Are Baseball Games Too Slow?

Bud Selig has recently appointed a commission to explore ways to speed up the game. In recent years the game has changed so that it is now not unusual to see a four hour nine inning game. In the American League many games last around three and a half hours. While baseball games have gotten longer in recent years, the extent to which they are too long is less obvious.

The length of a baseball game, like most other things, is relative. On a beautiful summer day at the stadium, three hours seems too short for a ballgame. Four hours spent watching a game on television at home in the middle of the week seems like far too long. In general, watching your team lose always feels interminable, while a crisp three hitter by your team’s ace always seems to fly by too quickly.

The post-season poses additional time related challenges because not only are games long, but there are many games. The Super Bowl, by contrast, is a television extravaganza that lasts for what seems like a whole day, but it is only one game. The World Series is four to seven games each lasting roughly four hours over the course of about ten days. Watching every inning of a World Series, while exciting and fun, requires a commitment which may not be compatible with work, school or marriage.

The increased length of games is partially a product of things like frequent pitching changes, batters stepping out of the batter’s box between pitches and trips to the mound by catchers to confer with pitchers. The last issue has become the subject of particular concern after this year’s World Series where Yankee catcher Jorge Posada often made several trips an inning to confer with his pitchers.

There are, however, other explanations of why games are longer today. The most significant of these is that there is more offense in today’s game than that of two or three decades ago. Moreover, much of this offense is driven by walks as on base percentage has, rightfully, become viewed as one of the most important measures of a hitters ability. Last year, the average American League team scored 4.82 runs per game while drawing 3.39 walks. For the National League those numbers were 4.43 and 3.45. Twenty years ago, in 1989, American League teams averaged 4.29 runs and 3.21 walks, while National League teams averaged 3.94 runs and 3.21 walks. Scoring runs, obviously takes time as does drawing walks, working the count and other strategies that are broadly used today. The evolution away from a game where not everybody in the lineup was expected to hit has made for a better, more rational, but slower game.

Major League Baseball will not be able to reduce the time of games if all they do is tinker around the edges by limiting trips to the mound and the like. Of course, in most innings, particularly the early ones, there are no trips to the mound by anybody. Any serious attempt to reduce the time of games must address the issue of higher scoring games, more offense and more walks. Teams are unlikely to stop valuing walks or home runs so this too will be difficult.

The simplest, cleanest and most parsimonious way to address this problem is also politically almost impossible. Abolishing the designated hitter would decrease offense and reduce the time of games in the AL, the higher scoring off the two leagues, but the players union would never allow this because the DH keeps high paid veteran players employed. There are, however, two other solutions to this problem which deserve some attention.

The first is relatively straightforward and would have an immediate impact-encouraging umpires to start calling the high strike. Pitches above the waist, even though technically strikes are almost called balls. If this were changed the pace of the game would speed up substantially as there would not only be less offense and fewer walks, but pitching changes and visits to the mound would also likely become less frequent.

The other has the disadvantage, or perhaps advantage, of being a long term strategy. During the last fifteen years or so a number of teams including the Orioles, Indians, Giants and Yankees have all moved to newer more hitter friendly ballparks. If Major League Baseball put new requirements about the distance to fences and amount of foul territory for all new ballparks, gradually offense as decline as teams erected new stadiums or expansion teams came into the league. The change would come slowly, but that might be a positive as it would not dramatically change the game.

The beauty of baseball lies in the balance between pitching and hitting. That balance has been off for several seasons. Increased lengths of games are a evidence of that greater problem, more than a problem in itself. Calling the high strike and setting new rules for new stadiums address this problem without handcuffing managers or catchers or putting players like David Ortiz and Hideki Matsui out of a job.