This is Joe Sheehan’s’s second piece as part of his April residency at FanGraphs. A founding member of Baseball Prospectus, Joe currently publishes an eponymous Baseball Newsletter. You can find him on Twitter, as well. Read all our residency posts here.
Two pieces ran at FanGraphs earlier this week that addressed critical issues facing Major League Baseball. Dave Cameron pointed out that, with walk rates ticking back up in the season’s early days, that the Three True Outcomes (walks, strikeouts, home runs) accounted for over a third of all plate appearances. Jeff Sullivan then wrote that early-season games were averaging a snappy 3:11, with lag time between pitches jumping by more than a second.
Scores of smart people have taken aim at both issues raised by the Wonder Twins of FanGraphs. Pace of play has replaced PEDs as Baseball’s Big Issue. What I’m not sure we’ve discussed sufficiently is how those two things — TTO baseball and lag time between pitches — are correlated, and how the style of baseball being played in 2017 directly affects the pace at which baseball is being played in 2017.
Let’s back up. Baseball, as evolved from various stick-and-ball games in the 19th century, was originally a contest in which the pitcher’s role was similar to that of a slow-pitch softball hurler. His job was to kick things off by offering up a ball that the batter could whack into the field of play, where the real business of playing baseball happened: running and throwing and fielding and even throwing the ball at a baserunner to record an out. The pitcher was the least important player on the field in the game’s early days. There were, in fact, no mechanisms to force the pitcher to give the batter hittable pitches; it was just considered his job to do so. Batters were even able to request high or low pitches, the better to fit their swing.
As the game became professionalized and more competitive at the highest levels, pitchers started trying to exercise more control over their deliveries so as to keep the batter from making solid, or even any, contact. This led to the creation of the strike zone and, subsequently, walks. Pitchers pushed the rules that mandated underhand deliveries, so as to generate more speed on the ball, and pushed them some more, until the game gave up and let pitchers throw overhand in 1884. This was a key moment in the evolution of baseball, the moment the game stopped being a battle between the batter and the defense, and became a battle between the pitcher and the batter. It also gave us this graph:
It’s not a perfectly clean line, as the deadball era saw a jump in whiffs that disappeared during World War I, but the long-term trend is clear: strikeout rates have risen throughout baseball history, and you can trace it all back to 1884, when baseball turned pitchers into the most important players in the game. So now, 133 years later, in a 7-1 game in the ninth, you have to watch some 27-year-old failed starter huff and puff for 23 seconds, catching his breath while deciding between his fastball and his fastball, all because Pud Galvin and his ilk cheated so effectively that the game gave up trying to stop them.
Five generations later, hitters discovered that being big and strong was better than otherwise. How far that idea went is a topic for another day, but from the 1970s to the 2010s, the weakest players were culled from the herd. This shows up in the statistics, but just to give you one example, here are the numbers for two starters at the same position for the same team 40 years apart.
Go ahead and guess, I’ll wait.
These two seasons were worth basically the same, with offensive WAR figures of 0.6 and 0.8, respectively. The player who came along 40 years later couldn’t hit for average or get on base, but being 30 pounds heavier, 30 pounds stronger, he was able to extract more value from those times when he squared the ball up. Freddy Galvis hit more homers last year than Larry Bowa hit in his 16-year career, and therein is the evolution for hitters. The league was lousy with Bowa types in the 1960s and 1970s, shortstops and second basemen and center fielders who had no power at all. There were 102 players who had 300 PAs and fewer than five homers in 1976. Last year, there were 31. There were 86 players listed at 175 pounds or less who had 300 PA in ’76. Last year, there were 12.
The average time of game in 1976 was 2:29. The average time of game in 2016 was 3:04. You think it’s all because of batting gloves?
The 1976 season was also the last one in which baseball games averaged fewer than 2:30 — a figure which, for a lot of people, is the optimal length of a game. Now, I can get on board with that idea, but here’s what you’ll need to do to get back there: cap player height, cap player weight, cap pitch velocities. The game of 1976 wasn’t faster because Baby Boomers were highly motivated; it was faster because pitchers didn’t have to worry about any given pitch getting hit over the fence. Their job was, put simply, easier. If you took Jerry Reuss and had him pitch 1970s-style to the let’s-all-point-and-laugh 2017 Padres, the top of the first might never end.
What we’ve had since 1976 is an arms race. Batters have kept getting stronger, and players with strength have crowded out players who lack it — not only at traditional hitting positions, but at all of them. At the same time, pitchers have, with the aid of team management around the league, traded endurance for velocity. In 1976, 24 pitchers threw 250 innings and 61 threw 200 innings. The average relief appearance lasted 1.7 innings. Last year, they’d have arrested any manager who let a pitcher throw 250 innings, and just 15 — one on every other team — threw 200. The average relief appearance lasted 1.04 innings — 60% less work. If you sent Noah Syndergaard back to 1976, they would burn him as a witch, but not before getting 280 innings out of him.
Baseball in 1976 was a bunch of guys throwing 86 and dialing it up to 91 now and again, pitching to a league where half the hitters couldn’t reach the warning track with two helpings at breakfast and an aluminum bat. Baseball in 2016 is beasts averaging 93 and then leaving after a couple of hours so beasts throwing 97 can go to work, taking on a league where everyone can turn around a fastball. Why, I mean, in the world, would we expect these two things to take anywhere close to the same amount of time? They are barely, just barely, the same sport. If you want baseball players in 2016 to play 2:30 games, then stop after seven innings.
You’ve probably seen the Grant Brisbee bit about why games are so long. He concludes, “Time between pitches is the primary villain.” He’s right, but it’s not because of sloth; it’s because baseball is a lot harder now. Baseball is harder now because the batters are bigger and stronger and the pitchers throw a lot harder, and they have things like cut fastballs. No one in that 1984 game had ever seen a 94-mph cut fastball. The presence of Dwight Gooden notwithstanding, no one had seen a 93-mph slider or a 90-mph changeup, praise Thor. Edinson Volquez was in that Brisbee piece, and no one thinks he’s any good, and he throws 93. It takes an extra tick or two to gear up to throw that kind of stuff, and it takes an extra tick or two to gear up to hit that kind of stuff.
Velocity and strength, over time, have stretched the natural length of a baseball game. These factors, more than anything else, are why baseball games now take about three hours.
This brings us back to game play. The velocity and strength slowing down the game are the same ones taking action out of the game. From 1871 through today, baseball has steadily moved from a ball-in-play game to a pitcher/batter game. Those trends have accelerated of late.
Back in Larry Bowa’s day, 78% of PAs ended with a ball put in play. That figure was 68% last year, the lowest in baseball history. (It was 91% in 1883, the last year before they let pitchers throw overhand.) Velocity and strength are pushing the ball out of play more and more, slowing down the game more and more, until it looks almost nothing like its origins.
You can’t fix the pace-of-play problem apart from the game-play problem. They’re the same problem, and they require not just solutions that go beyond anything that’s been discussed, they require thinking beyond what we’ve ever seen from baseball. Any major change in baseball across its history has been reactive: move back the mound, mix in more clean baseballs, lower the mound, add a designated hitter, expand the playoffs, drug test everyone. At no point has anyone ever convened, or had to convene, a conversation about what baseball should actually look like. The pace-of-play/length-of-game discussions are people arguing 2:30 is the right number, even though 2:30 for a baseball game would have sounded crazy to their fathers, who grew up with two-hour games in the 1940s. Maybe 2:30 is the right number. Maybe it’s 2:45. Maybe it’s 3:30 with an intermission, and only on Sundays in the fall.
Rob Manfred — and, in fact, all of us — have largely been talking about the downstream effects of strength and velocity on baseball games. That’s not where the solutions are. The solutions are in figuring out how to either limit strength and velocity, or in changing the game to accommodate them while sustaining an entertaining product. They’re not in intentional walks, or shifts, or commercial breaks, or pitching changes. They’re in strength and velocity. The first step is identifying the problem.
I don’t have an answer. I’m just trying to change the question to this: how do we put more baseball back in the baseball game, when all of the baseball players are being selected for the things that take baseball out of the baseball game?