The Slowest(-Working) Team in Baseball History

The Mariners and Rays played a Wednesday matinee that featured extraordinarily little in the way of offense. Following the conclusion, there was this simple throwaway tweet:

Seems long. Seems like too much. An isolated instance is an isolated instance, and you shouldn’t focus too much on anything unless it repeats, but it turns out, for the Rays, this is a reflection of the norm.

Granted, there was a variety of reasons for Wednesday’s duration. Mariners starter Brandon Maurer struggled, and Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon went and got himself into an on-field argument. The day before, the Rays won 2-1, and that game took less than three hours. But a few days ago, the Rays lost a nine-inning affair 6-5, and they played for 228 minutes. Not long before that, they lost a nine-inning affair 6-3, and they played for 250minutes. In terms of footspeed, the 2014 Rays presumably are not the slowest team in baseball history. In terms of game pace, they most probably are.

Now, this is going to require some assumptions on our part, since we have very incomplete data. The main assumption is that baseball now is slower-moving than ever. Over the course of the PITCHf/x era, we’ve seen Pace increase by more than a second, which is of interest. And, the team with the fastest average game this year is Kansas City, with an average duration of two hours and 58 minutes. In 1986, the team with the slowest average game was Cleveland, with an average duration of two hours and 56 minutes. Baseball’s taking a long time, and some of that has to do with television broadcasts, but some of it doesn’t. Let’s say that baseball has slowed down.

If we can accept that, then we can arrive at a sweeping conclusion. It’s time to play around with Pace, the FanGraphs measure of average time in between pitches, based on PITCHf/x. We have Pace data for batters, we have it for starters, and we have it for relievers. We can also put it all together, with a little simple math.

This year, the slowest batting pace belongs to the Dodgers, at 24.1 seconds. We find the Rays around the bottom of the upper third, at 23.2. The Rays’ starting rotation, however, has the slowest pace in baseball, by more than two seconds. And the Rays’ bullpen also has the slowest pace in baseball, by most of one second. The Rays’ pitchers have been working slowly, and the Rays’ hitters haven’t been working quickly, and if you put the paces together and weight them by number of pitches, you find that these Rays have reached a new level of, say, being deliberate.

Here are the top ten slowest overall team paces over the course of the 2008-2014 PITCHf/x era:

  1. 2014 Rays, 24.9 seconds
  2. 2014 Giants, 24.0
  3. 2013 Astros, 23.8
  4. 2014 Dodgers, 23.7
  5. 2014 Yankees, 23.7
  6. 2013 Rays, 23.6
  7. 2013 Red Sox, 23.4
  8. 2011 Red Sox, 23.4
  9. 2013 Angels, 23.4
  10. 2012 Red Sox, 23.3

Of course, we have the smallest samples in 2014, and over the smallest samples, you’ll expect to see the broadest spreads. Four of those ten teams are from this season, and one should expect them to regress, at least in part. But the Rays aren’t just in front — they’re in front by almost an entire second, and that’s almost an entire second per pitch. A game has a few hundred pitches.

According to conventional wisdom, it’s the Red Sox and Yankees whose games take forever. And recently, that’s been true, at least relatively speaking. But now they’ve been surpassed ever so quietly by a division rival, and in large part for this reason the average Rays game has taken three hours and 24 minutes. That’s the longest average game duration in baseball history, and though it’s also tied with the 2014 Dodgers, the average Dodgers game has packed in a little more action. A Rays game has averaged just under 78 plate appearances. A Dodgers game has averaged just under 79. It’s enough to make the Rays the leaders on an adjusted rate basis, so they’ve had presumably the slowest pace ever, and the longest duration ever. There’s a lot of baseball history in history.

And as it happens, this was just talked about the other day, on Joe Maddon’s explanation:

“I think part of that is the number of pitches we do see. You have to consider from the offensive perspective also. I don’t know if we lead the league in potential challenges, play on the field, I don’t know how that plays out.

“We have a couple of pitchers who probably can be a little more time efficient between pitches. But overall, I’m a little surprised that that’s true, quite frankly. The only thing I think that validates [the Rays leading the league in longest games], looking at the numbers is we do see a lot of pitches on a nightly basis as an offense. We’ve worked good at-bats the whole season.”

Another perspective:

Rays catcher Jose Molina, who has seen a lot having first played in the Major Leagues in 1999, said the only thing he’s noticed is “guys not throwing strikes.”

“Pitchers not throwing strikes or hitters having good at-bats and fouling off good pitches,” Molina said. “And that takes you to a long inning, and a lot of changes of pitchers.”

Maddon mostly focused on the hitters. It’s absolutely true that Rays hitters have worked some long plate appearances, and the deeper a count gets, the slower a pitcher tends to work. And the more guys that get on base, the longer a game goes in minutes. But counter to Maddon’s point, it isn’t the Rays’ hitters who’ve been unusually slow — it’s their own starters and relievers who stand out. As he noted in passing, perhaps those arms could be a little more time efficient between pitches.

As for Molina, it’s once again about long at-bats. Long at-bats and good at-bats increase both pace and duration. Pitchers slow down in deep counts, and pitchers slow down with runners on base. This year, Rays hitters are fourth in baseball in rate of pitches seen with men on, and Rays pitchers have baseball’s third-highest rate. Both rates are higher than they were in 2013, contributing to everything moving slower. The hitters have been more difficult to put away, and the pitchers have just been worse, in part due to worse health.

There are reasons why the Rays work so slowly. Given the exceptional nature of their numbers, by the end of the year they’ll probably look a little more normal. But they’re also on pace to be the slowest-working team in baseball history, most likely, and we’re a quarter of the way through the season. There’s a lot of time between pitches, and as a direct result, there’s a lot of time between starts and conclusions. It’s not a stat that’s going to determine their wins and losses. The Rays don’t seem to mind it too much. It’s just a stat that is. It’s a part of the Rays viewing experience.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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