Keeping Pace: Is A Pitch Clock Really The Answer To Slow Games?

There are many sounds that you will hear at a baseball game, but a horn or buzzer is not one of them. Baseball traditionalists and progressives have long argued over pace of play. While at the ballpark, I don’t care how long the game lasts. I root for extra innings and I enjoy the constant chess match among managers, players, and coaches. However, baseball should not concern itself with only appealing to its loyal fans. Let’s be honest, I’m going to love baseball no matter what changes the MLB makes. Baseball needs to work on appealing to the casual fans. The easy answer? Make the games shorter. As game length decreases, the percentage of action increases. More action generally equals more excitement.

I’m not calling for a radical change. In fact, I have seen opponents of the pitch clock call for changing the 4-3 count to a 3-2 count. I can’t stress enough how changing the count would affect the game dramatically. Some high school leagues use a 3-2 count to save pitching arms and allow teams to play more games. While it certainly works in increasing pace of play, it destroys offense. Hitters cannot take pitches. If they do, they are stuck in a virtual 1-2 hole right off the bat, crippling their chance of a hit. I’m not even saying there should be a pitch clock (I think there shouldn’t be). I’m just saying that pitch clock or not, the MLB has to do something about pace of play and it starts at the organizational level.

In 2007, Fan Graphs began tracking the time between pitches under their ‘Pace’ statistic. Pace is the difference between the start time of the first pitch in the plate appearance and the time of the last pitch. The stat even accounts for pick-off attempts and considers them another pitch. In short, pace is the number of seconds per pitch, including pick-offs.

I examined the league average in pace for eight seasons from 2007-2014. Unsurprisingly, the pace has increased from 21.5 seconds per pitch in 2007 to 23 seconds per pitch in 2014, a seven percent increase. While a 1.5 second difference appears minimal, it amounts to nearly eight extra minutes in a 300 pitch game. That’s about three or four extra minutes of watching David Price (league-slowest pace in 2014) walk around the mound while David Ortiz readjusts his elbow pad, helmet, sweat bands, sleeves, and batting gloves.

When I looked at each team’s pace statistic, I couldn’t help but notice a common trend. Time between pitches varies greatly by organization and teams that were slowest in 2007 were also generally among the slowest in 2014.

The Rays, Red Sox, and Yankees were constantly at the bottom of the list. The Red Sox had the slowest time per pitch from 2008-2012. The Rays were the slowest in 2013 and 2014. The Yankees? The slowest in 2007 and a constant team in the bottom 10 over the eight year span.

What about the other side of the spectrum? The White Sox led the league in pace in 2009, 2011, and 2012. The A’s had the fastest time per pitch in 2008 and 2010. The most interesting team recently has been the Blue Jays. Toronto led the league in pace in 2013 and 2014, decreasing their time per pitch by nearly 2 seconds from previous seasons. Proving that organizations can dramatically affect their pitching staff’s pace in a short amount of time. The two second difference amounts to about 5 minutes per game for the Blue Jays.

So how does pace correlate with game length? Fairly well, actually. According to Fox Sports, the two stadiums with the longest average time per nine innings from 2009-2013 were Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium, the only stadiums over three hours per game. The White Sox, Athletics, and Blue Jays all ranked in the top seven for quickest games played at home, with the Mariners leading at two hours and 44 minutes.

Safeco Field’s average game length was 24 minutes faster than Fenway Park over the five-year span. The difference in the pace of play between the Red Sox and Mariners was 2.78 seconds per pitch, equating to nearly 7 minutes per team in a 300 pitch game. While other factors certainly contribute, the data is significant. If both teams worked to shave a few seconds per pitch at the organizational level, game length would drop by 5-15 minutes.

Simple coaching and philosophy changes would not affect baseball at all. In fact, fans wouldn’t even notice. Yet, philosophy changes would shave game lengths anywhere from 5-15 minutes. It could improve even more if coaches stressed pitching pace at the minor league level. So why not start there before making a major change?


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