The Worst Offenders of Baseball's Biggest Problem: The Game's Still Too Slow!

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJune 12, 2017

Yu Darvish is one of many players who are contributing to MLB's pace problem.
Yu Darvish is one of many players who are contributing to MLB's pace problem.Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

For the most part, Major League Baseball is perfectly healthy.

The league pulled in nearly $10 billion in revenue last season, aMaury Brown of Forbes reported. It was a good year for attendance and an even better year for TV viewership, particularly for the World Series.

So, there. Now you know you're not reading a "Baseball Is Dying!" article. Bet you feel better already.

Ah, but that oh-so-familiar and oh-so-frustrating problem with baseball remains: The game may be healthy, but the actual games are taking forever.

This wouldn't be worth complaining about unless the situation was particularly bad. And in 2017, it's particularly bad. The average game is taking three hours and eight minutes. If it holds, this would reset a record that's been reset enough in recent years:

MLB's 10 Longest Average Game Times
SeasonAVG Game Time (Hours)
Baseball Reference

You wouldn't need to travel too far back into history to find a time when baseball was being played at a much quicker pace. They were playing games in less than two hours and 40 minutes as recently as 1984.

Granted, things are different now. 

Manager challenges are a thing. Bullpenning is also a thing, and how. Teams use more pitchers per game, and the percentage of innings pitched by relief pitchers is trending ever upward.

But while you'd think these would be the biggest contributors to baseball's length problem, they're actually not.

Grant Brisbee of SB Nation did an experiment in which he compared two games from 1984 and 2014 that had extremely similar circumstances, save for one big difference: The game from 2014 was 35 minutes longer.

Here's why:

"The total time for the inaction pitches in 1984—the elapsed time between a pitcher releasing one pitch and his release of the next pitch—was 32 minutes and 47 seconds.

"The total time for inaction pitches in 2014 was 57 minutes and 41 seconds."

This points to the real problem in today's MLB: It's not the length, it's the pace.

Sadly, the data for time between pitches doesn't go as far back as 1984. But it does go back to 2007, and it reveals that the pace has slowed significantly even since then:

Average Time Between Pitches: 2007-2017
SeasonAVG Pace (Seconds)

Pitchers are taking 2.3 seconds longer to throw the ball than they were in 2007. The only other time things were even close to this bad was in 2014.

That irked MLB so much that it introduced new rules for 2015 that were designed to speed things up. They worked, but only briefly. Some of the progress that was made in 2015 was erased in 2016, and is now being obliterated in 2017.

Relief pitchers certainly aren't helping. They're averaging 24.8 seconds in between pitches. It's so bad that Pedro Baez isn't even the worst offender anymore—looking at you, Jeremy Jeffress.

However, relievers only deserve so much of a finger-wagging. They usually come into tense situations that require the utmost care. And since they're only there for a couple of outs (if that), it's not imperative that they get in a rhythm.

That's for starting pitchers, so it's more frustrating that they're also taking their sweet time.

Zack Greinke is in no hurry when he pitches.
Zack Greinke is in no hurry when he pitches.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Starters are averaging 23.1 seconds in between pitches, 1.7 seconds longer than in 2015. That year, only David Price averaged over 25 seconds between pitches. This year, 13 qualified starters are on or over that mark:

The Slowest-Working SPs of 2017
Matt ShoemakerLAA26.6
Yu DarvishTEX26.4
Alex CobbTBR26.3
Chris ArcherTBR26.3
Justin VerlanderDET25.8
Jason HammelKCR25.7
Zack GreinkeARI25.6
Jeremy HellicksonPHI25.2
Max ScherzerWAS25.1
Stephen StrasburgWAS25.1
Julio TeheranATL25.0

To be fair, hitters are getting on base more this year (.322 OBP) than they were in 2015 (.317 OBP). That's a reasonable excuse for pitchers to slow down.

But it's telling that even Texas Rangers ace Yu Darvish, who's serving up a .290 OBP, could need 26.4 seconds in between pitches. Ditto for Arizona Diamondbacks ace Zack Greinke, who's serving up a mere .259 OBP yet taking 25.6 seconds in between pitches.

I sought to understand this, so I dialed up Darvish's start against the New York Mets on June 7 and Greinke's start against the Cleveland Indians on April 8.

Darvish needed only 16 pitches to notch a clean first inning, with a groundout and two strikeouts. But it took him about six minutes and 30 seconds to do so. His pace was slowed by a couple of foul balls and a brief mound visit. But he otherwise wasn't in any hurry, typically taking between 15 and 20 seconds between receiving the ball from the catcher and making his next pitch.

Greinke had to work harder for a clean first inning, striking out the side on 19 pitches. Still, it took him about seven minutes and 45 seconds. Albeit with some fouls and a couple of balls in the dirt mixed in, he also needed 15-20 seconds in between most pitches.

It was too early for either to be fatigued, yet neither Darvish nor Greinke displayed any egregious habits either. There was only basic pitcher stuff: wiping of brows, stretching of arms, taking of breath, etc.

Still, neither was in Chris Sale mode. 

The Boston Red Sox ace takes only 20.3 seconds in between pitches, making him one of MLB's fastest workers. He's even faster when there's nobody on base, sometimes getting rid of the ball within 10 seconds of getting it back from the catcher.

It clearly works for him, as he's arguably the best pitcher in baseball right now. So, why is Sale an exception and not the rule in today's MLB? 

Well, it could actually be because there are benefits to working at a more deliberate pace.

As Rob Arthur noted at Five Thirty Eight, there's a relationship between slower pace and higher velocity. It may not be accidental that this year's record-slow pace is coinciding with record-high velocity. With his velocity up, this could explain Darvish.

Working slow may also help pitchers avoid fatigue. It makes sense in theory, and in 2016 Brendan Kennedy of TheStar.com highlighted a study that gave credence to the idea. Now 33 years old, this could explain Greinke.

But there's also this: It takes two to tango in baseball, and pitchers' partners are also taking their sweet time.

Move it along, Odubel Herrera.
Move it along, Odubel Herrera.Tom Mihalek/Associated Press

Technically, MLB rules only give pitchers a 12-second window to throw the ball when there's nobody on base. But the timer doesn't start until "the batter is in the box, alert to the pitcher." 

The only thing policing batters until then is the one-foot-in-the-box rule. That made a difference when it was introduced in 2015, as only four qualified batters averaged over 25 seconds in between pitches.

But so far this year? Try 42 qualified batters taking over 25 seconds between pitches.

Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Logan Morrison is the worst offender at 29.5 seconds. But Philadelphia Phillies center fielder Odubel Herrera is right behind him at 29.3 seconds, and he is certainly the more notorious sluggish-pacer of the two.

Herrera even had one game in April where he averaged 43 seconds between pitches. In that game, he had one at-bat where he took a first-pitch ball from Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer and, all while keeping one foot in the box, took about 30 seconds to blow on his hands, knock dirt from his spikes, inspect his bat, adjust his helmet and adjust his uniform. 

"Odubel's in no hurry, is he?" asked Phillies color man John Kruk.

"He is on his own game plan, his own time," replied play-by-plan man Tom McCarthy.

But in fairness once again, slow-paced hitters also have potential rewards to reap.

As Herrera told Matt Gelb of Philly.com, his pauses help him relax and think about what the pitcher is going to throw next. These are understandable instincts at a time when strikeouts are at an all-time high.

Plus, maybe it can't hurt to play mind games.

"I like getting them angry," he said of opposing pitchers. "I like getting in their head."

It is indeed important to consider why pitchers and hitters have slowed down. It's easy to jump to the conclusion that they're doing it to, in the words of Monty Python, annoy you and make things generally irritating. In reality, there are methods to the madness.

Nonetheless, let's be real here.

History clearly proves that baseball can be played faster. And with the average game now just 13 minutes shorter than the longest Lord of the Rings movie, modern baseball is pushing the boundaries of what's reasonable for a daily time commitment from fans.

Recent rule changes like time limits for between-innings warm-ups, mound visits and replay reviews are welcome, but they can't speed up the action. As for the one-foot-in-the-box rule and the abolition of the four-pitch intentional walk, even calling them half-measures is a stretch.

If Major League Baseball really wants to speed games up—and commissioner Rob Manfred has made no secret of the fact that he does—more drastic measures are needed.

And it doesn't get more drastic than a pitch clock.

It sounds preposterous only until you consider the real-life implications. They've been using a 20-second pitch clock in the minor leagues since 2015. As ESPN.com's Buster Olney noted, 74 percent of active players in MLB have been exposed to it. As time goes on, that number will only climb higher.

And, oh yeah: a 20-second pitch clock would hypothetically shave 3.8 seconds off each pitch. Since each team throws about 150 pitches per game, that's almost 20 minutes per game that could be saved.

Everyone would have a tough adjustment to make, not least of all players like Darvish, Greinke and Herrera. But if it made a healthy sport even healthier, then why not?


Data courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

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