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.
These are the pace numbers that I calculated for MiLB leagues in recent seasons. The 15-second pitch clock seemed to quicken pace in this one example; the 20-second pitch clock seems to have had mixed results across leagues. pic.twitter.com/znoeez5yhu
— Jon Roegele (@MLBPlayerAnalys) November 15, 2017
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:
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.