Time is Relative

The pitch clock is one way MLB is trying to speed up games. (via Dustin Nosler)

The pitch clock is one way MLB is trying to speed up games. (via Dustin Nosler)

What better time to daydream about baseball than now, as the winter across much of the country is finally yielding to spring and major league teams are beginning to make spring training roster cuts in preparation for the regular season?

Most of those daydreams probably go like this. You’re basking in balmy summer weather, gazing down at the brilliant green grass and up at the clear blue sky. You’re smelling that sharp burnt scent of hot dogs from the concession stands as vendors loudly shill peanuts and cotton candy. Sure, there’s a game going on, but you’re just relaxing.

That’s baseball. The pace for everyone from the fans to the players has always been leisurely relative to other sports. No pressure to focus on the game. No pressure to arrive by the first pitch. No pressure to sit through a full nine innings.

So why bother pushing players to go faster? Starting this season, umpires will enforce Rule 6.02(d), requiring hitters to keep one foot in the box during an at-bat, subject to certain exceptions. Inning breaks will be timed to make sure inning breaks don’t drag on. And managers will no longer have to leave the dugout to challenge plays.

Future changes to speed up the game will be a little more intrusive. Also this year, 20-second pitch clocks will be used at the Double- and Triple-A levels, where length of game couldn’t matter less to the people in the stands.

They don’t care who wins or how long the games are. They want T-shirts shot from cannons and crazy theme nights like Brian Williams Pants-on-Fire Night. Yes, that’s a real thing. In Akron, Ohio, a fan named Brian Williams (no relation) will read tall tales and the team will burn a pair of pants between innings.

Time will march faster anyway. The pitch clock has already been tested in the Arizona Fall League, a postseason showcase for the game’s best prospects. Those who went over the 20 seconds got three balls added to the count. Three!

Still, complaints from the pitchers were few and far between, and the clock appeared to work. One game even got close to the two-hour mark, which is unheard of at any level of baseball these days.

“Our pitchers in the Fall League didn’t have an issue with it,” says Derrick Hall, president and CEO of the Arizona Diamondbacks. “A few of them thought it kept them in a good rhythm.”

Hall leads one of the best organizations in the game at fan engagement, so it means something when he says he thinks the pitch clock is a good idea.

“If you think about it, there was a time before the shot clock in the NBA, and I don’t think it’s much of an issue there anymore,” he says. “Everyone gets used to it.”

Whatever happens with the pitch clock, Major League Baseball is intent on fiddling with the game to get the average length back under three hours. That hasn’t happened since 2011, when, according to Baseball Prospectus, the average major league game lasted 2.94 hours. Since then, it’s been climbing steadily, hitting a record 3.14 hours last year.

It’s spurred a lot of crazy ideas to hurry things up, from cutting down the number of balls and strikes per batter to slashing games to seven innings. Meanwhile, teams have been doing little things to shorten games, with some degree of success.

“We addressed early on the importance of getting batters out of the dugout quickly, stopping their music as soon as they got in the box,” says Hall. “It’s just a baby step, but it’s worked.”

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Pitchers are the next logical target. According to data compiled by FanGraphs, the average time major league pitchers take between pitches was right around 21.5 seconds from 2008 to 2011. Then, it jumped above 22 seconds in 2012 and rose again last year to 23 seconds.

But who cares? Seriously, who? Scott Reifert, senior vice president, communications, for the Chicago White Sox, another team that does a great job with its fans, says the team breaks its fan base into segments. They often see surges in different groups on different days, and no matter who it is, no one seems to be bothered if a game lasts more than three hours.

Fridays, says Reifert, bring out the singles. They often travel in packs of five or six, arrive late, buy outfield seats and spend most of their time chatting in the bleachers.

Saturdays are big days for groups driving in for their annual baseball outing. Sundays are big family days at the Cell, and the Sox offer family-oriented pricing to keep them coming out week after week. Many of these families drive in from suburban areas to the west and south of the city.

“Those people don’t care about length of game, either,” says Reifert.

Data showing fan behavior aren’t readily available, but just looking around a ballpark — any ballpark — shows that Reifert is right. Few are in a rush to get to their seats by first pitch. Concourses during games are clogged with fans milling around, completely oblivious to what’s happening on the field. And check out the exodus by the sixth and seventh innings, when the young kids in attendance — and their parents — are out of gas and making for their minivans.

“I think [the time-of-game issue] matters to people who are here a lot or to people who work here,” says Reifert. “I get it. I’ve been here long enough to remember when we had Jack McDowell, which meant the chance of a complete game was always pretty good. Then, Mark Buehrle spoiled us with two-hour games.”

Hall suggests younger fans care, too. He says fan surveys the Diamondbacks have done have revealed a general desire for faster games.

“It’s a different era,” says Hall. “I have three kids and their attention spans are shorter than mine. They want constant movement. It’s go, go, go. So I think the focus is on making sure that we kill a lot of the downtime between pitches and between innings.”

Major League Baseball does appear to be having trouble drawing younger fans like Hall’s kids, all of whom are teenagers. According to data compiled by Sports Media Watch last year, Major League Baseball has the oldest fans of any major U.S. professional sport. (Thank goodness for golf, which draws an even older fan base).

But that’s based on television viewership, not research at major league ballparks. It’s not like the scene at the stadium looks like the early bird rush at Denny’s. The age demographics are diverse, and Reifert says that makes baseball unique.

“The number one way you get exposed to the game is someone in the generation ahead of you takes you to your first game,” says Reifert. “There’s a special connection there, a sense of continuity. Because my dad or mom took me, I’ll make sure my child will get that same experience.”

That said, major league ballparks have been changing to court younger fans. New ballparks are equal parts theme park and ballpark. Hall’s is the one with the swimming pool just beyond the center field fence.

“We’ve tried to create destinations throughout ballpark,” says Hall. “Kids can go to The Sandlot and play whiffle ball. If you’re a young adult, you can go up to the Coors Light Cold Zone and hang out with friends.”

It’s not just Chase Field, either. Marlins Park in Miami has a nightclub, an open-air outfield bar with stunning skyline views and a bobblehead museum. There’s an actual park in Petco Park. Until recently, the only worthwhile thing about going to a Pirates game was PNC Park, widely celebrated for its skyline views and Primanti Brothers sandwiches.

Even U.S. Cellular Field has evolved from impersonal concrete monolith to family destination. Like Chase Field, it has a mini ballpark for kids to burn off sugar calories. A massive, two-story gift shop worthy of Michigan Avenue is connected via skywalk.

“You can walk around our ballpark and basically sample food from all the ethnic neighborhoods of Chicago,” adds Reifert.

The point is there are other plenty of other things to do at ballparks. Even in a purist’s cathedral like Wrigley Field, it’s about the environment, not the baseball. TripAdvisor ranks Wrigley sixth among all the tourist attractions in Chicago, ahead of Michigan Avenue and the Lincoln Park Zoo.

Teams are so focused on fan entertainment now that they can’t fit it all in the ballpark. Look at St. Louis, where the team helped turn a parcel of land right across Clark Avenue into the $100 million Ballpark Village. It has bars, shops, restaurants, five live performance stages, the biggest indoor TV screen in the Midwest and an outdoor festival space with a replica of the infield of old Busch in its exact historical location. With all that at hand, who has time for the game?

Reifert suggests game pace and length may be more of an issue for fans watching the game on TV at home.

“If you’re sitting on a couch, there are a range of things you could be doing, from the honey-do list to taking a nap to spending time with the family,” he says. “These are very real decisions you’re making at each half-inning break. When you’re at a ballpark, you’ve already made the time commitment. At home you’re constantly doing that calculus in your head and you’re feeling tired and your eyes are getting heavier as the game goes on.”

That matters way more in October during the playoffs, when interest level in the sport peaks. Correction, when television viewership peaks. That’s when the complaints are the loudest.

To be fair, playoff games do tend to run longer than regular season games. A few days after the 6.38-hour, 18-inning NLDS marathon between the Giants and Nationals last fall, Beyond the Box Score writer Scott Lindholm posted a story in which he used game-length data from Baseball-Reference.com to determine the average length of nine-inning postseason games from 1903 to 2013. The number peaked at 3.31 hours in 2013.

Guess what happened when last year’s playoffs were over? The average nine-inning postseason game went even higher, to 3.44 hours. Only three of the 32 playoff games played last fall — twin 2-1 affairs in the Royals-Orioles ALDS series and Madison Bumgarner’s one postseason loss, 4-1 to the Nationals in the NLDS — finished in less than three hours.

The World Series wasn’t much better. The average length of the seven games was 3.41 hours. Maybe it was how long the games dragged out. Maybe it was the blowouts in games four and six (and, really, any game Bumgarner started). Maybe it was apathy toward the Giants. It last won the Series in 2012, when TV ratings for the Series were the lowest in history.

Once again, a Giants-winning World Series was historically bad by TV standards. The 2014 edition is the least-watched seven-game series ever, averaging 13,942,857 viewers. The last time a World Series went the distance, in 2011 with the Cardinals and Texas Rangers duking it out, viewership averaged 15,040,833.

Major League Baseball can’t even find solace in the audience that did watch the Series, either. According to Sports Media Watch, half the total viewers were 55 or older and a mere six percent were younger than 18. That follows a regular season in which the median age for viewers of nationally telecast baseball games on Fox, ESPN, TBS and the MLB Network was more than 54 years old.

Maybe the pitch clock will help draw in those attention-deprived, smart-phone-texting tweens. Maybe it will help MLB deliver more of the all-important 18-to-35 male demographic to light beer advertisers. But one thing is for sure. It won’t matter to fans at the ballpark. They’re out there for the whole experience we’re daydreaming about now.

And if the pitch clock doesn’t work? No big deal. They’ll just head for the exits in the sixth.

References & Resources

Chris Gigley is a freelance writer who has written for a number of Major League team publications, as well as Baseball America and ESPN the Magazine. Follow him on Instagram @cgigley and Twitter @cgigley.
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8 years ago

One major flaw in your column. You talk about nobody at the ballpark caring about time of game, but you mention people streaming out of the park in the 6th and 7th inning. OF COURSE THEY CARE ABOUT LENGTH OF GAMES! If the game was 2 hours instead of three, they could watch the end! How many families don’t go to weeknight games because they know it won’t end until 10:30pm and then you need to drive home? Either that or you have to fight the kids to leave after 6 innings in a close game. Too much hassle for the cost, so don’t go.

8 years ago

There is NO time issue in baseball. Who or where did this idea of games being yo long or slow? Oh yeah the same people we all know, maybe its the same friend that says “how do you watch baseball? Its so boring” The same people that will never be true fans. Sure if you want to experiment with potentially shaving 10 minutes off the game, yeah that’s fine. But for the vast majority of baseball fans out there, time will never be an issue

casey bell
8 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas

I beg to differ. I’ve been a die-hard baseball fan since 1963 and I find very few
games compelling enough to invest 3 or more hours of my time watching at home, let alonse the 5 or 6 hours I might have to invest if I wanted to watch a game in person, including travelling to and from the stadium.

Just because one is a genuine baseball fan does not mean that one has unlimited patience for marathon baseball games.

8 years ago

By the way, was a good read

Mark L
8 years ago

“Seriously, who cares?”

I do. After getting home from work, looking after my family, helping to prepare a meal, I do not have 3-and-a-half hours to spend watching a game. It’s insane to think there’s no link between increasing game time and decreasing viewership.

Keep talking about how real fans don’t care, and before you know it there’ll be just “real fans” left and baseball will be at the popularity level of lacrosse or horse racing.

Casey Bell
8 years ago

Everything has it’s limit.

You say, “Data showing fan behavior aren’t readily available, but just looking
around a ballpark — any ballpark — shows that Reifert is right.”

What an absurd statement to make! In a day and age when the “eyeball test” of
player skills have largely given way to statistical analysis it’s stunning to
see anyone to suggest that merely by “looking around a ballpark” one can confirm
that nobody cares about how long games last! Do you really believe that you can
scan a crowd of 30,000 or more people and determine that there isn’t a significant
number who are getting restless and/or bored as the game moves past the 3 hour
mark? Really?

Even if you did possess the super-power of being able to simultaneously read the minds
of thousands of people it still wouldn’t prove anything because you’d be leaving
out the fans who’d ALREADY left the stadium so they could put their kids to bed
or because they had to be at work early the next day or because three hours
of piped in music had given them headaches or because the score was 9-1 by the
7th inning and the game was boring. And don’t forget that there are thousands
of people who may have given up attending games due in part to the ever-increasing
game times, so they were not present for you to read their minds!

And consider the fact that most fans rarely if ever attend major league games in
person. Game length is surely a factor in their decision whether to watch games
on television or not. Speaking for myself, I used to love watching post-season
games on television but in the past 15 or so years the ever-increasing length
of post-season games has driven me away. I really don’t feel like spending 4
hours sitting in front of the television watching endless commercials and promos
interrupted by the occasional bit of baseball action!

The worst part of long games is all the pitching changes that take place in the
last third of the games. Even a game that is moving along briskly slows
to a crawl when the manger strolls out to the mound, slaps the pitcher on the
butt and waves in a fresh hurler who then has to throw 8 or 9 practive pitches
before the actual game resumes. Is there any other sport in which this kind
of delay in the action is so routinely permitted?

Chris from Bothell
8 years ago

They could likely split the difference by finding a way to market condensed games – edited down to eliminate all but plays, replays and the pitches – to fit in exactly 2 hours with commercials. Air these on a delay from the live game.

TV then becomes only these condensed games, to appeal to short-attention-span fans with other interests and limited time. Fans who want to have the real-time experience can turn on the radio, or Gameday, or go to the park.

The complaints and contortions over pace of game come from people who don’t like watching baseball. E.g. it’s their everyday job and they want to cut meaningless time at the office the same way a dude at a desk job skips unimportant meetings. Or, they come from TV people / advertisers who are having a hard time trying to sell a 3-hour-or-more product but could do much better with it if it were a standard-sized widget, a 2-hour thing no different in TV sales after a certain point than running a movie or a morning TV show.

8 years ago

Last year we took our godsons to a minor league game. They had a great time, especially with the crazy stuff going on between innings (mascot races, etc.). I looked at the clock in the bottom of the ninth and it had only been 2-1/2 hours since the game started. The difference was that the batters didn’t step out after every pitch to make meaningless adjustments to their batting gloves, and the pitchers didn’t engage in existential ponderings between pitches. They just played. I assume because their managers wouldn’t tolerate screwing around. The result was a much faster paced game that kept kids (ages 16, 15 ,12 and 10) as well as adults entertained. The pros should try it. They might be surprised to find out how many more people would come to games that last less than 3 hours.