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Let’s fix the pace-of-play problem. It shouldn’t be that hard. But first, let’s diagnose the patient.

Here’s the average game time for the past 20 years.

We can see the obvious trend line, going mostly upward and adding nearly half an hour to the game. Ouch!

But of course, we’re not just worried about the length of the game. We’re worried about there being too much dead space in the game. And dawdling. Major League Baseball players dawdle like a bunch of 5-year-olds at bedtime. So, here’s a graph of the last 20 years, showing the number of minutes it takes to manufacture one plate appearance. (This is just average game length in minutes divided by the average number of PAs.)

Same pattern again. From the beginning of the graph to the end of the graph, we see that it takes an extra 20 seconds or so just to get one more batter through … whatever it is he’s doing out there.

OK, one more. Maybe the problem isn’t that plate appearances are taking longer. Maybe the problem is that more of them are ending in strikeouts, walks, and the occasional hit batsman. Y’know, the boring stuff about baseball that isn’t fun to watch. Who wants to come to a game to watch a bunch of strikeouts anyway? We have entered an era in which specialist relievers who only have to go one inning are able to just come into the game, air it out, and no one seems to want to swing to make contact.

Anyway, here's the data. This is (K + BB + HBP) / PA.

Again, we’re seeing fairly unabated growth over these 20 years. Games are taking longer, players are obviously taking their sweet time, and the strikeout scourge is ruining everything. We need to do something. Now.

There’s just one little problem. It’s 1997. Don’t believe me? Here’s the number one song on the radio right now.

Did you see the Jeffrey Maier thing? That just happened a few months ago!

Also, I’m having trouble with my graphing program. It keeps shifting the years at the bottom of the graph ahead by 20. For some reason, it’s saying that the graph covers the years 1996-2016. Not sure why. All the graphs above should actually say 1976-1996. Sorry about that, Angelfire readers. I’ll try to fix that by the time the CD-ROM version of this article comes out.

***

(Hehe.)

Year

Length of Game

Minutes per PA

Not in Play/PA

1976

149.17

1.96

21.6%

1996

175.77

2.25

26.4%

2016

184.77

2.43

30.2%

(And yes, those are real numbers now.)

It’s worth pointing out that the distance from 1976 to 1996 on all three measures is larger than the difference from 1996 to 2016.

Here’s the (real) 1976-2016 graph for “not-in-play balls per PA." The graphs for all three of these measures across that time period all have the same basic shape.

It’s been a slow, mostly steady climb over the last 40 years, but the majority of the “damage” was actually done over the first two decades in that graph, rather than the last two. Now we know what we need to do. We need to figure out what happened between 1976 and 1996!

When we talk about the pace-of-play issue, there’s a tendency to frame it as something that happened in the past few years. We need a longer view, not just for the “hey kids, get off my lawn” aspect of it, but because it matters if we actually want to address it.

I don’t want this to be taken as a cry that the pace-of-game problem is so far ingrained that there’s no possible way that we can fix it, so why should we bother trying. Whatever your views are on whether the game is aesthetically broken, commissioner Rob Manfred has stated that shorter games and more action in those games are priority goals for him.

The point is that we need to be realistic. This “problem” has been around a lot longer than the entitled batters and the octopus bullpens filled with mutant power arms and PITCHf/x and the “foul everything off” strategy and Moneyball and a host of other things that get blamed. Baseball has been evolving toward a slower, more “boring” game for years. It means the forces that are driving that evolution are probably deep, systemic forces that are much harder to change than a couple of minor rule tweaks might solve.

What if the real reason that players are a bit slower is that media coverage has intensified and that players are now expected to interact with fans more than they were 40 years ago? That might leave them just the tiniest extra bit tired. What if the death of the scheduled doubleheader—which means fewer travel days—makes for more fatigue as the season goes along? What if the reason that we have more strikeouts is that, despite all the concern about pitcher injuries claiming so many young arms, the same advances that make Tommy John surgery possible are actually keeping young arms healthier to the point where the game has actually slowly been over-run with pitching?

It’s possible that with a few of those tweaks, we’ll see some minor progress, but again, I think we need a more sober view of what “progress” looks like. It might be a couple of minutes and basically just holding the line against further spread of the disease. It’s trying to curtail the symptoms, rather than addressing the root cause. Maybe there is no treating the root cause. This might be a fight against evolution. That’s a hard one to win.