Players themselves key to faster baseball games

In the most recent Rockies home stand (three against the Cubs and three with the Marlins) the games varied in length from two hours fifty-one minutes to three hours seventeen minutes. The six averaged 3:05.

That got me thinking more about a discussion topic at the most recent gathering of a monthly lunch group I’m part of. The subject was ways to speed up Major League Baseball games, and why they’re so long. 

Those are popular questions that never result in the right answers, so I’m not about to say I’ve figured it out. But here’s some fodder for the next time you hash it over with other baseball fans.

In 1956, the average Big-League game lasted two hours and 32 minutes. Twenty-five years later, in 1981, the average time was 2:33.  By 2019, the latest full season, the average length had ballooned to 3:06.

A lot of people blame longer games on bases on balls. Pitchers, they say, just don’t have the control they used to have. But in 1956, the walks per team over the course of the season averaged 562. In 2019, teams averaged 530 walks—while playing eight more games. So, it’s hard to make a case that longer games are the pitchers’ fault.

That’s not to say that pitching isn’t a part of the problem, though. In 1956, pitchers for the 16 teams that comprised the National and American Leagues threw 758 complete games. Seven hundred fifty-
eight! That’s almost 31% of all the games played.  In 2019, pitchers for 30 teams threw a combined 45 complete games—less than 1% of all games played. Bullpens today are a bigger part of the game than ever—starters are asked to go only six or seven innings—which equates to longer games.

Major League Baseball has instituted several aberrations intended to shorten games: foregoing the perfunctory four wide pitches in an intentional walk; requiring relief pitchers to face at least three batters before they can be replaced (unless they finish an inning); reducing a game to seven innings if it’s part of a doubleheader; and the one I hate—starting every extra inning with a “ghost” runner on second base, in the hope that ties are broken more quickly, ideally in one inning.

None, obviously, have made much difference. Through the first four months of the current season, nine-inning Rockies games averaged three hours and nine minutes.  Only 27 of those 86 nine-inning games (31%) were completed in less than three hours. Their average is 2:45. Ten extra-inning games have averaged 3:51.

Columnist George Will, who in my opinion should stick to political commentary and stop trying to pass himself off as a baseball savant, has suggested moving the pitcher’s mound back a foot, presumably to help hitters. As one in my lunch group commented, that’s like raising the basketball rim above 10 feet so that it’s harder to score (or lowering it so that it’s easier). 

Moving the pitcher’s mound is a fundamental change that is out of the question. It wouldn’t be baseball as we’ve known it. But, in the spirit of George Will, here is a similarly bad idea:

Do what we did when I was a kid playing softball in our dead-end street: Once you have two strikes, a foul ball is strike three. (Okay, since it’s pro baseball and they’re throwing really hard and fast, allow one foul ball and make the second one Strike Three.)

Seriously, back to the questions, and possible answers.

One major cause of longer games is television. In 1956, local TV showed a handful of games, and the only national telecast was the Saturday Game of the Week.  Now, nearly every game is televised, which requires more time between half-innings for commercials.  MLB limited the breaks to two minutes a few years ago—another effort to speed things up—but that’s still more than a half-hour of action-less time in your average three-hour game. (And the actual time between the last out of one half-inning and the first batter of the next is often more than two minutes.) 

There’s probably another 30-40 seconds to be saved between each half-inning, but we’re talking ad revenue, which pays for broadcast rights.

Another obvious area where time can be saved is every at-bat. Do hitters really have to adjust their batting gloves after every pitch? Do pitchers really need to consult cards in the caps or back pockets before throwing pitches with a man on second? And before each inning begins, do pitchers really need eight warmup pitches to get ready?  Six should be enough.

It would seem that the people who have the most at stake in the ever-lengthening games are the players themselves. What entertainer disregards his or her audience with impunity? Before baseball’s popularity declines to the breaking point because too many fans have reached their time limit, it behooves the players (and their union) to actively become part of the solution.

Pitchers and hitters can both work faster. Once upon a time, they did.

Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 13 books, seven of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at info@comservbooks.com.