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April 16, 2014

Overthinking It

Does Baseball Have a Pace Problem?

by Ben Lindbergh

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On June 13, 2012, in a close but otherwise unmemorable game at Great American Ball Park between the Reds and Indians, Joey Votto and Derek Lowe reminded us what baseball is missing:

That’s Votto’s third-inning plate appearance, a six-pitch walk. The PA was notable not because of the outcome—Votto led the National League in walks that season, despite playing in only 111 games, so a free pass was predictable—but because of how little time it took and the way Votto approached each offering. The slugger barely adjusted his stance or his position in the batter’s box from pitch to pitch, moving his feet only when Lowe came inside on 2-2. He showed no compulsion to do a lap around the plate, no need to adjust his batting gloves. And somehow, he survived.

Lowe was one of the game’s quickest workers in 2012. We know that not just from watching him, but by virtue of PITCHf/x, which began to tag each pitch with a timestamp in 2010. By comparing each pitch’s timestamp to the previous one—and using only consecutive pitches, so that the time between isn’t counted if a pick-off throw breaks up the action—we can determine the time it took to deliver. A stopwatch would serve the same purpose for a single pitch or plate appearance, but a database allows us to dig deeper, calculating the average pace for any pitcher or hitter in a given season, as well as for the league as a whole.

Lowe’s average time between pitches in 2012 was 16.92 seconds. The league’s as a whole was 21.05, which means that a 100-pitch start by Lowe that season would have included almost seven minutes less standing around than one by a typical pitcher. Votto ranked toward the middle of the pack in 2012 time between pitches, so in this case, he was probably just trying to disrupt Lowe’s timing by matching (or exceeding) the opposing starter’s pace for a single plate appearance. In doing so, he gave us a glimpse of the batter-pitcher confrontation stripped down to the essentials, without any of the filler that normally gives us plenty of time to stare at our seconds screens during breaks in the on-field action.

Unfortunately, there’s more of that filler than there was even 3-4 years ago ago. Inter-pitch pace took a sizeable hit between 2011 and 2012 and has slowed further in the season-plus since.

Year

Pace (s)

Time of Game (min)

2010

20.34

174.8

2011

20.38

176.6

2012

21.05

180.2

2013

21.19

184.2

2014

21.17

187.2

The average time between pitches last season was 0.85 seconds longer than it was in 2010, the first season for which we have the same data. That doesn’t sound like much, and from inning to inning, it isn’t, but consider how many pitches are thrown in a given season: 709, 917 in the 2013 regular season alone, according to Major League Baseball Advanced Media. Distribute those over 2431 regular-season games, and you get 292.03 pitches per game. If the average time between pitches last season (and so far in 2014) was 0.85 seconds longer than it was in 2010, we’re talking about over four minutes extra per game, relative to 2010, for the same amount of action (unless this counts as action). If you watch all of your team’s games, you’re looking at a commitment of over 11 extra hours per season, for which you receive nothing but the baseball equivalent of dead air.

As the chart above indicates, the average length of games did increase by almost 10 minutes from 2010 to 2013, and it’s up another three minutes so far this season, likely thanks to expanded instant replay review. Even before the new replay rules, April game lengths and times between pitches tended to be very slightly longer than they were over the course of a full season, but not by so much that we should worry much about significantly overestimating the recent spike.

We should acknowledge that the increase in time between pitches isn’t necessarily attributable to lollygagging alone. It could be a result of some confounding factor that has also an effect on pace. For example, Dave Allen discovered a few years ago that pace tends to slow down A) in two-strike counts, and B) when a reliever is pitching (even after accounting for the fact that relievers are more likely to pitch in two-strike counts). He also found that the presence of runners on base slows things down considerably. Those observations hold true today, as the following chart of time between pitches broken down by pitcher role and base state (empty or men on) reveals.

Similarly, Jeremy Greenhouse found that pace tends to slow down as the hitter sees more pitches in a plate appearance. So can counts and relief usage explain baseball’s slowing pace? In the table below, “RP%” is the percentage of pitches thrown by relievers, and “Count Depth” is the average pitch number in a plate appearance (an 0-0 pitch being “1,” a 1-1 pitch being “3,” a 2-2 pitching being “5,” and so on).

Year

RP%

Count Depth

2010

33.6

2.87

2011

33.5

2.87

2012

34.6

2.86

2013

34.7

2.87

2014

35.3

2.88

Count depth hasn’t increased, and the rise in reliever percentage is slight—probably not enough to account for the added time between pitches, especially given that league-wide on-base percentage has fallen by 7-8 points since 2010, which should translate to more faster-paced, “bases empty” situations.

Whatever the reason for the slowdowns, both between pitches and overall, it’s something that the next commissioner should probably pay more attention to. Not for the sake of hopelessly addicted dependents like you and me, necessarily, since we’d still watch baseball if the games took twice as long, but because blowing by the three-hour mark has to make the sport a harder sell to undecided viewers who are browsing for the best experience. It would be one thing if more time meant more action, but we’re still doling out 27 outs over nine innings—we’re just making it harder to get to the good stuff.

While it’s true that there are more pitches thrown today than ever before, there are also more pitching changes, more commercials, and more vamping between pitches. For a variety of monetary and strategic reasons, it’s tough to target the first two sources of slow pace, which leaves regulating pitcher pace as the likeliest—if least effective—solution. As long as the broadcast bubble refuses to burst, baseball’s financial future seems safe, but even precious event programming might lose some luster with advertisers and potential broadcast partners if the audience shrinks. Forcing players to be a little more like Lowe and Votto by observing existing rues (for real, this time) might help turn the tide. And that way, we won't have to talk abut lopping off a couple innings.

Before we go: Because we need to know whom to credit/blame for saving/costing us precious time that we could be using to watch other baseball games, here are two tables listing the 10 slowest and 10 fastest hitters and pitchers from 2013 (min. 1000 consecutive pitches faced for hitters and 500 thrown for pitchers). You’ll notice that there’s a wider range between the fastest and slowest pitchers than there is between the fastest and slowest hitters, which reflects the fact that pitchers—the guys who get to hold the ball—have more control over pace. (Unsurprisingly, the pitcher leaders are all starters, and the pitcher trailers are all relievers.) We’ll make all of this data available via our sortable stat reports soon. *Update* Make that right now, for both batters and pitchers.

Hitters

Name

Time Between Pitches

Troy Tulowitzki

25.9

Brandon Phillips

25.7

Robinson Cano

25.1

Victor Martinez

24.4

David DeJesus

24.2

Paul Konerko

24.1

Chase Utley

23.8

Josh Donaldson

23.8

Allen Craig

23.7

Mark Trumbo

23.4

***

J.J. Hardy

19.3

Dexter Fowler

19.3

Norichika Aoki

19.2

Austin Jackson

19.1

David Murphy

19.1

Jason Heyward

19.1

Giancarlo Stanton

19.0

Zack Cozart

18.9

Michael Bourn

18.6

Jimmy Rollins

18.6

Pitchers

Name

Time Between Pitches

Joel Peralta

30.3

Sam LeCure

29.3

Junichi Tazawa

28.8

Joaquin Benoit

27.7

Grant Balfour

27.5

Jose Veras

27.2

Jonathan Papelbon

26.7

J.P. Howell

26.1

Charlie Furbush

25.7

Kenley Jansen

25.6

***

Jonathan Pettibone

17.7

Justin Masterson

17.5

Roy Halladay

17.4

Dan Haren

17.3

Jon Niese

17.3

Wade Miley

17.3

Bruce Chen

16.9

A.J. Griffin

16.9

Mark Buehrle

16.4

R.A. Dickey

16.3

*Update* By reader request, the slowest starters and the fastest relievers from 2013:

Slowest Starters

Name

Pace

Eric Bedard

24.3

Edwin Jackson

24.0

Jeremy Hellickson

23.9

Edinson Volquez

23.6

David Price

23.5

Fastest Relievers

Name

Pace

Joe Smith

18.8

Tommy Hunter

18.9

Koji Uehara

18.9

Danny Farquhar

19.0

Jesse Chavez

19.1

Thanks to Rob McQuown and Harry Pavlidis for research assistance.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

Related Content:  Pace,  Speed

25 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Richie

At least regarding hitters, I think you need to control for men on/not on base. For instance, how much of Philips' sluggishness is due to Votto so often being on ahead of him?

Apr 16, 2014 08:15 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

Yes, you'd need to try to control for other factors if you wanted to completely isolate the player's context-neutral slowness.

Apr 16, 2014 08:29 AM
 
apbadogs

The thing that gets me about pace of play is how blatantly the rule book is ignored regarding the strike zone and each ump making up his own zone. How is this acceptable and just waved away like it's nothing??

Apr 16, 2014 08:30 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

The umpire zones have become much more accurate and closely aligned since the pre-QuesTec, pre-PITCHf/x era. What connection do you see between umpire zones and the pace of play?

Apr 16, 2014 08:33 AM
 
gjhardy

There is one simple solution to the pace of play issue: Call the rulebook strike zone, specifically the top half of it:
Rule 2.00: The Strike Zone
The STRIKE ZONE is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter's stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.
The top of the strike zone is actually above the hitters belt by quite a bit. When is the last time a pitch above the belt was called a strike? This ONE change would resolve the pace of play issue…and it's already a rule!

Apr 17, 2014 08:45 AM
rating: 2
 
evo34

Would be nice to see umpire strike zone tendency stats somewhere on BP. Brooksbaseball used to have very revealing tables, but they have since disappeared.

Apr 20, 2014 23:42 PM
rating: 0
 
bhalpern

Comparing the slowest overall pitchers - all relievers - to the fastest - all starters - doesn't give much insight into each list. Can you add the fastest relievers and the slowest starters? And for starters, is overall game time per start available? If so perhaps the correlation between starting pitcher pace and length of game can be analyzed.

Apr 16, 2014 09:01 AM
rating: 0
 
bhalpern

And thanks for bringing up this topic. I can't stand watching games with slow pitchers/hitters. Especially after a foul ball some pitchers take forever to rub up the new ball and get back on the mound, which I think is a big cause of the ever increasing time between pitches in extended at bats.

Regardless if it reduces the overall game time by a significant amount, picking up the running pace of play would go a long way towards addressing the generalized perception of baseball as boring.

Apr 16, 2014 09:05 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

Added slowest starters and fastest relievers. Wonder if catcher pace is a thing...

Apr 16, 2014 09:28 AM
 
bhalpern

Thanks Ben. Maybe catchers, managers, or pitching coaches. Not sure if this is what you noticed, but I see this group on the slowest lists: Peralta, Balfour, Benoit, Howell, Jackson, Hellickson, Price, Bedard.

Apr 16, 2014 13:14 PM
rating: 1
 
newsense

Another consideration may be more foul balls since they take time for the ball to be recovered or go out of play and there is usually a new baseball after a foul that may require rubbing.

Apr 16, 2014 09:05 AM
rating: 1
 
flyingdutchman

Love this article.

Here's another one: Catchers should not be allowed to constantly visit the mound. It is happening more and more often on 2-2 and 3-2 counts, no one seems to care, and I don't understand that. Such a large percentage of longish at-bats are now interrupted by catcher visits, presumably to discuss the next pitch or pitch sequence in ways that signals just aren't sophisticated enough to telegraph, and it's odd to me that no one ever addresses it. They are holding up the game, and it's boring. Get to your position and play baseball.

We all know people who say they don't like baseball because "it's boring". They can't enjoy the tension between pitches, the general pace of the game, all the other cool little things about it, and if you're like me you mostly just shrug and figure they're missing out. If you look at the game from their point of view, however, it's asking a lot of them to deal with all the extra stepping out of the box, wandering around the mound, pointless catcher visits and pitching changes that today's fan has to deal with.

I love watching baseball, and if I don't want to watch Brian McCann amble out to the pitcher so that he can put his mitt in front of his face and have a ponderous exchange that amounts to "throw the change but keep it down", you can bet that a kid who grew up with high-speed internet and Michael Bay movies doesn't want to see it either. Anyway, maybe I'm getting old.

Apr 16, 2014 10:08 AM
rating: 2
 
bhalpern

Get off my perfectly manicured and intricately decorated lawn. ;-)

Apr 16, 2014 13:17 PM
rating: 1
 
flyingdutchman

Well...I work hard to keep it nice, okay?!

Apr 17, 2014 10:41 AM
rating: 0
 
kcboomer

Tell the batter to stay in the batter's box and to be ready within 5 seconds of the last pitch (barring injury). Tell pitchers to get in gear. Do not permit throws to bases when the runner is within ten feet of it.

I was at a Royals game with Paul Bird and Mark Buerhle pitching that had a final score of 5-3 on a walk off homer in the bottom of the ninth. Time elapsed: 2 hours 5 minutes. The key was the pitchers were ready to pitch as soon as they got the ball back and they were throwing strikes.

Apr 16, 2014 10:37 AM
rating: 3
 
Ogremace

How do you monitor the throw-over rule? You can't have the distance being measured every pitch, and presumably if there's a penalty there's something at stake in getting the rule correct. Anyway, throws over and baserunning are part of the game, unlike wandering around the mound, adjusting batting gloves etc. I don't think they fall under the purview of this article even if you find them to be "boring". At least something can happen on a throw over.

Apr 16, 2014 15:05 PM
rating: 1
 
Michael Bodell
(89)

I think if you want to limit the throw over the most effective way to do that is to count it as a ball. Maybe starting with the second pickoff attempt per batter (first one is free). Then it is more like a form of pitch out and pitchers would be much more judicious about it.

However then I think we'd get even more step off the rubber type issues too, so it is a tricky problem.

Apr 17, 2014 00:31 AM
rating: 1
 
Dodger300

Watch out for the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Your sypuggested change would mean not only more steals, but more walks. Both of which would slow the pace of the game even more.

Plus, whatever unknown consequences the rule change would also bring about.

I would prefer not to find out.

Apr 20, 2014 23:09 PM
rating: 0
 
sandyk

Is there any way to know how the times for current batters compare to some notorious time-wasters such as Nomar Garciaparra and Mike Hargrove?

Apr 16, 2014 14:03 PM
rating: 1
 
Johnston

End all batter timeouts except for injury. Put a large, visible timer on the pitcher and if he doesn't throw the ball within 30 seconds then it's a balk.

Problem solved.

Apr 16, 2014 15:23 PM
rating: 0
 
evo34

Exactly. A batter should never be able to delay the game, nor should a pitcher be able to step off. Just as unlimited timeouts would ruin basketball and football, baseball has been ruined to a large number of would-be viewers. I follow baseball because I find aspects of the sport intriguing; I rarely watch games because I find them so painful to sit through.

Apr 20, 2014 23:48 PM
rating: 0
 
randolph3030

I would hate hate hate it if a baseball game ended in 2:05. That would be awful. The 7 o'clock games would be over by 9:10, then 50 minutes until the 10's start and those are over by midnight. I'm barely finished kids bedtimes by 9 most nights, I'd miss every game and then I would have to watch Mitch freaking Williams for an hour before the Best Coast games start.

This whole thing seems like a non-issue to me. The games run long because of commercial breaks which the TV channels want because it makes money because there are so many people watching which means that teams make more money from TV contracts which means players make more money which means more, better athletes play baseball which means MIKE TROUT.

Apr 16, 2014 17:40 PM
rating: 0
 
Meepits

I don't personally care about the length and pace of the game. I like it as much as you, believe me. But declining interest in baseball relative to other sports actually hurts everything you named above, not the other way around. Everyone else on the thread and the author of this article think pace is related to the declining interest relative to other sports. It's a serious problem and we need to be trying to solve it before baseball becomes even less relevant.

Apr 17, 2014 12:26 PM
rating: 3
 
sykojohnny
(225)

The number one reason that people do not like baseball is because it is "too slow" and "nothing happens". While I disagree with that and attribute it to the fact that these folks don't know the game, your study shows room for a tightening up on the players who do waste a lot of time. But given the complaint of slowness, why do we have a replay system that slows the game down even further. The time taken for the replay should include the time that the manager uses to walk out to the umpires and wait until his team gets a look at the replays in the dugout, not just the time after the manager uses his one decision to challenge. Also, the replay has eliminated what is one of the most enjoyable parts of the game i.e. the manager losing his f***ing mind and putting his face in the umpires face , screaming and hollering, throwing dirt on the umpire's shoes,throwing rosin bag grenades and just naturally raising hell. The home town fans love their manager "standing up" for their team, and cheer even more when the manager gets ejected. What a loss of fun and laughs.Dumb move.

Apr 17, 2014 07:14 AM
rating: -2
 
evo34

If you enjoy intentional over-reaction, there is always WWE.. The only way for replay to work in baseball is to ban managers from leaving the dugout. Allowing both challenging and arguing in an incredible waste of time from the fan's perspective.

Apr 20, 2014 23:52 PM
rating: 0
 
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