Game Pace and the Mark Buehrle Effect

We’re talking about pace-of-game again, in light of the recent vote to identify the next commissioner. Baseball games are taking longer and longer, with replay and constant shifting only adding to the length, and while certain fans believe it’s no issue because that’s just the beauty of baseball, this is one of those areas where you need to look at the big picture, and most people would prefer that games take less time. Baseball games now have a greater duration with the same amount of action, and that’s not the stuff of anyone’s dreams.

Cutting down on game length isn’t as easy as identifying that baseball should want to cut down on game length. The commercial breaks are always going to be there, because they need to be. Teams aren’t going to be real receptive to ideas that limit bullpen usage and flexibility. Every so often someone brings up the idea of a pitch clock, and maybe that’s the sort of step that needs to be taken. The best target for time reduction are all the seconds that pass between pitches. At least, that’s how people frequently feel. They don’t feel like that so much when Mark Buehrle’s on the mound.

Buehrle’s an old veteran approaching retirement, but at the same time, he might be the future. For as long as we have data, no pitcher has worked faster than Buehrle, and no pitcher has really come close. With Buehrle, there’s no dicking around on the mound — there’s just get ball and throw ball. Baseball would be better off if more pitchers looked to Buehrle as a role model, although perhaps his personal standard is too extreme. Said Brandon McCarthy, on the right time for a pitch clock:

“Whatever Mark Buehrle is, add two or three seconds on to that.”

Brett Anderson, from May:

This year, Buehrle’s Pace stands at 17.3 seconds. That is, he averages 17.3 seconds between pitches, and that’s right around his career mark during the PITCHf/x era. The league-average Pace is about 23 seconds. The league-average Pace for starters is 22.3 seconds. Buehrle’s faster by 22%, and that isn’t unexpected, because he’s always been like this.

Of course, the pace is only so much up to the pitchers. Hitters have their own little superstitious wastes of time, and while it was cute when it seemed to be isolated to Nomar Garciaparra, now it seems like most of the league makes a habit of stepping out and readjusting something between every pitch. There are quicker-working hitters and there are slower-working hitters, which means the pitchers can’t determine the pace alone. But they can do an awful lot, and as proof, let’s consider Mark Buehrle this year against the slowest-working hitters in the majors.

Some time ago I examined matchups between Buehrle and Carlos Pena, because Pena was slow as all hell. This time I took a bigger sample. From 2014, I examined all of Buehrle’s matchups against hitters with Pace marks of 25+ seconds. Together these hitters have an average Pace of 25.7 seconds, 12% slower than average. Between those guys and Buehrle, I was able to make 105 Pace readings. The average: 21.5 seconds. In other words, against the slowest hitters in baseball, Mark Buehrle had to be a little patient, but he still managed to get the guys to work quicker than the average bat against the average arm. Buehrle responded to the hitters’ collective behavior, but the hitters also responded to Buehrle’s haste.

Here’s Buehrle looking on while Alex Avila actively avoided playing baseball:

BuehrleAvila2

So for now, hitters are going to do their things, no matter who’s on the mound. They still have some control over the tempo, but they’ll hurry up if desired. That’s promising. Also promising: what happens when Buehrle works against the fastest hitters in the majors.

I examined the matchups between Buehrle and hitters with Pace marks no greater than 21 seconds. These hitters averaged a Pace of 20.7 seconds, five seconds quicker than the slow group. Between those guys and Buehrle, I came away with 68 Pace readings. The average: 14.9 seconds.

So, against the quickest hitters in baseball, Mark Buehrle this year has thrown about a pitch every 15 seconds. That’s extraordinary, and you can get a sense of what it looks like here, with Buehrle pitching to J.J. Hardy in April:

BuehrlevsHardy

That at-bat lasted three pitches. Hardy came up and immediately took a ball. Nine seconds later, Hardy took a called strike. Nine seconds later, Hardy put the bat on the ball, flying out. A three-pitch showdown between Buehrle and Hardy lasted less than half of one minute, and that’s a pace to aspire to. It’s not a pace that everyone needs to adopt, because that’s probably too fast, but this is what the future could and should look like. With nobody on base, Buehrle just got the ball and prepared to throw it. Hardy prepared to hit, collected his thoughts, and prepared to hit again. You can’t work faster than your own conditioning allows you to, but there’s no reasonable need for pitchers to wander around the mound all the time, and there’s no reasonable need for hitters to unstrap and re-strap their batting gloves. They only do it because they’re allowed to do it. It never would’ve become habitual behavior if it weren’t allowed to become a habit in the first place.

The Mark Buehrle effect is this: the slowest hitters in baseball end up working a little faster than average. The fastest hitters in baseball end up working way faster than average. If you start holding pitchers to, say, 90-95% of the Mark Buehrle standard, the games will move along. And if you also put regulations in place for hitters, the games will move faster still, and no one will miss the dead space in between when things are happening. The game isn’t better for Clay Buchholz taking mid-inning walks. The game isn’t better for Troy Tulowitzki doing mid-pitch Sudoku. That isn’t time that builds tension — that’s time that lets the air out of the balloon. Fans would do more two-strike strikeout chants and clapping if they had more confidence that a pitch would actually be thrown within the following 30 seconds.

This wasn’t supposed to turn into an essay about the need for baseball to get faster. All this was supposed to be was a review of the Mark Buehrle effect, but I suppose you can’t think about Buehrle for too long without starting to wish he weren’t so completely alone with regard to his behavior. It wouldn’t be reasonable or fair to expect baseball to move to meet the Mark Buehrle standard. But, it would be fair to want baseball to act on his influence. Buehrle’s got only so many pitches left in the tank. When he’s gone, we’ll never remember how fast baseball can be.

We hoped you liked reading Game Pace and the Mark Buehrle Effect by Jeff Sullivan!

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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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Scott
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Scott

Good stuff Jeff. I’m in favor of rules to limit hitters stepping out of the box every pitch. Watching Giants games, Sandoval’s interminable pre-at bat routine gets old, and Tyler Colvin (when he was there) spitting on his batting gloves and rubbing them together between every pitch was just gross.

Maybe a rule where the batter can only step out if they just fouled the ball off, are getting a sign, or swung and missed? Not sure if that’s feasible, though.