Baseball and Long Games

by Nicholas Frankovich

Congratulations to the Houston Astros and their fans. It’s their first world championship.

Last night’s game took 3 hours and 37 minutes, close to the average game length (3:36) in the postseason this year. In general, game times need to come down: That’s the view of baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, and it seems to be the industry consensus. Rule 8.04 already stipulated that the umpire should call a ball if the pitcher takes more than twelve seconds between pitches when no one is on base, but umpires have ignored all that. MLB’s plan is to start enforcing the rule after 20 seconds. The players’ union is not thrilled about it.

That the game is dying because it’s not lively enough has become an idée fixe among baseball cognoscenti. (It’s reminiscent of the fear, back in the 1960s, that low-scoring games were killing baseball’s mass-market appeal. That led to the lowering of the pitcher’s mound and of the top of the strike zone in 1969 and to the introduction of the designated hitter in the American League in 1973.)

Long baseball games in the postseason, however, are a different matter. They’re acceptable because both the stakes and the quality of play are so high. That’s the moderate position on the question of changing the rules (or how they’re enforced) to accelerate the pace of play: just in the regular season, thank you, when the games are less beautiful and less consequential — less of that would be more.

It may be that a reduction in the supply of MLB’s main product, regular-season baseball hours, would raise their value to entertainment consumers, but that would only be a side effect of meeting the accelerationist’s primary objective, which is to make the game more lively. The problem as he sees it is not that a game took 217 minutes. It’s that too many of them were devoted to standing around. He wants to see the ball in motion, and players running around.

MLB is faster-paced than the NFL, which for its part has taken some measures to speed up its game. The figures below are dated — 2013 for MLB, 2010 for the NFL — and based on small samples (in the case of MLB, only three games), but they give us a ballpark idea of how the two leagues compare with respect to pace of play:

MLB
Average game time: 176 minutes
Live action: 18 minutes
Percentage of game time that is live action: 10.21

NFL
Average game time: 191 minutes
Live action: 11 minutes
Percentage of game time that is live action: 5.79

Moreover, baseball today may be faster-paced today than it was back in its putative golden age, when game times were shorter. In 1952, Game 6 of the World Series took 167 minutes (shorter than all but one of the 38 postseason games in 2017), but only 13 of them were devoted to live action, when the ball or players were visibly in motion. Compared with the estimated average for the 2013 season, that’s a little less perceived down time — when the only significant action, the firing of synapses, is invisible — but even less live action, measured both in absolute minutes and as a fraction of total game time.

It’s only one game, so we shouldn’t generalize from it, but it’s useful for reminding us that perhaps the problem that nervous MLB executives see and want to fix is not so much in the game as in their imagination, which they project onto the American public that they want to sell their product to. MLB seems to think that it can’t market effectively the game it has. It could always try harder, of course, but persuading people who don’t already like baseball that they should give it a chance would require creativity. It’s easier just to introduce clocks and say, “See, we’ve addressed the problem.” It should be noted that MLB revenue has been growing steadily this century and is at a record high.

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