employed pitch clocks and found the 20-second clock had a limited influence on pace, while the 15-second clock created a substantial dent.

But what’s behind the general slowing of the game?

Rob Arthur has argued that pitchers are slowing down to throw faster. Perhaps another reason is that relievers continue to absorb more of the game’s innings. Relievers took 25.2 seconds to throw a pitch last year while starters required just 23.2 seconds. (Each was a PITCHf/x-era record.)

Back during the summer, I asked Zack Greinke about pace and the research by Arthur that suggests it’s tied to velocity. Greinke suggested it’s not the pitchers who are the primary culprits, but rather those wielding bats and incessantly stepping out of the box. Greinke thought batters were slowing the game.

“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 30 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.”

On Tuesday, Jeff authored a post about the human rain delay that is Marwin Gonzalez. Jeff wrote that he didn’t want to make this all about the pitchers. In fact, the crawl-like pace might be mostly about the batters, as Greinke suggested.

We can measure pace for hitters, of course. Your top-20 batters on tortoise setting in 2017:

Human Rain Delays
Rank Name Pace (Seconds)
1 Marwin Gonzalez 29.5
2 Odubel Herrera 29.3
3 Robinson Cano 28.9
4 Hanley Ramirez 28.6
5 Logan Morrison 28.4
6 Corey Dickerson 27.8
7 Mitch Moreland 27.8
8 Kole Calhoun 27.8
9 Avisail Garcia 27.5
10 Gary Sanchez 27.3
11 Nick Castellanos 27.2
12 Joe Mauer 26.9
13 Didi Gregorius 26.7
14 Brandon Phillips 26.7
15 Trevor Story 26.6
16 Adam Duvall 26.4
17 Ryan Zimmerman 26.3
18 Eric Hosmer 26.2
19 Jed Lowrie 26.2
20 Tim Beckham 26.2

Way back in 2014, while working as a newspaperman, I was curious how much dead time was tied to batters stepping out of the box, so I put a stopwatch on every hitter who stepped out of the box with two feet following a pitch during a Cardinals-Pirates game.

While it was just a one-game sample, I doubt batters deviated far from their normal routines and practices. They didn’t know I had placed a stopwatch on them from high above the PNC Park playing surface. This is what I found then:

190 times that evening a batter left the batter’s box after a pitch. … 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.

Prior to Rob Manfred, it was former commissioner Bud Selig who was concerned with the pace issue. Selig said in a meeting with reporters that during the 1960s and 1970s batters rarely stepped out of the box.

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

In 1962, a major-league game averaged two hours and 25 minutes. In the 1970s, the average game time was typically around two hours and 30 minutes. The sport has since added 40 minutes to the length of a game.

In 2015, MLB introduced new pace rules that attached warnings and then monetary penalties to violators. Perhaps the biggest change was demanding batters keep one foot in the box at all times unless they had fouled off a pitch or took a swing (or some other exception).

Notice the one dip in the chart earlier in the story. That was in 2015, when batters were more cognizant, and incentivized, to remain in the box. Then MLB and MLBPA agreed to do away with the fines later on in 2015 and pace began to climb again in 2016 — and to record levels this past season.

Notice in the following chart that relievers and starters nearly have a uniform dip and increase in their pace trends:

Those trend lines suggest that Greinke might be on to something — that batters have more to do with pace than the pitchers. What relievers and starters both share is batters stepping out of the box, perhaps more frequently and for a longer duration. For whatever reason, batters are again spending more time out of the box. Perhaps they’re doing more thinking, considering the reams of data, the scouting material, and video that has grown exponentially. Maybe it’s the volume of two-strike counts.

While both the pitcher and batter variables play a role in the slowing, perhaps it’s not the pitchers whom the pitch clock will speed up the most.

Whoever, whatever, the main culprits, MLB would do well to pick up the pace in today’s society, where attention spans are being tested and so much information and service are provided at light speed. MLB probably needs a pitch clock — perhaps a 15-second one — and batters in the box to quicken the pace. Batters need the clock, the deadline, as much as the pitchers.

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

Where is the evidence that suggests MLB’s pace of play is a problem? Attendance is strong, RSN ratings are robust in almost every market, and industry revenues continue to grow. So, why exactly does MLB regard quickening the pace of play as a priority? This almost seems to be a media driven issue, as the most frequent complainers about game length are usually those who are watching out of obligation, not enjoyment. Would a slightly quicker pace be a benefit? Sure, I guess. But, as a fan, I am much more interested in the quality of play than the time between pitches. Whether the game is 2:50 or 3:10 has no impact on my willingness to watch. I also do not think the younger generation, with its notoriously short attention span, is put off. After all, with modern technology, they have the ability to condense the action if they choose. Also, the extra time between pitches may afford the opportunity for the easily distracted to do other things, such as check twitter, facebook, etc. or even switch between different feeds. Pace of play is an issue MLB should address on the margins. Treating it as one of its main initiatives, however, seems to be, itself, a waste of time.

Pirates Hurdles
6 years ago
Reply to  williamnyy

Attendance has trended down the last two seasons (about 500,000 per year). Time wasted with nothing happening and the decrease in balls in play isnt good for the game in general.

6 years ago

Despite a trend toward smaller ballparks (YS capacity reduction alone is about 900K), attendance has been very stable since the end of the recession. Some years have been up and others have been down. That usually depends on how well certain teams are playing. The overall state of the business suggests MLB is thriving. So, again, where is the evidence that what you call “time wasted” isn’t good for the game in general? I am not saying you’re wrong…I am just asking for evidence that isn’t an anecdotal statement of individual preference.

6 years ago

Attendance falling doesn’t imply any sort of correlation with pace of play. Attendance has fallen in the NFL, as in the NBA (though the decline in the NBA has slowed the last two years). Attendance is likely much more correlated to alternative viewing platforms (Streaming, etc.) than it is pace of play.

6 years ago
Reply to  williamnyy

Yeah, I don’t see what the big issue is either. I think for the most part people who have a problem with the pace of play really mean that they don’t like the sport. Shaving 15-20 minutes off a game isn’t going to change that. Plus they’re going about it all wrong. The new intentional walk, on average, probably saves about 45 seconds per game as a whole.

Regular season baseball is great to watch while doing other things, you don’t need to be hanging on to every pitch and that’s just fine. The mental aspect of the game, the battle between the pitcher and hitter, these things shouldn’t be rushed. It’s a nuance that not everyone appreciates but that’s okay. Baseball is in a great place right now as far as I’m concerned.

6 years ago

This is a common sense issue. People want the game to proceed. Attendance numbers and ratings fluctuate for all kinds of issues–trying to attach them to pace of game is a fool’s errand. All the evidence you need is in the popularity of replays, highlights and condensed games in media. No one is demanding a longer, slower version of the game.

And with regards to the whole they’re just not fans argument: Why aren’t they fans? I think if there’s one thing we can all agree on it’s that people who claim they are not baseball fans cite that it’s boring as the number one reason. So if baseball wants to attract more fans, which would make it less boring? A) Longer games, B) games of the same length, C) shorter, action-packed games. Tough one, I know…

6 years ago
Reply to  bjoak

People might find baseball boring because they do not think that it is enjoyable watching one person throw a ball at another person while everyone else stands around and watches. So I’m not sure how shaving 5% off the time of the game is going to change that.

Also, I’m not sure where you got that suggestion to make the games longer as nobody made it. So going with that theme should we give the outfielders jetpacks? That would both speed the game up and presumably make it more exciting.

And you didn’t really even suggest anything, so maybe don’t be a smart-ass if you don’t have anything smart to say.

6 years ago
Reply to  williamnyy

This is obviously just my opinion, but I would love for games to be shorter. When I read that average game time in 1962 was 2h25, I was blown away and jealous. I loved going to Mark Buehrle games when he was in Toronto because they were always so much faster than other pitchers (I know the article is saying longer games is more a batter problem, but Buehrle was so quick). I like baseball! But 4 hour games are dumb if they aren’t extremely exciting.

6 years ago
Reply to  Maggie25

I’m with you. I love my Pirates and will watch every game no matter what…..But if that late August game against the Reds would be done by 9:40 I’d be really happy.

6 years ago
Reply to  Maggie25

I was tempted to facetiously suggest that a huge jump in pace of play for 2017 was a direct result of Mark Buehrle retiring and J.J. Hardy seeing drastically fewer plate appearances.

6 years ago
Reply to  williamnyy

Seconded. This issue is being pushed constantly. What is driving the push? Viewer feedback? Fan experience polls? I don’t want to speculate on the source of this movement as that would be counterproductive. I do agree with williamnyy that some evidence would be helpful, especially to readers that get to keep reading about this despite fully enjoying the current product.

6 years ago
Reply to  MustBunique

I will say, as someone with young children, there’s a big difference in keeping kids interested for 2 1/2 hours compared to 3 hours….Maybe this is driven by that? Trying to get a younger crowd interested?

6 years ago
Reply to  mrosati56

Bingo. When a given local home game starts sometime between 7:00-7:15, these games are ending sometime between 10:15-10:30. At what age is it permissible for a parent to allow a child to stay up to watch the conclusion of a game?

It’s why I advocate MLB looking into starting games at 6 PM local. These 8 PM local start times for post-season baseball for games that last 4 hours is bonkers on a Tuesday night.

As far as the catcher mound visits to discuss what to do with a guy on second, those can be eliminated as well. I was a pitcher in college and we used verbal codes. You know the codes, the catcher yells the code so the middle infielders were aware of the plan, and off you went. It’s not that hard.

Curtis Cook
6 years ago
Reply to  DBPanterA

My experience, which is almost entirely with Mets’ games, is that nearly all mound visits take place after the pitcher has just thrown six straight out of the zone. I’m betting they have more to do with settling the pitcher down (or kicking his metaphorical ass) than with positioning fielders.

6 years ago
Reply to  williamnyy

I think you’re right to question whether the current pace of play is a problem. Like you say, most fan engagement metrics are pretty solid.

But I think the reason MLB is right to focus on this is due to the trendline. There will almost certainly come a point at which a slower pace IS a problem, and right now it’s hard to see how that trendline slows absent any action on it.

Psychic... Powerless...
6 years ago
Reply to  williamnyy

“Where is the evidence that suggests MLB’s pace of play is a problem?”

Unless MLB is running a ten-billion-dollar industry by intuition, the evidence is likely in focus-group and survey results that MLB will never share with the public.

And for what it’s worth (very little, but still), I personally think it’s a problem. I started watching baseball in the 70s; since then, 40 minutes of dead time has been added to each game. I’m surprised anyone would think that’s a good thing.

Captain Tenneal
6 years ago
Reply to  williamnyy

Baseball games could average 5 hours for all I care, but If I’m going to enjoy the time I spend watching there needs to be more than 1 pitch every 30 seconds.