Whether through an inferiority complex or a simple pigheaded devotion to how the game used to be played, an awful lot of people in and around Major League Baseball are quick to point out the game’s faults. Never mind that other professional leagues are content to celebrate themselves and their product: baseball is intent on solving problems.
And while there are plenty of nits to pick about the game of baseball in modern America, two, in particular, keep coming up over and over again. They are related, and could even be considered two sides of the same coin, if you wanted to be holistic about it. You know these problems already, which are the dreaded “pace of play” and the complaint that offense is dominated by strikeouts and home runs, to the detriment of overall action. Indeed, former Cubs General Manager and Professional Cursebuster, Theo Epstein, was quoted as saying so recently.
"We need to find a way to get more action in the game, get the ball in play more often, allow players to show their athleticism some more, and give the fans more of what they want.” - Theo Epstein on MLB's entertainment value pic.twitter.com/GVMZIXNEFf— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) January 14, 2021
Complicating what could otherwise be a simple narrative of old white guys complaining about stuff—the time-honored tradition that America was pretty much founded on—is that these complaints have merit. In 2019, the median team home run total was 224, and the median team strikeout rate was 23.2%. In 2012—Epstein’s first season as the Cubs GM—the median team home run total was 164, and the median team strikeout rate was 20.1%.
In other words, in just seven short years, we went from five teams hitting 200 dingers to 24 different teams amassing that figure, and we went from 15 teams with a strikeout rate north of 20% to 28 different teams with a strikeout rate north of 20%. And while the shortened 2020 season makes home run totals moot, it is worth pointing out that the Houston Astros were one-third of one percentage point away from making it all 30 teams with a strikeout rate 20% or higher.
Pace of play may not be as obvious, as it differs from game to game, but it has been consistently slowing down. The five-year rolling average for average game time is at 3 hours, 6.4 minutes. In the five-year period before that, it was 3 hours, 1.4 minutes. In the five-year period before that, the average was 2 hours, 54 minutes. Now, 12 minutes on average per game over a 15-year period may not seem like a big year, but when there are about 2430 regular season baseball games over the course of a summer, it adds up quickly.
Now, where are these extra minutes coming from? We know that: pitchers are taking more and more time looking at pitches. A few years ago, Grant Brisbee examined why two games with nearly identical box scores—an 11-2 score between two National League teams with about 269 pitches and one mid-inning pitching change each, one from 1984 and one from 2014—finished a whole 35 minutes apart in game time. Brisbee determined that the primary cause was time between pitches:
Time between pitches is the primary villain. I tallied up all the pitches in both games that we’ll call inaction pitches — pitches that resulted in a ball, called strike, or swinging strike, but didn’t result in the end of an at-bat or the advancement of a runner. These are the pitches where the catcher caught the ball and threw it back to the pitcher, whose next step was to throw it back to the catcher. Foul balls didn’t count. The fourth ball of a plate appearance didn’t count. Stolen bases didn’t count. Wild pitches didn’t count. Just the pitches where contact wasn’t made, and the pitcher received a return throw from the catcher.
There were 146 inaction pitches in the 1984 game.
There were 144 of these pitches in the 2014 game.
The total time for the inaction pitches in 1984 — the elapsed time between a pitcher releasing one pitch and his release of the next pitch — was 32 minutes and 47 seconds.
The total time for inaction pitches in 2014 was 57 minutes and 41 seconds.
...Pitchers don’t get rid of the ball like they used to. Hitters aren’t expecting them to get rid of the ball like they used to. It adds a couple minutes to every half-inning, which adds close to a half-hour.
This is backed up by more than an examination of one game, too; in response to Brisbee’s piece here at SB Nation, Paul Swydan at Fangraphs noted that, yes, it’s taking longer between pitches.
To be sure, batters are part of the equation and therefore part of the problem. I’m not a professional athlete, and so I don’t truly know how often you need to adjust your batting gloves, but at this point one would think that Rawlings or someone would have made a glove whose bindings could withstand a single swing. It takes two to tango, as they say.
However, pitchers are also to blame, because enough somebodies have seemed to figure out that your velocity increases the longer you take between pitches. From Rob Arthur at FiveThirtyEight:
Because I adjusted for every pitcher’s own typical velocity, this pattern isn’t just caused by a bunch of slow-pitching, hard-throwing relievers. Instead, pitchers truly seem to gain velocity by waiting longer to deliver the ball. For every additional second they spend (up to 20 seconds), pitchers throw about 0.2 miles per hour harder.
Such a small difference in fastball velocity might seem too insignificant to chase. But every mile per hour matters: According to a 2010 study by Mike Fast (now employed in the Houston Astros’ front office), a single tick of fastball velocity is worth 0.3 runs per nine innings for a starter, and even more (0.45 runs per mph) for relievers...If a team’s entire pitching staff took an average of 10 extra seconds, the resulting 0.2-mile per hour increase would equate to about 10 extra runs saved per season.
MLB has played around with a lot of things to make games more efficient, from eliminating the need to physically make pitches for an intentional walk to limiting the amount of mound visits a manager or catcher can make. And while they do save some time, they are not the prime culprit; time between pitches is. And while there are plenty of reasons why hitters are striking out more than they ever have, a slower pitch is more likely to be put in play than a faster one.
All this is to say is that the solution is clear: implement a pitch clock and give it teeth. Enforce it. Pitchers and batters alike don’t like the idea, but you know what? Tough. A pitch clock is the single biggest thing that MLB can do to make games shorter, and it has the ancillary benefit of positively affecting the balls in play conundrum the league also happens to have.
We know that pitch clocks are going to work. We also know that baseball players and fans will adjust. We also know that a pitch clock is not a ridiculous idea. You can’t just sit around at the line of scrimmage in a football game forever. You can’t just dribble a ball forever and bore the other basketball team to death. The play clock and shot clock, respectively, exist to move the game along. A pitch clock is literally no different, other than the fact that MLB hasn’t had it before.
Of course, it’s not as easy as the league snapping its fingers and unilaterally implementing something new. It takes time to do that. But if the league never implements it, then everything they’ve said about pace of play—and some of what they’ve said about other complaints—is just a bunch of hot steam and nothing more.