Playoff Games Tend to Take a Very Long Time

Less than a week ago, in Game 5 of the NLDS, the Cubs and the Nationals played one of the more strange nine-inning games that I can remember. I don’t need to go back over the details; Nationals fans don’t want to revisit them, and Cubs fans currently have more pressing matters on the mind. But in the end, Wade Davis struck out Bryce Harper to wrap up the bottom of the ninth. The game was never dull, as the Cubs escaped by only one run. Yet it became the longest nine-inning game in baseball’s postseason history. The first pitch was thrown at 8:08pm local time. The last one was thrown 277 minutes later.

Clearly, no conclusion can be reached based just on one extreme. It’s not like nine innings of playoff baseball always take four and a half hours. But, you might have a gut feeling that playoff games have been taking a while. They have been! Because they almost always do. For a variety of reasons, when it comes to planning your day around a playoff baseball game, you should carve out a bigger chunk of free time. By roughly half an hour or so.

This is really quite simple, thanks to the powerful search tools available at Baseball Reference. In the plot below, I’ve covered the wild-card era, stretching back to 1995. I calculated average game duration — in minutes — per nine innings, and you see lines for the regular season and the playoffs. Easy enough to understand. For the sticklers among you: I realize it’s sometimes considered a sin to not begin the y-axis at zero, but, come on. Let’s not worry about that today.

In every year, the average playoff game has taken longer than the average regular-season game. Again, per nine innings. The smallest gap between the two averages was 21 minutes, in 1998 and 2001. The largest gap between the two averages was 46 minutes, in 2009. Over the whole window, regular-season games have averaged 173 minutes, while playoff games have averaged 203 minutes. Over the past five years, those averages are 180 and 210 minutes, respectively. This year alone, we’re presently looking at 185 and 224 minutes. The latter is the largest average in the sample. Regular-season games are taking longer than ever. So it’s not a complete shock that this has carried over to the postseason.

Let it be said that Jerry Crasnick wrote about this years ago. This is obviously not a new phenomenon, and if you want an explanation, there’s an easy place to start: the TV breaks are longer. It’s not just about place of play on the field. MLB and the networks are out to make as much money as they can, by running as many advertisements as they can without pissing too many people off. Excerpt:

Between-innings commercial breaks account for a significant chunk of the longer running times in October. The standard break for an MLB regular-season game is 2 minutes, 5 seconds, and extends to 2:25 for a nationally televised game. During the postseason, the between-innings break increases to 2:55.

Even if you didn’t know that, you could probably feel it. The TV breaks drag, but, remember that live sports are one of the only ways for networks to make money anymore. You can forgive them for insisting on a greater opportunity. So, longer breaks. That’s part of it. What else? You can’t really blame runaway offense.

There tend to be fewer runs in the playoffs, because the pitching is extremely good, and, historically, run-scoring has been depressed by about 10 – 11%. In one sense, more baserunners and more run-scoring would lead to longer games, because games don’t end until there have been sufficient outs. But because playoff runs are at a premium, games tend to be closer, which makes every pitch more important. That’s likely to slow down the average pace. A game like yesterday’s will pick up, when one team is beating the other by eight.

Also related to pace, here’s a proxy. A major reason why playoff run-scoring goes down is because playoff contact goes down. There are more strikeouts in October, because, once more, the pitchers are selected for their effectiveness, which is strongly related to whiffs.

So far in these playoffs, batters have struck out more than a quarter of the time. That would stand as a postseason high. Strikeouts mean deeper counts. Indeed, the average playoff plate appearance lasts more pitches than the average regular-season plate appearance. One of the things I’ve come to learn about pitcher pace over my years of being interested in it is that pitchers tend to slow down as a count gets deeper and deeper. Some of it might be accumulating fatigue, and some of it might be having to think a little longer, since a batter has seen more pitches. Deep counts slow the game down. The playoffs see more deep counts.

And, as you could’ve guessed, the playoffs see more pitchers used.

This is another regular-season trend that’s carried over into becoming a postseason trend. This regular season, the average team used 4.3 pitchers per nine innings, which is the highest mark in the 23-year window. And so in these playoffs, the average team has used 4.8 pitchers per nine innings, which is also the highest mark in the 23-year window. In theory, a pitching change only slows things down when it happens mid-inning. But, well, more pitchers also mean more mid-inning pitching changes, and rare is the pitching change that isn’t preceded by a meeting or two at the mound. Mound meetings are delays, even if they’re thought to be strategic, and I would assume that there are more meetings in October.

You’ve got longer breaks between action. You’ve got more pitchers being used. Although you’ve got a reduced amount of overall run-scoring, you’ve got deeper counts and higher stakes. You also just have more relievers and more hard throwers, and these pitchers take longer between pitches, maybe because each pitch is simply more taxing. Remember that, for everyone out there, it’s exercise. Everybody needs a little bit of physical rest. And in the playoffs, when everything is so important, it also stands to reason that each decision might be thought through a little more thoroughly. The end result is that nine innings of baseball in the playoffs take longer than nine innings of baseball in the regular season, by 30 or, in this year’s case, 39 minutes. It’s less of a viewer concern, because the playoffs are also exciting and stressful. The games can get away with taking the time that they do. But, we’ve written so much about how the playoff version of baseball is different from what we see for six months. You can go ahead and add duration to the list.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Da Bear
5 years ago

Prior to this year’s 4:37 NLDS Game 5, the longest 9-inning playoff game in MLB history was…last year’s NLDS Game 5 between the Nationals and Dodgers, taking 4:32 for a total of 54 outs and seven runs.

Maybe Dusty Baker is just getting really slow at walking out for all those trips to the mound.