- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 22, 2019

After decades of longer and longer games, Major League Baseball has moved recently to speed up play: reducing disruptions, changing rules and rethinking some of the basic tenets of the sport in an attempt to reverse the trend.

So far, it’s not working.

More than a quarter of the way into the current season, nine-inning MLB games have lasted 3 hours and 2 minutes on average — up from an even 3 hours in 2018. That’s in spite of new rules adopted before this season that shortened the amount of time between innings and reduced the number of mound visits each manager gets per game.

It’s still early, and the statistical sample is small, but this spring’s longer games may be a sign more drastic fixes are needed to arrest the sport’s ongoing time-creep. Whether that means a three-batter minimum for pitchers — another change coming to MLB next year — or some of the more experimental rules being tested in the minor leagues could depend on where the trend ends up when the season is over.

In the meantime, fans seem to be getting restless — attendance is down for most major league franchises, including a drop of more than 10% from last year’s figures for the Washington Nationals. (One notable exception: the franchise that just introduced Bryce Harper).

Sports fans aren’t the only ones with an interest in quicker games. Nationals manager Dave Martinez said players stay engaged when games don’t drag on.
“I like the games to move,” Martinez said. “To me, it makes it that more, like, you’re engaged and it’s quick. The pace is quick, and you see the guys out there (thinking) hey, they’ve gotta be ready because the pace is ongoing, which is kind of nice.”

Pick up the pace

Prior to the season, MLB and the players association announced several on-field changes that, on paper, ought to reduce the time it takes to play the game.
Inning breaks were reduced from 2:05 to two minutes in locally televised games and from 2:25 to two minutes in national games, with commissioner Rob Manfred reserving the right to shrink the break to 1:55 in 2020. It may sound puny, but those seconds add up over the course of a game.

The league also reduced the number of mound visits from six to five per side, aiming to cut down on the time fans watch managers consult with or try to calm down their pitchers. So far, those changes alone haven’t shortened games.

The duration of an MLB game has crept up over the decades. The average length of nine-inning MLB games in 1981 was 2:33. But in the 10 seasons between 2008 and 2017, the number leaped from 2:51 to an all-time high of 3:05.

Martinez thinks much of a game’s pace is determined by what the pitchers are doing. When Patrick Corbin struck out 11 Mets in a win last week, the game wrapped up in 2:28.

“You see a guy working as quick as Corbin did … even (the Mets’) pitchers were pretty quick,” Martinez said. “I remember when I played, those games were normal. You had Maddux, Glavine. Before you know it, you’re playing an hour and 58 minutes and the game’s over, and you’d scratch your head. ‘Wow, that was quick.’”

And when pitchers work more slowly, blame is tossed their way: FiveThirtyEight reported in 2017 that pitchers were holding the ball two seconds longer than they did a decade prior — 23.8 seconds between each and every pitch, during which nothing entertaining is happening.

Baseball lifers aren’t in agreement on how important it is to speed up the game. Brad Holman, the pitching coach of Washington’s Triple-A affiliate Fresno Grizzlies, understands that MLB is trying to attract new, younger fans.

But the 51-year-old also appreciates a game that didn’t have a clock or video replays until just a few years ago.

“The American society is fast-paced,” Mr. Holman said. “To be able to go to a game and have a hot dog and a beer or a Coke and slow their life down is enticing to people. I kind of like the game the way it is, (but) I try to conform and not complain. I see both sides of it.”

Empty seats at empty stadiums

Why so much focus on the pace of play? The narrative throughout this decade is that the longer baseball games drag on, the less patient audiences — particularly younger fans — will get.

Average attendance for MLB games has fallen for three years running, and while there could be several reasons for the dip, last year’s average of 28,659 was the lowest mark in 15 seasons.

So far, 2019 is continuing in the wrong direction. Through Tuesday, 23 of baseball’s 30 franchises are averaging fewer fans per game than they had last year, according to data from Baseball Reference.

The Nationals are among that crew. Their average of 27,660 fans per game ranks 15th in the majors, but represents an 11.43% drop from a year ago. It could be due to a confluence of factors, but among them is the disappointing product on the field. Washington’s 19-29 record through Tuesday places it among company like the Detroit Tigers and San Francisco Giants — teams who were expected to be in “rebuilding mode” this year — despite the Nationals having the fourth-highest projected payroll in the majors.

Speaking of payroll, it’s no coincidence that the Philadelphia Phillies are the greatest exception to the trend this year. The club sold thousands of season tickets right after signing Harper, the former Nationals superstar, and their average attendance is up about 35% from a year ago.

Whether it’s fielding a competitive team or picking up the pace of games, it all ties back to making sure fans are in the seats. During spring training this year, Mr. Manfred expressed to reporters how important the new changes were to the sport.

“We’re thinking we can make small changes in what is still the greatest game in the world,” Mr. Manfred said, “in order to make our entertainment product more competitive.”

A matter of when

Baseball is notoriously slow to adapt its game, but impactful rule changes aren’t unheard of. MLB moved to give hitters some help in 1968, reducing the strike zone and lowering the mound after pitchers throughout the big leagues posted historically dominant numbers that season. So if this year’s relatively minor rules changes don’t make a dent, more noticeable changes could soon do the job.

Major leaguers are already bracing for a new rule starting in 2020 that requires pitchers to face a minimum of three batters in an effort to cut back on the number of pitching changes, which skyrocketed to a record 4.36 per team per game in 2018, according to Baseball Reference.

Other new rule ideas, just like most players, are getting their start in the minors.

MLB partnered with the independent Atlantic League to experiment with tweaks to the game — some of those experiments are already in place this year, others will start in 2020. And not all have to do with pace of play. An automated strike zone? Larger bases and a mound moved back by two feet? If they work out in the Atlantic League, they could be coming to a major league ballpark near you.

Other changes are meant to move games along. Rather than five mound visits, the Atlantic League’s eight teams are not allowed any unless they’re yanking the pitcher or checking on an injury. Pitchers there already must face a minimum of three hitters.

Courtney Knichel, the general manager of the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs, said she is open to the league acting as a sort of laboratory for the future of baseball.

“It is not a matter of if (baseball) is going to change,” she told The Washington Times. “It is when it is going to change.”

Editor’s note: Major League Baseball contacted The Washington Times after publication to dispute our comparison of average attendance so far in 2019 to average attendance for the full 2018 season. Overall attendance is down, MLB acknowledges, but the league contends the drop is less significant than presented because attendance traditionally rises in the summer when schools are out. By MLB’s calculation, for example, Nationals’ home games are off 5.2%, not 11.43%.

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