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August 28, 2014

Skewed Left

A Three-Hour Tour

by Zachary Levine

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At the heart of the biggest conversation going on in baseball right now, there is one conversation we’re not having.

We hear all about the games being too long. It’s item 1 or 2 on every listicle in the wake of Rob Manfred’s ascent to commissioner-in-waitingness. It's the subject of countless hot takes (3 balls! 7 innings! No mound visits!). It’s the subject of countless lukewarm takes that don’t deserve exclamation points (just enforce the rules on pitchers). And it often gets spliced with the discussion on pace of game, which would be a worthy one were not all the evidence presented in the form of game length.

But as we discuss this back and forth and back and forth, there’s one thing missing from the conversation: Nobody’s really talking about how long games should be.

And I mean what I say: a serious conversation about how long games really should be, not how long they used to be. That’s one direction this always goes. Another direction is to look at other sports, and if the popularity of sports on this list tells you anything about where baseball should try to align itself, that’s a credit to your inference ability over mine:

  • Golf: 4 1/2 hours
  • College football: 3 1/2 hours
  • Stock car racing: 3 1/2 hours
  • Pro football: 3 hours
  • Pro hockey: 2 1/2 hours
  • Men’s tennis: 2 1/2 hours
  • Pro basketball: 2 1/2 hours
  • College basketball: 2 hours
  • Pro soccer: 2 hours
  • Boxing: 1 hour
  • Horse racing: 2 minutes

So not a look at other sports and especially not a comparison with how long games used to be, but a really stripped-down look at how long games should be. If we were writing the rules from scratch and given the current media climate and tastes of the consumers, how long should baseball games be?

As strange as it is to think about 140 years into what we think of as baseball, there is some precedent for considering this question, precedent in a place that has some reputation for eschewing convention.

Las Vegas had a serious collective sit-and-think about length when it came to its entertainment offerings. Stage shows, which are very successful in lots of places, tend to run from about two hours to maybe 2:45 for the big blockbusters on Broadway. Concerts run whatever they run too. Maybe three hours if the opening act can carry a long enough set.

This kind of thing didn’t work for Las Vegas, where they have a reason to get you in and out on a tight schedule. Therefore, the shows in that town are now an hour and a half. That’s it. They start on time, they end on time, and if you’re not back on the casino floor before 8:31, they did something wrong.

But how about for baseball, where there is less control and we’d only be looking for a targeted length?

My answer would be a little complicated. Most baseball games start at 7 p.m., which is a sensible time that I think I’d want to keep. It gives the 8- or 9-to-5ers and even the 8- or 9-to-6ers time to get to the game and maybe pick somebody up on the way. But if you’re going to get to work again the next morning, you’ll probably want to be home by about 10:30, so you’re looking at a 2:30 game plus a liberal exit strategy and commute. With 14 of the 30 teams in the Eastern Time Zone, this also gives the majority TV viewer one time zone west (eight more teams) where they can go to bed at a still-reasonable hour.

So 2:30 would be a great place to start the conversation, but there are a couple of problems. I don’t want a 2:30 game in the afternoon. Most teams play Sunday games at 1 or 1:30 p.m. local time, and I think that for day games, I would like to see a four-hour average game. If that’s my afternoon activity—either at the stadium or in the background of a Sunday afternoon at home—four hours is a nice way to take me up to dinner time and whatever is going on at night.

Also, an average of 2:30, unless you radically change baseball to put in a clock, can lead to some awfully short in-stadium experiences. A friend from my home town of Albany, N.Y., took the train down to the Bronx to watch last Thursday’s Yankees game against Houston. He got the shortest Yankees home game since 1996 and a 2:07 activity that got dwarfed by the three-hour trip each way. This game-day experience, while not at all reflective of the majority of fans, is something to keep in mind with every concern about attention span and effort to decrease time of game.

Also, this is just an average. There is a huge deal of variation here. Even ignoring rain delays and the 10 percent of shortest games and the 10 percent of longest games, baseball carries more than an hour window on the length of games.

Percentile 2010 2014
10 2:25 2:37
20 2:33 2:46
30 2:40 2:52
40 2:46 2:58
Median 2:52 3:04
60 2:58 3:10
70 3:04 3:17
80 3:14 3:27
90 3:27 3:41
-- -- --
Mean 2:55 3:08

So after all this, where should we be placing the target?

At the average length, which has gone up from 2:55 in 2010 to 3:08 through the first 1,946 games of this season? At the median, which has gone up a similar amount, with half the games longer than 2:52 in 2010 and 3:04 this year? Or do you aim it at the extremes? Try to have Manfred and Co. adjust it so that only x percent of games go over three hours or over four hours?

This is, with such a wide range of times, an extremely difficult exercise. But if we’re going to keep talking about changing the length of games, and if we’re going to continue to frame every conversation about pace of game not in time between pitches but its effect on length of games, we should at least have some idea of what we actually want.

Thanks to Rob McQuown for research assistance.

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

21 comments have been left for this article.

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