MLB’s Pace and Time of Game Are Moving in the Wrong Direction

While pace of play has been an issue discussed by the league for some time now, I’ve personally been slow to regard it as an actual problem for the sport. It’s been, for me, a matter that only casual fans would take note of — and that if they weren’t complaining about this issue, they would surely find another one about which to complain.

A couple of developments have changed my thinking, though. First, Grant Brisbee took the time to actually investigate two games held 30 years apart and came away with the conclusion that a pitch clock actually may make a substantial difference in the length of games. Second, players have continued taking longer than ever between pitches this season, despite the increasing talk about the league’s problem with pace of play.

Let’s start with a graph that illustrates the problem on a league-wide basis. Data is as of Thursday morning, but the Pace numbers won’t have changed much in a day, so that’s fine.

You can see the one time in the past decade that saw any marked shift downward was in 2015, when the league put a new rule in place mandating that batters had to keep one foot in the box (except after foul balls) during a plate appearance. From my viewing experiences, the rule doesn’t appear to have been enforced with the same vigilance over the last two seasons, and the data suggest the same thing. The effect has been a rise in the average pace of more than a second and a half since 2015, and 0.7 seconds more than the previous high in 2014.

This is a problem on a couple of levels. First, it shows that the players aren’t taking the Commissioner’s Office very seriously, unless there was a new memo or rule put in place that I have missed. Second, it shows that the players cannot be trusted to follow the honor system — and, as such, more heavy-handed methods of enforcement might be necessary.

What’s interesting is that, while both leagues have gotten slower the past two seasons, they were uniform in the degree to which they slowed down. This season, however, the American League is on the whole much slower than the National League. Take a look.

MLB Pace, 2007-2017
Season MLB AL NL AL-NL
2007 21.5 21.9 21.2 0.7
2008 21.6 22.1 21.3 0.8
2009 21.4 21.6 21.3 0.3
2010 21.5 21.5 21.4 0.1
2011 21.6 21.7 21.6 0.1
2012 22.1 22.1 22.1 0.0
2013 22.6 22.7 22.5 0.2
2014 23.0 23.1 22.9 0.2
2015 22.1 22.2 22.1 0.1
2016 22.7 22.6 22.7 -0.1
2017 23.7 24.1 23.3 0.8

Who’s the most culpable for the uptick?

AL Teams Pace, 2016-2017
Team 2017 2016 Diff
Rays 25.8 22.3 3.5
Blue Jays 24.0 21.4 2.6
Tigers 25.2 23.1 2.1
White Sox 24.6 22.6 2.0
Rangers 24.2 22.3 1.9
Twins 23.7 21.8 1.9
Athletics 24.4 22.8 1.6
Mariners 23.4 21.8 1.6
Angels 24.6 23.1 1.5
Orioles 23.6 22.2 1.4
Astros 23.6 22.2 1.4
Indians 23.5 22.7 0.8
Royals 23.0 22.5 0.5
Red Sox 24.4 24.2 0.2
Yankees 23.8 24.0 -0.2

As you can see, the Yankees improbably are the innocent party here, as their pitchers are actually moving slightly faster than they were last year. The Rays, though, are dragging their feet something fierce this season. Lindsey Adler wrote about them the other day at Deadspin in an article titled “The Rays Take Their Sweet-Ass Time Between Pitches.” You should read the whole article because Lindsey is great and it has video examples, but here’s an excerpt on the effect of this inaction:

This adds up to a lot of time spent not throwing pitches. Per Fangraphs, the average time between pitches among qualified starting pitchers is 23.1 seconds. Across a scale of 100 pitches per outing, that means fans are watching Andriese stand on the mound doing pretty much nothing for eight and a half minutes relative to the average starting pitcher, and more than 15 minutes relative to a quick-working one like R.A. Dickey. That’s a long, long time to dedicate to the endeavor.

Lindsey brings up a good point in looking at starting pitchers vs. relief pitchers. Let’s look at that, and we’ll also break them out by league, as well.

Pace by Pitcher Type, League, 2007-2017
Season MLB SP MLB RP AL SP AL RP NL SP NL RP
2007 21.0 22.6 21.4 22.9 20.5 22.4
2008 21.0 22.7 21.5 23.1 20.6 22.4
2009 20.8 22.5 21.1 22.5 20.6 22.5
2010 20.8 22.8 20.9 22.8 20.7 22.8
2011 21.0 22.9 21.1 22.9 20.9 22.9
2012 21.4 23.5 21.5 23.3 21.3 23.6
2013 21.9 23.7 22.1 23.7 21.8 23.8
2014 22.3 24.3 22.5 24.1 22.1 24.6
2015 21.4 23.4 21.6 23.3 21.3 23.4
2016 22.0 23.7 22.0 23.6 22.0 23.9
2017 23.0 24.8 23.5 25.2 22.6 24.4

We can see a couple of interesting things here. First, NL relievers are working faster than they did in 2014, so while they may have slowed down, it isn’t perceptibly worse than when the league took action. For both pitcher types, AL pitchers are nearly a second slower this season. The big shift is in starting pitchers, as the two leagues were in lock step until this season. AL relievers are snapping a streak of five consecutive seasons being faster than their NL counterparts. Who’s responsible for that change?

AL Team RP Pace, 2016-2017
Team 2017 RP 2016 Pace Diff
Rays 25.7 22.7 3.0
Rangers 26.4 23.6 2.8
Orioles 25.0 22.5 2.5
White Sox 26.5 24.4 2.1
Mariners 24.4 22.3 2.1
Blue Jays 25.6 23.6 2.0
Twins 24.6 22.7 1.9
Indians 25.3 23.7 1.6
Angels 25.6 24.1 1.5
Tigers 25.6 24.4 1.2
Astros 24.6 23.5 1.1
Athletics 24.6 23.7 0.9
Red Sox 26.3 25.6 0.7
Yankees 25.5 24.8 0.7
Royals 22.5 22.9 -0.4

Well, look, it’s the Rays again. While Tampa Bay relievers are now only the fourth-slowest relief group behind the White Sox, Rangers and Red Sox, last season they were the fourth fastest. The shift by Tampa Bay seems deliberate across the entire pitching staff.

As for pitching staffs as a whole, both Joe Sheehan and Rob Arthur have observed recently that, as pitchers throw faster, they also throw slower. But as we’ll see in our next table, that doesn’t always break out at the team level.

Pace of Play & Velocity Comparison, 2016-2017
Pace Statcast Avg. Pitch Velocity
Team 2017 2016 Diff 2017 2016 Diff
Angels 24.6 23.1 1.5 92.3 92.1 0.2
Astros 23.6 22.2 1.4 93.3 92.3 1.0
Athletics 24.4 22.8 1.6 93.6 93.0 0.6
Blue Jays 24.0 21.4 2.6 92.4 92.6 -0.2
Braves 22.5 22.9 -0.4 92.2 93.6 -1.4
Brewers 24.4 23.4 1.0 93.3 93.2 0.1
Cardinals 22.3 21.7 0.6 93.6 93.9 -0.3
Cubs 22.6 22.0 0.6 91.8 93.6 -1.8
Diamondbacks 23.0 24.2 -1.2 93.5 93.6 -0.1
Dodgers 25.1 24.0 1.1 92.8 93.1 -0.3
Giants 23.5 23.7 -0.2 92.2 92.7 -0.5
Indians 23.5 22.7 0.8 93.5 93.6 -0.1
Mariners 23.4 21.8 1.6 92.4 93.3 -0.9
Marlins 23.2 21.9 1.3 92.7 93.6 -0.9
Mets 23.3 22.9 0.4 93.3 94.0 -0.7
Nationals 23.9 22.2 1.7 94.0 93.7 0.3
Orioles 23.6 22.2 1.4 92.2 93.2 -1.0
Padres 22.9 23.1 -0.2 92.5 92.6 -0.1
Phillies 23.7 22.3 1.4 92.8 92.8 0.0
Pirates 23.3 22.3 1.0 94.2 93.9 0.3
Rangers 24.2 22.3 1.9 93.3 92.3 1.0
Rays 25.8 22.3 3.5 93.3 92.9 0.4
Red Sox 24.4 24.2 0.2 93.2 93.4 -0.2
Reds 21.9 21.7 0.2 92.9 93.2 -0.3
Rockies 23.3 22.9 0.4 94.0 93.6 0.4
Royals 23.0 22.5 0.5 92.3 93.6 -1.3
Tigers 25.2 23.1 2.1 93.4 93.3 0.1
Twins 23.7 21.8 1.9 92.0 92.4 -0.4
White Sox 24.6 22.6 2.0 92.5 92.9 -0.4
Yankees 23.8 24.0 -0.2 94.2 94.8 -0.6

The 14 teams highlighted in red are moving with a slower Pace this year, but also with a lower average velocity, according to Statcast. And by these numbers, of the 10 slowest teams, only three of them — the A’s (fifth), Tigers (ninth) and Rays (10th) are among the 10 teams with the average highest velocity. So, I’m not sure what do with all of that info, but I do find it interesting that it isn’t a one-for-one relationship across all teams.

This isn’t just about pitchers though. Yes, they’re the ones with the ball in their hands, but what about the hitters?

MLB Team Position-Player Pace, 2016-2017
Team 2017 2016 Diff
Tigers 24.9 22.8 2.1
Rays 24.8 22.8 2.0
Red Sox 25.1 23.1 2.0
Athletics 24.2 22.4 1.8
Indians 23.6 21.9 1.7
Braves 23.8 22.1 1.7
Orioles 24.0 22.4 1.6
Angels 24.9 23.3 1.6
Twins 23.9 22.3 1.6
Phillies 23.7 22.4 1.3
Yankees 23.9 22.6 1.3
Blue Jays 23.6 22.5 1.1
Royals 23.5 22.4 1.1
Mariners 23.9 22.8 1.1
Rangers 23.3 22.3 1.0
Diamondbacks 24.0 23.0 1.0
Dodgers 23.8 22.8 1.0
Astros 24.1 23.2 0.9
Mets 23.3 22.4 0.9
Cubs 23.2 22.4 0.8
Reds 23.3 22.6 0.7
White Sox 23.0 22.4 0.6
Cardinals 23.1 22.6 0.5
Marlins 22.7 22.2 0.5
Brewers 22.7 22.4 0.3
Nationals 24.0 23.7 0.3
Rockies 23.7 23.6 0.1
Padres 22.3 22.5 -0.2
Pirates 22.6 22.8 -0.2
Giants 23.4 23.7 -0.3

Astoundingly, the Red Sox without David Ortiz have been two seconds slower than they were with him last season. You’ll also notice the Rays at the top of the heap again. In the NL, the Braves and Phillies are the two teams who are the slowest in comparison to last year, which is pretty astounding. It’s one thing to suck, but slow and sucky is no way to go through life. At least the Rays have the fourth-best BaseRuns run differential right now.

How is this affecting time of game? Let’s take a look.

Time of Game, 2016-2017
Team 2017 2016 Diff
TBR 3:19 3:01 18
BAL 3:15 3:00 15
DET 3:18 3:05 13
NYY 3:15 3:03 12
CHC 3:15 3:05 10
OAK 3:06 2:56 10
TOR 3:10 3:00 10
NYM 3:14 3:05 9
TEX 3:09 3:00 9
PHI 3:11 3:03 8
STL 3:09 3:01 8
SEA 3:09 3:02 7
BOS 3:19 3:12 7
LAA 3:10 3:04 6
WSN 3:14 3:08 6
CLE 3:06 3:03 3
CHW 3:05 3:03 2
MIL 3:10 3:08 2
MIN 3:07 3:05 2
HOU 3:05 3:04 1
KCR 3:00 2:59 1
MIA 3:06 3:05 1
CIN 3:02 3:04 -2
ATL 3:05 3:08 -3
COL 3:06 3:11 -5
PIT 3:06 3:11 -5
SFG 3:03 3:10 -7
LAD 3:12 3:10 -8
ARI 3:05 3:14 -9
SDP 2:57 3:06 -9
Avg. 3:09 3:05 4
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Goodness. Rays games are taking 18 minutes longer than they did last season. The Rays and Red Sox are each taking an average of three hours and 19 minutes to play games this season. That’s abhorrent. As I scrolled through the Baseball-Reference seasonal pages with time of game, I found that the only other team that took this long on average was the 2014 Rays. Admittedly, I stopped scrolling back around 1989, but I think it’s safe to say that the Rays and Red Sox (and ’14 Rays) are the slowest teams in baseball history.

The two teams have played each other seven times this season, and those games have been nightmares to watch, even as someone who identifies as a Red Sox fan. The Sunday, May 14, game was particularly appalling, as the two teams needed 4:32 to play a non-competitive 11-2 game. Starting pitchers Matt Andriese and Drew Pomeranz combined for just eight of the 18 innings pitched, which sure didn’t help.

The Sox have been slow when they aren’t playing the Rays. On Saturday in Oakland, it took them nearly an hour and a half to play three innings. This was about the same time as it took my son to play three innings of coach-pitch baseball that same morning. The difference in this case, of course, is that everyone on both teams in coach-pitch is allowed to hit in each inning, and no outs are kept because the kids still aren’t adept at fielding. Last night, the Red Sox game started at 7:38 and the Celtics game started at 8:30. The Celtics game finished first. Yes, it was wet and rainy at Fenway Park, but the optics certainly are underwhelming from the Red Sox’ perspective.

The bottom line? This has so far been the slowest season on record by Pace, and it’s likely going to be one of the slowest, if not the slowest, by time of game. Last season, the average time of game was 3:05. This season, only eight teams are hitting that mark, and only four are beneath it. The Rays have been the slowest team in comparison to last season, but the Red Sox, Tigers and others share plenty of the blame. If the league considers this to be a problem — and, despite my past reservations, I’m now inclined to agree that it is — they’re going to have to do something about it, because the teams and players don’t appear capable of policing themselves.

We hoped you liked reading MLB’s Pace and Time of Game Are Moving in the Wrong Direction by Paul Swydan!

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

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southie
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southie

In the Blue Jays case they have been slowed by half their team being stretchered off the field due to injury this season.