Answering Your Pace Of Play Questions
Since we posted our first story on Saturday, I’ve seen a lot of comments, questions and concerns. There are a significant number of fans who don't want to believe that an enforced pitch clock could lead to a dramatic reduction in time of games (and improvements in pace of play) around the minors. Or they are unhappy with the changes.
So today, I want to look at some of those questions and concerns. This story isn't looking at concerns raised by players about whether shorter time between pitches will affect their performance or increase the risk of injury, those are complex subjects for a different day.
But when it comes to some of the other questions, there are easier answers.
1. The real problem in time of game is the TV commercials.
Sure, there is some game-time expansion that has happened because of commercials. At the MiLB level, between-inning switchovers are expected to take two minutes, although between the time it takes for players to leave the field to the time it takes for the first pitch of the next inning is often more in the 2-minute, 15-second range. At the MLB level for most games the between-innings switchovers generally take 2 minutes, 30 seconds and the time from the third out to the next pitch is roughly around 2 minutes and 45 seconds.
You can time this yourself the next time you watch a game either in person or on TV. Note how long it takes from the time the third out is recorded to the next time the batter is standing in the batter's box with the pitcher standing on the rubber. To check my work, I timed five commercial breaks during a trio of MLB games, including Sunday night's Padres-Braves ESPN game—often national games get longer breaks, but in this case, it did not.
In a normal MLB game, there is an extra 30 seconds per switchover compared to the minors. That’s an extra eight and a half minutes per nine-inning game. Any mid-inning pitching change adds another two and a half minutes. But even if there were no commercials, those moments would still require two minutes of dead time—that’s how long it takes at MiLB games with no broadcast and no between-innings promotions.
And wouldn’t you know it, the average MLB nine-inning game takes about 10 minutes longer than the average MiLB nine-inning game. The math works.
But even if you could turn back the clock on the commercialization of the game (good luck), you’d find between 9 to 13 minutes of saved time, depending on how many mid-inning pitching changes there are. Playoff games would find more saved time because MLB allows networks to take longer commercial breaks, which means the switchovers take roughly three minutes.
At the minor league level, almost all of that time has already been taken out. Enforcement of the two-minute time limit between innings for any on-field promotion is relatively strict already. That’s a pretty good approximation of how much “dead time” is needed just to get everything ready for the next half of the inning. One team has to leave the field, the other has to take its positions. Pitchers need their eight pitches to warm up. It takes about two minutes to do all that, even if there are no commercials and no between-innings promotions.
And commercials or no commercials, when a pitcher enters the game with a mid-inning pitching change, there will be unavoidable downtime again. Yes, the broadcast goes to a commercial, but even if it doesn't the time of game will still be affected.
Even with those shorter two-minute switchovers, MiLB games averaged right at three hours per nine-inning game last year. So no, it’s not just commercial breaks that have led to longer game times.
2. Why Would I Want Games To Take Less Time? I Love Being At the Ballpark.
If the argument was that games should be cut to seven innings to speed them up, I fully see the logic of seeing this as taking away baseball from the fans.
But this is the difference between enjoying a sauce that has simmered for a while to concentrate its flavor or eating a watered-down sauce. If the same number of plate appearances, runs, outs and all other on-field action takes place within a game that has cut out 20 minutes of dead time, it's hard to see what baseball fans are missing in the exchange.
But let's allow that some fans would rather see pitchers pitch at a Pedro Baez pace. If so, you Ms. or Mr. Diehard Fan are not the majority of fans going to the stadium. Whether it’s because they need to get home or whether they simply want an entertainment experience that takes three hours or less, if you go to the ballpark a lot, you will notice that for many fans, there’s a time limit on their evening, whether the game obeys that clock or not.
Here’s some anecdotal evidence thanks to MiLB.tv.
Here’s what a Dayton Dragons crowd looked like behind home plate in the third inning of a recent game. I chose the third inning because that gives late-arriving fans a couple of innings of leeway to settle in.
And here’s what the crowd looked like by the ninth inning of a game that took 3:21.
Fort Wayne is in the same league and has similar weather, as evidenced by the abundance of coats. Here’s the crowd in the third inning of a recent game.
And here’s the crowd in the ninth inning. The difference between the two games? The Fort Wayne game finished in 1:59.
OK, that’s one example. But here’s Lehigh Valley in the third inning.
And Lehigh Valley in the ninth of a game that took 3:29.
Here’s Inland Empire in the third inning.
And here’s the ninth inning crowd of a game that took 3:47. Kudos to this Inland Empire crowd, as there were some fans with some staying power, although there still are a lot more empty seats.
But on the other end of the spectrum, here’s the crowd at a game at Rome in the third.
And the crowd in the ninth of a game that took 2:14.
I’m sure you may think that I chose the harshest examples I could, but these games were chosen at random. I simply looked for sub 2:15 games and games that took more than 3:15 where the outcome was still in doubt in the ninth inning (a two-run lead or less). And I tried to spread my search geographically to get a reasonable feel for differences in April weather.
And while this is anecdotal evidence, it matches what numerous operators have told us. The longer a game goes, the more the crowd streams to the exits. The sweet spot on a normal night is somewhere between 2:30 and 2:45. Finish by then and most of the crowd will stick around. Go much past three hours, and great seats anywhere in the ballpark are going to be empty.
Even on firework nights where a lot of the crowd arrived because they wanted to see the post-game show, MiLB teams notice that if the game runs too long, fans will leave. Even if that means they miss the fireworks that they came to see.
"Combining the earlier start time and the pitch clock in the cold weather to start the year has gotten people out of the games by 9 or 9:30 PM and they love it,” said Fort Wayne GM Mike Nutter.
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3. It's Too Soon To Know If These Reductions Are Just A Fluke
That's the easiest of these questions to answer. The data is already so clear that there's zero doubt. This is real.
While there may be some erosion in game-time reductions if enforcement lessens, there's already no doubt that these rule changes have reduced game times dramatically. It's not a statistical anomaly.
Remember, a similar set of rules was put in place for half of the season in the California League last year. And wouldn't you know it, game times in the California League saw a massive reduction when compared to the rest of the minors.
There were five sub two-hour nine-inning MiLB games last year. All of them were in the California League. There were 17 nine-inning games in the eight-team Cal League last year that were played in 2:10 or less. For the entirety of the rest of the full-season minors (that's 5,534 games and 112 teams) there were 10.
The early data this year is equally as obvious. In just the first four days of the new rules, there have been nine games that were shorter than any of those 5,534 nine-inning games from last year. The shortest nine-inning games outside the Cal League last year were a pair of games that took 2:05.
This year, Gwinnett-Jacksonville's 2-0 game on April 19 took 1:54. The same night Fort Myers-Dunedin's 4-2 game took 2:00. On the same day, Beloit-South Bend's 3-0 game took 2:02.
There were no games on April 18, On April 17, there was a 2:02 game (Greensboro vs. Winston-Salem), a 2:03 (Everett-Hillsboro) and a 2:04 (Nashville-Gwinnett).
While there were no sub 2:05 games on April 16, on April 15 there was a 1:59 (South Bend-Fort Wayne), a 2:00 (Spokane-Eugene) and a 2:04 (Lehigh Valley-Worcester).
In just four days of games, already the fastest game of the 2021 season has been bested nine times.
This isn't a fluke. It's the most dramatic change in game time and pace of play the minors have ever seen.