Let’s Get Real About Game Lengths


Following years of negativity due to the proliferation of steroids and declining ratings, Major League Baseball is finally proud of itself again. A recent New York Times article reveals that MLB executives are running a victory lap over their latest achievement: The average MLB game has been reduced by eight minutes from its 2014 level.

That’s good news for baseball considering so much energy has been spent on the so-called “pace-of-game” issue. MLB is crediting a swath of new rules – most notably the prohibition on stepping out of the batter’s box – for the faster games. But the evidence suggests something else; that games are still incredibly long by history’s standards, and that there probably isn’t any way to change that.

Let’s back up. It is certainly true that games have gotten shorter this season. Last year, the average nine inning game was three hours and two minutes, the longest ever recorded. This year, that number has been reduced to two hours and 54 minutes.

But is that really an accomplishment? Is a 4% decrease really all that impressive, especially considering that marginal decrease occurred following a season in which the average game was longer than ever before? In short, there was really nowhere to go but down, and in fact, the average didn’t go down that much: As it stands, this season still has the fifth longest average game length in the history of baseball.

To anyone who actually pays attention to a Major League Baseball game, the new “rules” put in place to speed up the game are a joke. For some inexplicable reason, the ability to issue fines for stepping out of the batter’s box – a rule that is riddled with so many exemptions that it is basically useless anyway – was supposed to go into effect earlier this season but never did, and the rule is constantly violated throughout the course of any game.

The evidence indicates that there is another major contributor to game length: the amount of pitchers used in a game. Due to heightened awareness of pitch counts and match-ups, teams are using far more pitchers than they have in the past. And as that has happened, games have gotten longer.

It makes sense. Switching pitchers is a major time-eater. The pitcher has to run onto the field, talk to the catcher for a few seconds, take their warm-ups, and wait for the commercial break to end. Although correlation does not imply causation, it’s fair to say that a game in which eight pitchers are used is going to be about 20 minutes longer than a game in which five pitchers are used. And sure enough, that is exactly how the numbers break down since 1980.

The next logical question is: equipped with this new knowledge, what can we do to make games shorter? And the answer is that you really can’t. Are you going to put a cap on the amount of pitchers a team can use? Tell a pitcher he has to warm-up faster and put his health at-risk?

That is precisely the issue: If you want to make a major dent in the length of baseball games, you have to make major changes, and by making major changes, you’re going to fundamentally change the game, something no one has an appetite for. You can’t accomplish such a lofty goal by making insignificant changes like prohibiting players from stepping out of the batter’s box for a second to catch their breath.

The failure of the pace-of-game movement is that it is circular. The length of baseball games is now considered a problem solely because people started to say it was a problem. But why? Baseball games are shorter than NFL games, and actually have more time of action, and football is doing just fine. That MLB executives are touting such negligible accomplishments is unfortunate, and by talking so much about it, they are magnifying a problem they created on their own, something that never had to be a problem in the first place.

There is an argument to be made that perhaps longer games are contributing to the declining popularity of the sport. But that too seems implausible. What sets baseball apart from other sports – which are doing just fine ratings-wise – is not the time it takes to play a game, but the concentration of excitement. Football, for example, is a season of just 16 games. It’s a small investment that is sure to turn-up drama very often. The majority of baseball games, on the other hand, really have nothing on-the-line; only serious fans really care about pre-September baseball. If baseball were, say, 100 games instead of 162, every game would be that much more dramatic, and surely there would be more interest.

Major League Baseball would be much better served if the conversation switched away from game lengths and more towards season lengths. The petty fight to reduce game lengths isn’t doing much, and it’s forcing people to believe that there’s something inherently wrong with a baseball game. That’s not the case.