Even With Pitch Clocks, MiLB Games Keep Getting Longer
Jayson Stark at The Athletic has a new story that looks at the impact of a 15-second pitch clock in the Low-A West league this year and how it has shaved minutes off of the average game time in that league.
Stark’s story notes that the average nine-inning game time in the Low-A West league is two hours and 44 minutes this year. In comparison, the average MLB nine-inning game this year takes three hours and nine minutes.
If you compare the Low-A West league’s game times to how long it took California League teams to play nine-inning games in 2019, you see a similarly dramatic change—nine-inning games in the Cal League averaged three hours and three minutes to play that year. It’s not a perfect comparison as the league was a High-A league in 2019 and is now a Low-A league after MLB reorganized the minors. But if you compare the 2019 Cal League game time to this year’s Low-A West game time you find a dramatic 19-minute reduction.
So there we have it, pitch clocks make a massive difference and could shave many minutes off of games if they are implemented. The data seems obvious. If you look at the difference between times of games for the various Class A leagues, the reduction in game times for 2021 Low-A West games is dramatic, especially when you compare it to Class A leagues without pitch clocks.
If only it was so black and white. In years of studying the length of games around pro baseball, what we at Baseball America have learned is that measures to reduce the time of games do make an impact, but those impacts have often been swamped by the steadily-growing length of games.
In 2005, MiLB adopted rules requiring batters to stay in the batter’s box during games. In 2015 it adopted 20-second pitch clocks for Double-A and Triple-A, while reducing the amount of between-inning time for all levels of the minors. That helped slow the rise of game times, but in many ways, those measures have been swamped by the steadily rising length of games.
(For all of the following numbers, we are looking at nine-inning games, any game of more or less than nine innings is not included in the time of game data).
The Low-A West league is the latest MiLB league to implement pitch clocks, and its maximum of 15 seconds between pitches is a stricter clock than the 20-second clock we have seen in Double-A and Triple-A.
But if the history of the Double-A and Triple-A leagues are any indication, this first-year reduction in the time of games in the Low-A West league will be the high-water mark for the league's time of game reductions without further measures.
When the 20-second pitch clock came to Double-A and Triple-A in 2015 (as well as shortened between-inning breaks), all five leagues at those levels saw a dramatic reduction in their game times. In 2014, those four leagues all averaged two hours and 50 minutes or longer. In 2015 with pitch clocks implemented, those five leagues saw an average reduction of 11 minutes. The average Eastern League game in 2015 took just two hours and 43 minutes to play.
If you fast forward to 2021 and look around the minors, what you will find is that the time of game has grown dramatically since then. In 2014, the year before the pitch clock was adopted for half of the full-season minors, the average game time was two hours and 49 minutes. In 2015, that time was reduced to two hours and 42 minutes.
Now? It’s three hours and one minute. Even with pitch clocks in place for six of the 10 full-season leagues, the games are now likely longer than they have ever been in the minor leagues. This year, the average game time has grown by 10 minutes per game compared to what it was just two years ago in 2019. (There was no 2020 MiLB season because of the coronavirus pandemic).
From 2016 to 2019, the Double-A and Triple-A leagues saw their average time of game go up each season. By 2019, the average game at those levels was taking two hours and 49 minutes to play, one minute shorter than what it took in 2013, two seasons before pitch clocks were implemented. In 2021, those levels are taking three hours and one minute, which is significantly longer than what it took to play games in 2014, the final year before pitch clocks. The average game time in those leagues is now 20 minutes longer than it was in 2005 (the first year for which we have data).
Pitch clocks have made a difference—from 2005-2014 the upper levels of the minors (Double-A and Triple-A) took longer to play games than Class A leagues, as many as eight minutes longer per game. When pitch clocks were implemented, the average game time in upper levels and lower levels of the full-season minors were all of a sudden equal. Since then, the rate of growth in game time in the Class A leagues without pitch clocks has been slightly faster than it has been in Double-A and Triple-A.
But overall, pitch clocks and other measures like shortening between-inning breaks have only slightly arrested a steadily rising tide of baseball game times. It's fair to wonder how much larger the gain would be without those measures, but even with them, MiLB games are taking much longer on average than they did just a decade ago.