March 28, 2023

© Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

As FanGraphs’ own Jay Jaffe noted last week in his piece on the dominance of relief pitching this postseason, the average time to play nine innings is down by 15 minutes in the playoffs after dropping by an average of seven minutes in the regular season. As Jay wrote, there are a handful of factors likely contributing to shorter game times in 2022, ranging from reliever usage and rule changes such as the three batter minimum, to technological adjustments like PitchCom, to changes in gameplay and dwindling offensive production. Regardless of the reason, it’s a shift that warrants exploration. League leadership has spent the better part of the last decade focused on reducing the length of its games; the commissioner talked about improving baseball’s pace of play on his very first day of the job. While games are still longer than three hours on average this season, the seven-minute dip after a record-long average game in 2021 marks the most precipitous single-year drop in the Divisional Era, and that sounds like it should be music to the ears of Rob Manfred and Co.

MLB Average Time of Game

Year Regular Season Postseason
2016 3:00 3:29
2017 3:05 3:40
2018 3:00 3:40
2019 3:05 3:40
2020 3:07 3:38
2021 3:10 3:44
2022 3:03 3:29

SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Per 9.0 innings

But the league’s objective with respect to time of game is more nuanced than just shaving off minutes at any expense. Yes, Major League Baseball is interested in games moving faster, which has led to rule changes like the upcoming pitch clock in 2023 and the existing three batter minimum for relievers. Teams used 3.30 relievers per game in the regular season in 2022, down from 3.43 in ’21, and fewer pitching changes mean less wasted time. But it is also interested in maintaining some level of offensive action – hence the introduction of the designated hitter in the National League this year, and bans on the shift set to come along with the pitch clock next year. Some improvements in time of game can come at the expense of offensive action, and vice versa, and titrating the levels of each that make for the best product is a delicate balance. In 2022, we did see offense trend down to concerning levels, but with a closer look, there is also some reason for optimism with regards to finding this balance.

Before getting to the why, let’s take a look at what has changed, beginning with two possible root causes for longer games: the rate of pitches per game and the time elapsed between pitches. During the regular season this year, batters saw an average of 3.89 pitches per plate appearance, mostly in line with their 2021 average of 3.91. Similarly, teams sent a combined 74.9 hitters to the plate in each game, just a hair higher than the 74.8 in 2021. This adds up to no more than around one fewer pitch per game this year. Seven minutes isn’t exactly an eternity, but one pitch is barely a blip on the radar. Still, change is incremental, and the 291 average combined pitches per game represents a drop of over 10 pitches per game from 2019. More to come on that.

In considering game length, it’s also useful to know if the pitchers themselves are delivering those pitches faster or slower than in previous years. FanGraphs’ Pace, developed by David Appelman in 2010, takes a shot at measuring this by dividing the time difference between the PITCHf/x timestamps of the first and last pitches of a plate appearance by the number of pitches in the PA minus one. Earlier this year, Baseball Savant introduced its own pace metric, called Tempo, which takes the median time between pitches, using pitches that follow a take and are thrown to the same batter. By design, neither will account for everything between pitches – they’re intended to show the pitcher’s pace under normal circumstances – but they can give us a decent rough look at whether pitchers seem to be working faster in general.

Both Pace and Tempo – which offers measurements for plate appearances with the bases empty and those with runners on – pointed to a quicker cadence on average across the league during the regular season this year. The league-wide Pace dropped from 23.7 seconds to 23.1, while the league average Tempo ticked down from 18.3 seconds to 18.1 with the bases empty, and a full second from 24.3 to 23.3 with men on. Each of these metrics had increased in the previous three seasons:

Pace of Play Metrics

Year Tempo (Bases Empty) Tempo (Runners On) Pace Time of Game
2022 18.1 23.3 23.1 3:03
2021 18.3 24.3 23.7 3:10
2020 18.1 24 23.2 3:07
2019 17.7 23.9 22.9 3:05
2018 17.2 23.3 22.5 3:00
2017 17.4 23.5 22.7 3:05
2016 17.8 24.4 23.3 3:00
2015 17.6 24.2 23.2 2:56

SOURCE: Baseball Savant

This is where PitchCom may be making an impact, allowing pitchers to work at a faster pace with less time spent on exchanging signs with their batterymate. A decrease of .6 seconds between each pitch, as measured by Pace, would make the difference of roughly one minute for every 100 pitches thrown. It’s also worth noting that it would make sense for the impact of PitchCom to be felt more acutely with runners on base, given pitchers’ and catchers’ tendency to complicate their signs in those situations. Ultimately, this type of thing is difficult to measure with precision, and this impact might be somewhat moot when pitchers are required to abide by the pitch clock in 2023, but if a change of this magnitude is at least somewhat responsible for shortening games this year, that could be an indication of what might be in store in the pitch clock era. In the minor leagues, leagues that implemented the pitch clock rules in 2022 saw serious improvements in the length of their games.

It’s interesting, too, to consider what trends could be contributing to the recent dip in pitch counts, which in turn could lead to shaving more minutes off of game time in the future. Of course, one of the main determinants is the proportion of plate appearances that turn into outs. Research has pointed to more changes in the baseballs being used this year, which has contributed to a dip in home runs, wOBA, and overall run production, and plate appearances are being converted into outs at significantly higher rates. The league’s .312 regular season OBP this year was the lowest since 1972. In the playoffs, it’s been a paltry .280, highlighted by Houston’s staff spinning the third no-hitter in playoff history in Game 3 of the World Series. When over 70% of hitters who come to the plate are heading back to the dugout empty-handed, pitchers will move through lineups pretty fast. This is good news if you’re trying to shorten games at any cost; it’s not as happy if you’re trying to strike a balance.

Some of the trends, though, are good news for both time of game and the in-game watchability. For instance, in the regular season, the league-wide unintentional walk rate was down to its lowest point since 2016, having dropped a full percentage point in the last two years to 7.9%. Leaving aside the competitive importance of a patient hitting approach, walks take up time – in the regular season, the average plate appearance that resulted in a walk was 5.8 pitches long. By comparison, plate appearances that ended up with hits took an average of just 3.4 pitches. Fewer instances of spending nearly six pitches on average to extend an inning without any of the action of a ball in play is the exact kind of thing that those who are concerned about the watchability of the sport should celebrate. And the walk rate has been even lower in the postseason, with unintentional walks down to 7.3% of plate appearances – just about in line with last year, but nearly two percentage points lower than in 2020:

Pitches per Plate Appearance by Result

Result Pitches/PA
Walk 5.8
Hit 3.4
Strikeout 4.8
Non-SO Out 3.4

SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Another metric worth watching is strikeout rate, which in the regular season dropped for the second straight year to 22.5%. While strikeouts are an efficient way to move the game along in that they keep runners off the bases, they are a particularly inefficient way to get outs with respect to time management. In the 2022 regular season, it took an average of 4.8 pitches to strike a hitter out, while the average plate appearance resulting in at least one non-strikeout out took an average of just 3.4 pitches. This was in line with historical averages. The more strikeouts a team recorded, the more pitches they used to get through the game. As long as pitchers continue to get outs at the same rates or better as they did in 2022, more of those outs coming on contact will mean shorter games:

Team Pitches/Game by Strikeout Total

SO Average Pitches Games
3 134.9 100
4 137.6 225
5 139.2 398
6 142.0 544
7 143.7 631
8 144.6 667
9 147.9 623
10 149.6 515
11 150.3 388
12 150.5 288
13 154.5 171
14 152.1 127

SOURCE: Baseball Savant

2022 regular season; minimum 100 games

The dip in strikeouts has not held up in the postseason, as the dominance of both starting pitching and relief pitching has led to strikeouts in 27.0% of plate appearances – a big culprit with respect to the .212/.380/.360 slash line and .283 wOBA. These games have been fast, but probably not in the way MLB would want them to be, with hit rates down three percentage points and rates of balls in play down two percentage points from last year’s playoffs. With a dearth of balls in play, sometimes you get a thrilling World Series no-hitter – more often, you just get a lot of non-action.

The dip in walks and strikeouts in the regular season have been the result of more contact stemming from a more aggressive approach at the plate, an approach that lineups haven’t been able to replicate with much success against some of the league’s best pitching staffs in these playoffs. Hitters, perhaps with the help of 15 more designated hitter spots, swung at more pitches this regular season (47.7%) than ever before in two decades of plate discipline data, including the highest rate of swings in the zone (69.1%) since 2002 and the highest on swings outside the zone (32.6%) in the data set. Despite a less selective approach, batters were able to make contact at higher rates than in recent years, making contact on 76.6% of swings, including 63.5% of swings on pitches outside the strike zone, the highest rates since 2018 and ’16, respectively. In the postseason, swing percentage has ticked up even further to 49.0%, but batters have made contact on just 73.1% of swings, a significant drop from the regular season. This collective approach was limited in its overall impact on production, but if walks and strikeouts do continue to trend down, that could bring us closer to the product that Manfred is aiming at.

Major League Baseball is in the difficult position of shepherding a game that features a pretty fragile balance between pitching and hitting. With too much strong pitching, the product can become a sea of strikeouts; with too much hitting, games can go up in length – more hits means more plate appearances per game. But ultimately, if hitters can manage to continue the trend, higher contact rates – leading to fewer walks and a higher percentage of contact outs in place of strikeouts – are likely to serve the purpose of quicker, more action-packed games. Paired with improved technologies and the right blend of rules around things like pitcher/defense deployment and pace, we could find ourselves closer to Manfred’s vision – just hopefully without compromising too much offense.

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