Shorter baseball games? Not yet
In the early going, in fact, games are lasting 5 minutes longer than last year
Before we take another deep dive into the seemingly bottomless debate over the length of a Major League Baseball game, let’s get something out of the way right off the top.
The four-pitch intentional walk, terminated for the start of the 2017 season, was an unnecessary scapegoat of this discussion. Through Friday, there had been 55 of the new abridged freebies, saving 220 pitches overall and roughly 36 minutes — total — over two weeks. The cost has been adding some weirdly disorientating moments, along with removing a basic element of the sport itself. “I think that’s the worst thing that’s ever been done,” New York Yankees reliever Tyler Clippard said.
So what was the result of all that pitch trimming? After the first 119 games, a virtual toe-dip into the more than 2,000 played each season, the length of a nine-inning game has actually jumped to three hours, five minutes and 45 seconds, according to early data provided by MLB.
That’s more than a five-minute increase from last season (3:00:42) and almost 10 minutes from 2015 (2:56:14). Compare that with the decade-low mark of 2:50:38, established in ’08, and MLB appears to be going backward.
To some degree, it’s a cost of technological advancement. The expansion of video replay — describing the laborious process as “instant” doesn’t really fit — definitely has caused a drag and this season, for whatever reason, has felt especially painful early on. The concept behind video replay is sound: to get calls right. But the machinery has mutated into a pace-sucking monster, making us think that it could soon be time to pull back the reins.
When then-commissioner Bud Selig first set the plan in motion, the idea was to prevent controversial, game-changing calls from taking attention away from the entertainment product on the field. It’s a noble cause, and was worthwhile pursuing. But, to now routinely challenge a bang-bang, 6-3 put-out in the first inning, freezing the game before it barely gets started isn’t beneficial to anyone.
Better to endure a 3½-hour contest than be subjected to the choppy gaps of inactivity these types of replays are producing. Obviously, there is an upside, especially with questionable home runs and plays at the plate. But is the proliferation of replay actually good for the sport? Through the first 130 games, 91 plays had been reviewed, with 42 (or 46.2 per cent) being overturned.
According to MLB, the average time of a video review is 1:36. Maybe less time than it takes to neatly fill out a scorecard, depending on the quality of your handwriting.
So what’s been the holdup overall? The biggest culprit doesn’t take many guesses: the between-inning commercial breaks. For a closer examination, we conducted our own non-scientific study involving Thursday night’s game between the Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays. With the help of a DVR, we kept track of the game action, then fastforwarded through the commercials, which of course are aired every half-inning.
The official time of Thursday’s game was two hours and 59 minutes — fairly brisk by today’s standards. It was low-scoring, with the Yankees winning, 3-2, and also entertaining. Luis Severino struck out 11 in seven innings, and the Yankees needed only two relievers, Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman, so it featured relatively few pitching changes.
And, of those nearly three hours, how much baseball did you actually see during the YES broadcast?
A little more than two hours. By our stopwatch calculations, it was 2:09, meaning roughly one-third of the entire broadcast was spent airing commercials. That’s the reality of professional sports — it’s a business enterprise, designed to produce revenue, so showing ads is as much a part of any game as balls and strikes. During Thursday’s broadcast, there were 18 commercial breaks — so six per hour — which included two that occurred for a pair of Rays’ mound visits and pitching changes.
Shaving even seconds from that time is probably fantasy, but maybe it’s not as outlandish as previously thought. National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell suggested last month that cutting down the length and frequency of TV commercials was something that would be talked about in their own pace-of-game discussions. You can bet the NFL will come up with other revenue streams to make up for those financial sacrifices — if they indeed come to pass — but it doesn’t sound like MLB is prepared to take such drastic steps.
Not before trying other methods first. Things get complicated, however, when those ideas affect how the game is played. Any significant changes — such as a pitch clock — initially must be negotiated between MLB and the players association, but the only one agreed on for this season was the no-pitch intentional walk, which has proven merely cosmetic. For 2018, commissioner Rob Manfred could implement changes on his own, after giving the union a heads-up one year in advance, as collective bargaining agreement provisions have allowed the commissioner to do. In the past, MLB has avoided such unilateral moves, preferring to work diplomatically with the union.
A 20-second pitch clock has been deployed in the minor leagues, so baseball is past the beta-testing phase. But could other already-existing measures work if properly enforced? One example is hitters keeping at least one foot in the batter’s box, as Rule 6.02 (d) dictates, but MLB has wavered on policing.
Chase Headley said Thursday the commissioner’s office still sends out letters to players who break the rule, but had not heard of anyone being fined lately for the offence. Some flaunt the rule more egregiously. The Rays’ Evan Longoria, a 10-year veteran, rarely moves as much as a toe outside the box, firmly planting both feet throughout the at-bat. Yet others feel the occasional pauses are necessary.
“I might step out to collect my thoughts, maybe after a bad pitch or something,” Headley said. “Frankly, I don’t think it has a lot to do with holding up the game.”
That mindset could be generational, as MLB has been more proactive in recent years about keeping players in the batter’s box by pounding that concept in the minors. Aaron Judge, 23, has been groomed by that protocol during his rise in the Yankees’ organization, and he said the umpires down there diligently reminded him when stepping to the plate. He pretty much stays put in the majors.
“They were trying to brainwash us,” Judge said, smiling. “So I never knew any different.”
Are games too long? Depends who you ask. But this year they are longer, so the debate won’t be going away any time soon.
“Baseball has been around for more than 100 years,” Clippard said. “It’s a three-hour game. Sometimes it’s 2:15. Things happen. You can try to change all the rules, but it’s never going to be perfect. And there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals pitches against the Philadelphia Phillies on Friday. Games, so far in 2017, are averaging five minutes more than last season.