With Weekend Of Data, Speed-Up Rules Still Making Massive Impact
On Saturday we wrote about the first day of pace of play rules being strictly enforced around the minors and how it dramatically cut the time it took to play games. But that was just one day of data.
We still only have three days of minor league games, but it’s already clear that this is not a fluke. In the three days since umpires began enforcing the pitch clock rules, the average nine-inning minor league game has wrapped up in 2 hours, 38 minutes. Before the rules were being enforced, this season’s nine-inning games were averaging 2:58 to play.
A 20-minute reduction in game-time is a massive change in a sport where reductions have generally been measured in a few minutes. MLB game times generally track a little longer than minor league games, but if a similar rule was implemented at the MLB level and had the same effect, it would take game time from 3:10 per nine inning game last year (the longest in MLB history) back to the 2:50 per game that was the average in 2010 and was the norm for most of the 1990s and 2000s.
If the current trends continued, this would be the shortest game times for minor league games since stats on minor league game times were first gathered in 2005 and would be a dramatic reduction compared to 2021, when three of the four levels of the full-season minors averaged three hours or more per nine-inning game. Double-A’s average of 2:57 was the only level to average less than three hours per game.
Under the new rules pitchers are expected to begin the act of pitching within 14 seconds with no one on base and 18 seconds with runners on. Batters are expected to be ready to hit nine seconds to go on the pitch clock and are not allowed to step out of the box without permission.
Looking at nine-inning games, the speed-up rules appear to have shifted game times dramatically. Where before a standard minor league game would take between 2:45 and 3:15 to play, now it takes between 2:15 and 2:45. Where before a very long game could crack the four hour mark, now a long game is one that takes three and a half hours to play.
And where a brisk game would once wrap up in two and a half hours, now two hour games are possible. The range of how long a game will take has shifted by a little less than 30 minutes.
The games have been slightly different as far as baserunners, runs and total batters in the three days of the new rules all of which could slightly affect the time of games. But all of those differences have been minor.
Before the crackdown, there were an average of 153 pitches per team, per game. Post-crackdown, that number has dropped to 145. Runs per team per game has dropped from 5.1 runs per game to 4.7. The walk-rate (4.4 to 4.0) and strikeout rates have also diminished (10.4 to 9.6), but we’re talking about small enough samples that it's too early to say this is anything other than random variation. There were 38.5 batters per team game pre-crackdown and 37 batters per team per game post-crackdown.
Those are minor differences, but they come nowhere close to explaining the difference in game times that have happened since the pitch clock rules were enforced.
The biggest difference is that before the rules were enforced, there was an average of 36.5 seconds between pitches, now it’s 32 seconds. That calculation includes all the other dead time in the game (between-innings switchovers, stoppages for arguments, pitching changes, etc.) all of which is operating the same as it was before the new rules were implemented. So the actual change in per-pitch pace is even larger than that.
There is no bigger way to impact pace of play than to impact the time between pitches, because there are so many pitches per game. This year, minor league games have averaged 290 pitches per game. Last year, that number was 295.
Cutting the time between pitches by just two seconds would cut game time by 10 minutes without changing any other aspect of the game. By cutting the time between pitches by between four and five seconds as MiLB has done so far, you cut 19-24 minutes from the average game.
Looking at every minor league game played this year before the rules change (including seven-inning games and extra-inning games), the average game was taking 2:57 to play. Since the rules changes came into effect on Friday, games have taken on average 2:34 to play.
There is definitely plenty of adjusting required by the new rules and some potential concerns.
For the home plate umpire, it’s yet another significant responsibility for an umpire who already has plenty on their plate. In at least one instance a Baseball America reporter witnessed this weekend, the umpire forgot to log the automatic ball into his clicker, which meant he later mistook ball four for ball three.
For hitters, there is plenty of learned habits that have to be overcome. Hitters must keep at least one foot in the batter’s box and be ready to hit with nine seconds left on the pitch clock.
For pitchers, there’s even more to think about. If the catcher and the pitcher aren’t on the same page, there’s not a lot of time to come to an agreement on a pitch before the clock runs out.
Additionally, there have been studies that found that if pitchers try to pitch at full effort on every pitch, the reduction in recovery time between pitches could increase the risk of injury.
And multiple people pointed out to us that rehabbing big leaguers might be in for a big adjustment when they get exposed to these speed-up rules for the first time.
But so far, while the pace of play rules may be frustrating some players, they do not appear to be causing major disruptions.
Thanks to the Hawkeye technology installed in the Pacific Coast League and Florida State League, it’s easy to track how many automatic balls and strikes were called on games in those two leagues. In the 10 games between those two leagues on Friday night, there were 16 automatic balls and strikes. There were 10 more on Saturday and 16 on Sunday. That’s an average of 1.2 infractions called per game.
There were more automatic balls (infractions called on the pitcher) than automatic strikes (infractions called on the batter. Only six of the 36 infractions were called on hitters.
While an automatic ball or strike can fluster a pitcher or a hitter, so far the infractions have been few enough in number to not be generally causing a massive disruption to the game. The expectation is that the number will diminish as players get more accustomed to the new rules.
So far, MLB’s attempt to speed up minor league games has answered the question. What’s the most impactful way to shorten game times and improve pace of play? It’s by cutting the time between pitches.