Baseball needs a clock

It has become enormously burdensome, and generally unrewarding, to watch baseball games on television from start to finish. Even if you have three and a half hours to devote, there isn’t enough action to fill that time. The pace is too slow and there is too much down time.

According to Dave Shenin of the Washington Post, focus-group and survey data show that younger fans (and presumably anyone with a life) are increasingly turned off by the game’s glacial pace. Major league baseball, having commissioned the focus-groups and surveys, is well aware of the problem. However, baseball has not fixed it.

On the contrary, this season the average major league game is taking 3 hours 8 minutes to complete. That’s the longest in history. It’s 14 minutes longer than in 2010 and four minutes longer than last year.

Why do games take so long nowadays? The breakthroughs in baseball theory and analysis are a major factor, I think. Nearly all of them conspire to produce longer games.

Consider the basic breakthroughs — emphasis on walks and matchups. You can’t walk on fewer than four pitches. Thus, the more important walks are understood to be, the more pitches hitters will tend to take.

This tendency is reinforced by the emphasis on “pitch count” — the number of pitches thrown by a given hurler. This focus creates an incentive for batters to maximize the number of pitches thrown by starters.

Pitchers, of course, can counter by throwing strikes. However, if the count reaches two strikes, batters can counter by fouling off pitches. I don’t have the data, but it seems like we’re seeing more-and-more at-bats of at least eight pitches these days.

The focus on individual pitcher-batter matchups also lengthens games. It produces mid-inning pitching changes. They, in turn, produce long delays. The manager strolls to the mound; the new pitcher strolls in from the bullpen; the new pitcher takes his warmup tosses.

The importance of walks and matchups has been recognized for some time. More recent refinements in baseball analysis also tend to lengthen games. Shenin cites the emphasis on pitch velocity which, he says, “leads to more strikeouts, more walks, more home runs and more overall pitches but fewer balls in play.”

The focus on pitch velocity also seems to be adding to the time between pitches. According to Shenin:

There appears to be a tangible benefit to pitchers who stall: A recent study by FiveThirty­Eight.com concluded that for every extra second a pitcher waits before delivering his pitch, his velocity increases by 0.02 mph. It doesn’t sound like much, but a 10-second delay would lead to an increase of 0.2 mph, and since every full tick of velocity is worth 0.3 runs per nine innings, if a team’s entire pitching staff added 10 extra seconds, the resulting mph increase would equate to 10 runs saved per season.

It appears some teams may have figured this out. Pitchers for the Rays, for example, have added more than 3½ seconds between pitches this year, according to FanGraphs, going from 22.3 seconds in 2016 to 25.9 in 2017. It’s no wonder the Rays lead the majors in average time of game.

The Rays, though an extreme case, are not alone. This season’s average league-wide time between pitches is 23.8 seconds, 2.3 seconds longer between pitches than a decade ago.

The latest fad in analytics is the “launch angle” on batted balls. Some hitters have become obsessed with hitting fly balls and avoiding grounders. These hitters will tend to be more fussy about what kind of pitch they swing at. Pitchers facing them will respond by being more fussy about what they throw.

Hitters have always looked for “good pitches to hit” and pitchers have always tried to avoid throwing them. However, if the definition of a good pitch to hit becomes more refined, the result will be more pitches taken and therefore more thrown.

“Fielding independent pitching” (FIP) is another concept that may be lengthening games. FIP measures pitchers solely on the events a pitcher has the most control over — strikeouts, unintentional walks, hit-by-pitches and home runs. It entirely removes results on balls hit into the field of play, on the theory that there’s too much luck involved in what happens in these instances.

If there’s too much luck involved on such balls, pitchers have an incentive to avoid having the ball hit into play. This, again, means longer counts.

What to do? The options are limited. Players and managers can’t “unlearn” the lessons statistics have taught them.

Baseball could limit mid-inning pitching changes by requiring that every pitcher face at least two (or even three) batters. Sandy Alderson, the Mets general manager and one of the most respected figures in the game, has suggested this.

However, such an approach would make the game much less strategic. To be more precise, it would greatly cut down on the strategic aspect of the game that is most accessible to good baseball fans.

Getting rid of the replay would be a good move, in my opinion. Baseball doesn’t need perfect umpiring, except maybe in the playoffs. Umpiring mistakes may not “even out” over the 162 game schedule, but we can pretend they do.

To make a big dent in the time it takes to complete games, however, baseball needs to cut down on the time between pitches. It should do so with a 20-second pitch clock. The penalty for taking longer should be an automatic “ball.” (Here analytics, which demonstrate the advantage a “ball” confers on the hitter, would work in favor of shorter games).

I understand that a clock is antithetical to pastoral notions of baseball. But without one, games will take longer and longer.

How much time would a 20-second clock knock off of game length? As noted, the average time between pitches is now 23.8 seconds. The average number of pitches per game is just under 300. Reduce the time between pitches by four seconds, and you save nearly 20 minutes, in theory.

In practice, you would save less time because exceptions would have to made for foul balls and other events. Nonetheless, the clock would make a big difference.

The players’ union apparently opposes a pitch clock. However, according to Shenin the collective bargaining leaves the commissioner with the unilateral power to impose one in the interests of the game.

A clock would definitely serve those interests.

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