Pace of Play Isn’t About Millennials; Let’s Stop Using Easy, Cliché Arguments

The easiest approach to discussing a difficult topic is to assume that everyone who disagrees with you is flawed in some major way. It works in everything — politics, religion, which way to hang the toilet paper, etc. It’s even more efficient if you can actually make yourself believe — really, truly believe — that everyone else is stupid or lazy or evil or whatever.

Yes, that approach is easy and efficient. Unfortunately, it rarely leads to any actual understanding or productive dialogue. (Which is basically the point, now that I think of it.)

“These millennials, who are much dumber than I am, want to ruin this perfect game that has always been perfect and has always been played exactly the way it is currently played!”

Raise your hand if you actually know anyone who has ever eaten a Tide Pod. Of course you don’t! It happened once or twice, and suddenly it’s more evidence that the next generation is going to destroy the world. Just like jazz music and rock and roll and video games and the internet were going to destroy the world before. As the Bible says, “there is no new thing under the sun.” Old people have always thought young people were stupid and lazy and self-absorbed and disrespectful. Young people have always thought old people were out of touch and condescending and overly rigid. It’s the circle of life, a tale as old as time, and probably a few other lines from Disney songs.

But here’s the thing about the pace-of-play discussion: it has very little to do with millennials! It is, in some ways, a reaction to the current state of the world, but millennials did not create that world. They were born into the world that we old people created for them — so why are we surprised that it’s the only world they know?

And more to the point: Major League Baseball is not trying to re-create the game, or even to fundamentally change it. If anything, it is trying to preserve the game. There have been exactly zero significant, major rule changes since the implementation of the designated hitter in the American League in 1973. We’ve added interleague play and expanded a few times, but the actual rules of the game have remained steady over the past 45 years. But in those 45 years, the average time of a nine-inning game has gone from 2:26 to 3:05. That’s 39 extra minutes!

There are a lot of ways to explain this increased length, and almost all of the common explanations are partly correct, because there is no single cause for a jump like this. Yes, there are more and longer commercial breaks these days. Yes, there are more pitches per plate appearance in today’s game than in 1973’s game. And yes, there is significantly more time between pitches.

Commercial breaks aren’t going away. If the number of pitches per plate appearance goes down, it won’t be because of a league mandate. So the place where the league can address the issue is in the length of time between pitches.

Last year, Grant Brisbee of SBNation did an enlightening analysis of two similar games. Both games ended with the home team winning, 11-2. They had nearly identical numbers of pitches and plate appearances and pitching changes. The main difference: one game took place in 2014, the other in 1984. Like most things Grant writes, it was an enjoyable read, so go ahead and open it in a tab and put a rubber band on your wrist to remind you to read it later. I’ll quote for you the main takeaway:

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.

This is how a game can have an almost identical number of pitches thrown, batters faced, baserunners, hits, walks, strikeouts, and runs scored compared to another game, yet take more than a half-hour longer. This, plus the modest difference in commercial breaks, explains nearly everything. It took nine seconds longer for a pitcher to get rid of the ball in 2014.

The great thing about this awful, distracted, no-attention-span world these millennials were born into is that we have access to almost everything. We rarely have to guess about things anymore. If you want to know why average game length went from 1:47 in 1911 to 2:26 in 1973, all you can do is guess. But if you want to figure out why it jumped from 2:35 in 1984 to 3:02 in 2014, you can find full games on the internet and get some dang data.

Anyone who tells you “the reason for increased game length is _____” is at least mostly wrong. There are just too many factors for such a simple assessment. But if someone tells you, “Of all the reasons for increased game length, there is one over which MLB could exert some control without fundamentally changing the game or costing themselves a ton of money that would be likely to make a significant difference, and that is the length of time between pitches,” that person is correct.

But why? Why do we want games to be shorter?

I can only speak for myself, but I am a lifelong baseball fan who is currently, actively passing that love along to the next generation of fans, so I feel like I can fairly represent what “we” want. I don’t necessarily want shorter games — I want quicker games. Obviously, the one leads to the other, but it’s an important distinction. If my goal is to lose weight, I could just have a leg amputated. If my goal is shorter games, I could follow the suggestions some people have made — seven-inning games, starting every at-bat in a 1-1 count like slow-pitch softball, etc. But those things give me shorter games by removing the part of baseball that I love: the playing of baseball! What I want is a game that finishes in 2:40 without removing any game action. Let’s get rid of some of the downtime!

My children are 13, 10, and 6. As such, they have school every weekday for half the baseball season. And even during the summer, children have bedtimes and need their sleep. Games generally start at 7:10 p.m. For my kids to watch an entire game, they would have to stay up until 10:15 p.m., which is unlikely during the summer and out of the question during the school year. But what if we gained a half-hour on each end? What if the game started at 6:40 and ended at 9:15? Suddenly, my kids could watch most or all of a game, even on a school night! Doesn’t it seem like “letting kids watch the games” might be a decent first step towards “encouraging kids to love the game”?

(The problem is further exacerbated when we talk about actually attending a game, because you have travel time home after the game to account for.)

Newton’s first law applies to baseball: an object in motion will stay in motion unless acted upon by an external force. Baseball games are getting longer, and they have been forever. If we don’t do something to reverse the trend, games will continue to get longer. And if we don’t look at the actual causes and the actual effects, in 20 years we’ll have people saying, “The game is perfect, and if [insert name of next generation] doesn’t like games that last an average of three hours and thirty-six minutes, that’s a moral failing on their part!”

It is time for the length of games to be acted upon by an external force. For 2018, that force has imposed a limit on the number of times a coach or manager or catcher or infielder can visit the pitcher on the mound. We might see a drop of three or five minutes per game, which would be a great start! Perhaps the players might even realize that it had a minimal effect on the actual game, and maybe they’ll be open to similarly unobtrusive measures like a clock to gently remind hitters to get in the box and pitchers to throw the ball.

Okay, one last Twitter screenshot:

Baseball already has clocks. The clock runs between innings. The clock runs when a pitching coach comes out to the mound. The clock even runs after every single play, because there’s a limit on the amount of time a manager has to challenge a play. Those clocks do nothing to harm the game, but they sure do throw a kink in those “the beauty of baseball is that there is no clock” arguments.

In summary: Let’s see if we can become the first generation ever to NOT blame everything we dislike on the younger generation. Let’s try to use the resources available to us to find actual causes and effects. Let’s try to make decisions based on rationality rather than emotion. If we can do all those things, I think we’ll probably see that there’s very little downside to implementing a pitch clock and cutting out some of the dead time between pitches.

Leave a Reply