There’s been a lot of talk in recent days about the threat of Major League Baseball implementing a 20-second pitch clock this season without the approval of the Major League Baseball Players Association, the two sides having gotten nowhere during joint discussions about ways to improve the sport’s pace of play.
Whether the pitch clock happens this year or not, it is going to happen at some point. It’s already been in use in the minor leagues and has mostly received positive reviews. And commissioner Rob Manfred seems determined to add it to the big league game, one of several steps toward trying to liven up a sport that has been dragged down of late.
The average time of a major league game last season was 3 hours, 8 minutes, the longest in history and up 13 minutes from a decade ago. And the reason for the increase isn’t really because of higher-scoring games or increased pitch counts.
There were 76.2 plate appearances per game in the majors last season, nearly identical to the average seven years ago and actually down considerably from its peak of 78.3 in 2000. And last year’s average pitches per plate appearance (3.89) is only slightly up from where it stood a decade ago (3.81).
So what are the biggest reasons for the increase in time of game? There appear to be two primary culprits: more pitching changes (4.22 pitchers per team per game in 2017, up from 3.87 in 2010) and more time between pitches. FanGraphs first began tracking the average time between pitches in 2008 (21.7 seconds). Last season, that number jumped up to 24.3.
How much difference does an extra 2.6 seconds per plate appearance make? A lot. There were an average of 296 pitches thrown per MLB game last season, up only slightly from the average of 294 thrown per game in 2008. But the difference in time between pitches adds up to an extra 12 minutes, 47 seconds per game.
Wait, how much longer was the average game in 2017 than it was in 2008? Scroll back up to the first paragraph of this article ... yep, 13 minutes. Looks like we just figured out how that happened.
But how do the Nationals figure into this whole thing? Are they helping exacerbate the problem or not? Actually, they’re kind of smack dab in the middle of everything.
Nats pitchers took an average of 24.3 seconds between pitches last season, which is exactly the league average and ranks 16th out of 30 teams. The Cardinals had far and away the fastest-working pitching staff, averaging only 22.7 seconds between pitches. The Dodgers, Tigers and Angels all tied for the title of slowest-working pitching staff, each averaging a whopping 25.4 seconds between pitches.
So it’s not surprising that the Nationals’ average time of game in 2017 (3 hours, 9 minutes) was nearly identical to the league average. Nor was it surprising that the Cardinals’ average time of game (3:04) was fourth-fastest in the majors, while the Dodgers (3:11), Angels (3:11) and Tigers (3:14) all ranked in the bottom eight. (The Red Sox, for what it’s worth, played the slowest games in the majors last season, clocking in at a stupefying average of 3:20.)
Look, there are a lot of things baseball can and needs to do to improve its appeal to younger fans. And simply speeding up the game by a few minutes isn’t going to suddenly make 18- to 34-year-olds fall in love with the sport.
But Major League Baseball needs to start somewhere. And by all accounts, that somewhere is going to be the addition of the pitch clock, maybe as soon as this season.