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The Strike Zone

The big slowdown: Why games are getting longer

Troy Tulowitzki No player takes longer to get ready to swing the bat than Troy Tulowitzki. (AP)

If there's one issue that unites baseball purists and cutting-edge advocates for change, it's that ballgames have gotten too long. Theories as to why this is abound, with everything from longer television timeouts to Moneyball to the introduction of instant replay blamed.

Fortunately, someone has taken a stab at quantifying some of the factors in play. On Monday, the Boston Globe published a report by Amalie Benjamin, illustrated by several interactive graphics showing historical trends and accompanied by a fair number of observations gleaned from a recent Blue Jays-Red Sox series.

The heart of the matter is this: In 1972, the last year before the introduction of the designated hitter, games averaged two hours and 23 minutes, 4.7 pitchers used by both teams and 16.1 hits. Average game times peaked in 2000 at two hours and 58 minutes due to higher scoring — at 5.14 runs per team per game, the highest rate since 1936 — and increased specialization. Even with scoring levels receding, record-level reliever usage (7.7 per game last year) pushed averages up to 2:56 last year, the highest they've been since 2000. This year, games are pushing two hours and 58 minutes again.

Scoring levels and reliever usage aren't all that's to blame, and if you think the additional answer is instant replay, you're wrong. As I noted just over a year ago, via data from Baseball Prospectus, the average time of a nine-inning game vacillated between 2 hours and 51 minutes and 2 hours and 52 minutes between 2007, the last year with no replay, and 2011.

The answer isn't entirely increased television timeouts either, though that was the explanation I offered during my Monday appearance on "The Brian Kenny Show" on NBC Sports Radio. According to the Globe, commercial breaks on local broadcasts have remained at two minutes between each half-inning since 1990, for a minimum total of 34 minutes per game, but national broadcasts are now at 41 minutes per game for such breaks. Additional relievers create additional timeouts that push those numbers higher, but they still don't account for it all.

Nor is the answer entirely deeper pitch counts. The long-term increase in strikeout rates, from 5.6 per team per game in 1972 to 7.5 last year and 7.6 this year, is certainly a factor, but perhaps not as big as has been suggested. In 1988, the first year for which Baseball-Reference has pitch count totals, teams averaged 134.3 pitches per game, and struck out an average of 5.6 per game. When scoring peaked in 2000, teams threw 147.3 pitches per game and whiffed 6.5 per game, but with scoring having fallen since then even as strikeout rates have risen, last year saw teams throw 145.1 pitches per game, and this year, they're at 146.2. Even when the games were relatively short — two hours and 46 minutes in 2003 — teams were still averaging 144.4 pitches per game.

Also worth noting: despite the increased emphasis in on-base percentage via the sabermetric movement, per-game walk rates are actually lower now (3.0 per team) than they were 20 years ago (3.3) or the before the DH was adopted (3.2). So don't blame the statheads.

Instead, much of the increase owes to player dawdling, both on the mound and in the batters' box — or outside of it. Umpires rarely enforce Rule 8.04, which mandates that a pitcher must throw the ball within 12 seconds with nobody on base lest he be charged with an additional ball. They appear to play it just as slow and loose when it comes to enforcing Rule 6.02(d) when batters step out of the box time after time, even after not swinging at a pitch (which isn't among the eight proscribed situations for which a batter may leave the box between pitches). Even when they keep one foot in the box between pitches as mandated, batters pass the time by partaking in individual rituals, such as the adjustment of batting gloves and body armor. Who can forget Nomar Garciaparra's maddening habits?

The current Beantown nine have some particularly egregious offenders. From the beginning of Benjamin's article:

Dig. Dig, dig, dig. Dig, dig.

Mike Napoli’s right foot cuts into the dirt in the back of the batter’s box, creating an ever-deepening trench the Red Sox first baseman uses for his stance.

In a single night, that digging will account for 39.5 seconds over four at-bats, and for 1 minute and 18 seconds over a three-game series against the Blue Jays last month.

And it’s not just Napoli. Some of his teammates seem to barely stand in the box during their at-bats, stepping out after each pitch to adjust batting gloves (David Ortiz), take off their helmets (Jonny Gomes), and wander around the dirt and sometimes even the grass (Jacoby Ellsbury).

Thanks to big digs and walkabouts like those, Red Sox games average an MLB-high three hours and 11 minutes this year, up from three hours and four minutes last year; against the Yankees, it jumps to three hours and 19 minutes. More Benjamin:

As calculated by the Globe, Gomes was the slowest of those who saw at least 20 pitches in the [Blue Jays] series, at 11.62 seconds per pitch. He is followed by Daniel Nava at 11.02, Napoli at 9.29, and Ellsbury at 9.27. The fastest? That would be [Wil]Middlebrooks at 4.60, with [Shane] Victorino (5.84) and Dustin Pedroia (6.42) behind him.

Via the Globe's data, Middlebrooks needed an average of 16.5 seconds from the time he first steps on the dirt to the time that he's ready to receive his first pitch, whereas Gomes needed more than twice as long, 32.4 seconds. But it's not just the hitters that are to blame; Sox pitchers such as Clay Buchholz and the since-departed Josh Beckett are notoriously slow, as the New York Times' Tyler Kepner observed a couple of years ago.

Via PITCHf/x data, FanGraphs actually quantifies individual pace of game among batters and pitchers — the number of seconds between pitches — though the data doesn't correct for whether there are men on base, which tends to increase times by about 50 percent. Here are the 10 most snooze-inducing hitters via that data:

RkNameTeamPace
1Troy TulowitzkiRockies28.0
2Carlos PenaAstros27.9
3Robinson CanoYankees27.2
4Brandon PhillipsReds26.8
5Victor MartinezTigers26.5
6David DeJesusCubs25.6
7Adam JonesOrioles25.4
8TDaniel NavaRed Sox25.1
Neil WalkerPirates25.1
10TMark TrumboAngels25.0
Josh DonaldsonAthletics25.0

Here are the 10 pokiest pitchers:

RkNameTeamPace
1Bud NorrisAstros25.5
2Yu DarvishRangers25.3
3Edwin JacksonCubs25.3
4Jeremy HellicksonRays25.2
5Edinson VolquezPadres25.0
6Jorge de la RosaRockies24.9
7Madison BumgarnerGiants24.7
8Mike PelfreyTwins24.6
9TA.J. BurnettPirates24.4
Clay BuchholzRed Sox24.4

Both sets are limited to qualifiers based upon either 3.1 plate appearances or one inning pitched per team game. The Sox have one player near the top of each leaderboard, but it's not as though the team has a monopoly on sloth. If you lower the threshold to 100 plate appearances, Nava ranks 18th, with Pedroia (24.5) tied for 33rd, Napoli (24.4) tied for 37th and Ortiz (24.3) tied for 41st. The title for the slowest team is owned by the Yankees (23.5), but the A's (23.4) and Red Sox (23.3) aren't far off. That's not tremendously surprising given that all three teams have long emphasized patience at the plate — apparently not only with regards to not swinging at pitches outside the strike zone but also with regards to boring pitchers half to death — but even so, five more teams are within 0.2 seconds of those average paces.

As for the pitchers, Ryan Dempster is the only other Sox starter in the top 30, tied for 19th at 23.4. Note the presence of Hellickson, whom Benjamin quoted as saying, "I think it’s the Red Sox’ fault… Pitchers. Hitters.” Those in glass houses, et cetera: team-wise, the Sox rank just eighth at 23.3, with the Astros (24.7) and Rays (24.5) in the lead. Individually, if you lower the bar to 20 innings to account for relievers, the slowpoke top five includes the Rays' Joel Peralta (31.9), the Reds' Jonathan Broxton and Sam LeCure (31.0 and 30.9, respectively), former Sox closer and notorious dawdler Jonathan Papelbon (29.4) and current Sox reliever Junichi Tazawa (29.1).

In recent years, MLB has paid lip service toward speeding up play via discussions by something called "the Commissioner's Special Committee for On-Field Matters," which sounds like a blue ribbon task force for not moving things along if ever there was one. The enforcement mechanism that has emerged seems to involve a series of stern glares from executive vice president Joe Torre.

If the league is serious about trimming game times, it must start by mandating that umpires enforce the rulebook. Umps have to flex their muscles in this area, so to speak,  awarding balls and strikes against players who fail to comply. You'd think it's a task they would relish, but the walkabouts on the mound and in the box suggest otherwise. So it goes.
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