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Slow and Steady Keeps Us Awake: Major League Baseball Can't Fix Its Pace of Play Problem

Baseball in 2018 is a game of fewer balls in play, more strikeouts and more pitching changes. It's no wonder the game feels so slow.

The first game of the 1916 World Series—otherwise known as the last time the Red Sox and Dodgers met in the Fall Classic—took two hours and 16 minutes to play. It was slow relative to that season as a whole (or so we can infer; average time of game for 1916 is unavailable, but over the previous five years, it clocked in at just under two hours), but it was a sprint compared to the marathons we’re enduring in 2018. A 136-minute contest would’ve placed in the 99th percentile of game lengths from this season and was 48 minutes shy of the year’s average of 3:04. And it’s nothing compared to this postseason, when our shortest game to date has taken 155 minutes and the average matchup is a bloated 215.4 minutes long—a three hour, 35-minute slog, or 24 minutes less than Games 1 and 5 of the 1916 Series combined.

So far in this World Series, we’ve gotten both ends of the spectrum: Game 1 took three hours and 52 minutes to play but seemed to stretch on to infinity; and Game 2 breezed by in three hours and 12 minutes, the third shortest game of these playoffs. That the latter, which took about as long to complete as Titanic, felt like a brisk jaunt speaks volumes to how brutally slow postseason games have gotten—an issue compounded by late start times that routinely leave fans up past midnight on the east coast.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred knows this, and knows that those late-night finishes aren’t exactly great for the visibility of his product. To some degree, though, his hands are tied in this series, which has to be tailored to those watching on the West Coast, three hours behind. “We are cognizant of the fact that we’re trying to serve those fans as well,” he told reporters in Boston before Game 2. “We’re trying to strike a balance and get the point, the window, where we can get the most people, all across the country.”

Primetime starts that also work for fans in Los Angeles and elsewhere out west are unavoidable parts of both this World Series in particular and the modern game. TV ratings are paramount, as are the desires of advertisers, who get long commercial breaks during these games—two minutes and 55 seconds, or 50 seconds longer than regular-season games and 40 seconds longer than nationally televised games. That adds an extra 10–15 minutes to each game of learning about financial planning services, over-the-counter erectile dysfunction pills, and the other pieces of our economy geared toward MLB’s most captive audience: older white men.

But even if you get rid of all the upper-middle-class people extolling the virtues of retirement investment or the non-stop reminders that you don’t have to live limp, games would still chug on past the three-hour mark. And to a certain extent, there’s nothing that can be done about that either, because that’s simply how the game is now: longer. The way the sport has evolved, all the data it’s consumed, the way in which it’s now produced and assembled—those things result in baseball that simply cannot move more quickly.

The 2018 regular season saw all-time highs in both pitches per plate appearance (3.9) and pitchers used per game (4.36). Starters carry lighter loads than ever before; bullpens have, concurrently, taken on bigger roles, which means more relievers and more dead time. The advance of in-depth stats and information have turned each at-bat into a chess match, with managers looking for the tiniest advantage wherever they can and more willing than ever to build rosters with platoon possibilities at every position. Emptying a bench in a nine-inning game with the designated hitter should be functionally impossible, yet Dodgers manager Dave Roberts did it in both of his team’s games at Fenway Park. Every move prompts a counter-move, and every counter a reaction. All this planning makes for a smarter brand of baseball, but it glues up the gears at the same time. As managers unleash a parade of relievers or toss out pinch-hitters, each seeking some miniscule yet hugely important edge, the game slows down. So too with each mound visit or exchange of increasingly complex signs.

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The evolution of baseball has resulted, too, in games that simply feel longer by dearth of action. The league batting average of .248 was its lowest since 1969 and just eight points shy of the all-time worst mark set in ’68. Defensive shifts gobble up balls on the left and right that, in years previous, would have scooted through for singles—another outcome in a downward trend. Strikeouts continue to soar: We’ve seen a new overall record set in that stat every year for the last decade. As pitchers get better and throw harder, batters sell out for power, eschewing weak contact and groundballs that are easily turned into outs.

This is the inexorable progress of baseball, and there are no signs that any of this will slow down (no pun intended). At some point in the future, perhaps things will change, and the game will cycle back to something older and more recognizable to fans of a certain age—or maybe it’ll mutate into something entirely different.

Already, these playoffs feel like a bellwether for the latter. No postseason can accurately reflect the year as a whole, as the games are too differently structured and inherently valuable for the results to resemble the languid pace of the sport in mid-summer. But as games stretch on long into the night featuring a dozen pitchers and starters who never see the sixth and managers who move aggressively and constantly, it’s almost impossible to imagine baseball ever again looking like it did in 1916; the thought of a game done in two hours or less is hard to fathom.

1916 was, of course, a fantastically different year all around than ours—one only 50 years removed from the end of the Civil War, with baseball games still played in the day time in small stadiums to an audience of men in suits and hats. There were no TV broadcasts. Replay review was nearly a century away from existing. Starters threw 300 innings a year with regularity; batters swung often and lived and died on hard groundballs. A fan from that era would look upon the game in its current state in absolute awe and confusion. Too many things have changed in the century separating us; you could go backwards no more than someone from that period could come forwards.

None of this is to say that these long games are devoid of drama or tension; there’s been plenty of both so far. Nor is it to suggest there’s no way to speed things up. Pace of play is Manfred’s white whale as commissioner, and from hell’s heart, he’d probably like to take a stab at pitch clocks or limits on reliever usage or the permanent suspension of Pedro Baez or other such things to get games going more quickly. Yet even he recognizes that, in the playoffs, everyone is in no rush. “It is human nature, when the stakes go up, things slow down a bit,” Manfred said on Wednesday. All we can do for now, as the players negotiate this most treacherous of terrain, is sit and count how long each step takes, and hope that one day, the speed picks back up.