Is Baseball Too Slow?

Passing the time with America’s Pastime

The term “America’s Pastime” used to be an indicator of preeminence, a way of communicating baseball’s important place in American culture. Though it referred to the “past,” its real message was about the present.

That’s all changed, now. “America’s Pastime” has never been more apt as a literal description.

The term still applies, of course. But it’s no longer about baseball’s place now; it’s entirely about something that was once the case that clearly no longer is.

After spending the last 25 years being usurped by football as America’s Game, eulogies for baseball were offered widely and often. But was there something intrinsic to baseball that caused this decline?

Perhaps it was a self-inflicted wound: arguments arrived suggesting it was the steroid-era that led to widespread disaffection with the sport.

Maybe. But other top sports had similar episodes. The NBA had some seriously destabilizing strikes, yet that hasn’t stopped the NBA Finals from consistently drawing more viewers than the MLB World Series in recent years.

(Paulsen)

Though this chart is true as far as it goes, it doesn’t take us into the present. Leave it to the Lovable Losers to save baseball from its impending doom.

Last October, for the first time since 2009, the World Series averaged more viewers than the NBA Finals, cracking 30 million viewers in a single game (Game 7) for the first time since 1998. Let’s put that achievement in perspective:

Compared to other sports, Game 7 earned a larger audience than any basketball game on record — topping the NBA’s all-time high of 35.9 million for Game 6 of the Bulls/Jazz NBA Finals and college basketball’s record of 35.1 million for Michigan State/Indiana State in the 1979 national championship. It topped every college football game since at least 1991, surpassing the high water mark of 35.6 million for USC/Texas in 2006. It also topped the largest hockey audience in U.S. television history, 34.2 million for United States/Russia in the 1980 Winter Olympics semifinal (a.k.a. the Miracle on Ice), and the largest soccer audience in this country, 26.7 million for last year’s Women’s World Cup Final.

It certainly could be the case that this upswing (pun intended!) is a result of baseball entering a new golden era. Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Kris Bryant, Manny Machado, and Giancarlo Stanton are all either in their primes or beginning their primes.

But it also could be the case that a single storyline — Can the Cubs finally break their longstanding curse and win again? — is skewing the numbers. In other words, will the NBA, which has a good chance of seeing the Cavs paired up against the Warriors in the Finals once again, really fail to outdraw a competition which after the Red Sox and Cubs ended their droughts can no longer count on a storyline as alluring?

In point of fact the MLB has been wrestling with the question of how to shorten the length of baseball games.

This is not an insider discussion; baseball’s interminable nature has entered the wider discussion. Just the other day, on Ezra Klein’s podcast, renown economist Tyler Cowen went on about how baseball is too damn long.

While the NFL and NBA have made adjustments to their respective sports — sports, which, from a neutral perspective are naturally more fast-paced than baseball is to begin with — baseball’s sluggish pace has largely remained unchanged.

As America’s national pastime, baseball’s present is inextricably tied to its past, feeding off tradition and nostalgia, leading to a strong expectation of immutability. Herein lies the heart of baseball’s dilemma: Change the sport, lose the tradition and nostalgia; Keep the sport, fail to keep up with other sports leagues.

But even if the MLB desired change, what could this change look like? Then again, we’ve assumed pace is a problem — it could be that there are other reasons for baseball’s downward trend, popularity-wise.

According to ESPN, the average time of a nine-inning game has increased from 2 hours, 33 minutes, in 1981, to a record 3 hours, 26 seconds last year. Look no further than Game 2 of the World Series: On the game’s biggest stage, the Cubs and Indians played a 5–1 game that took four hours and four minutes to complete. This makes it hard to accept pushback against the notion that baseball is not actually all that slow.

But this discussion tends to confuse two separate features of the sport: its length and its pace.

What amplifies the sense of slowness, beyond just the length of the game, is the pace at which it is played. From our perspectives, the lengthy intervals in between action on the field adds to the awareness of time’s passing.

Last month, the MLB announced a series of rule modifications that would help increase pace of play.

Only time will tell if the new rules will help shorten the length of games. In the meantime, The New York Times invited staff writers and their readers to offer suggestions (some of which they published earlier this month), and were inundated with ideas ranging from the reasonable (more strict enforcement of time outs during at bats) to the unrealistic (actually lop off innings of play, or make it two strikes and you’re out).

With regard to the latter, it is a non starter to suggest baseball make such a drastic change as change the rule from three strikes to two. It would ruin the statistical integrity of the game, effectively ushering in a new sport whose statistics are no longer commensurable with past ones.

The ideas mainly focused on one area —length of time between each pitch —which was attributed to three factors:

  • Pitcher routines between pitches
  • Batter routines (e.g., stepping out of the box)
  • Mound visits

Last season, the game’s pace slowed to 22.7 seconds per pitch, the second slowest pace in the PITCHf/x era. Nine years ago, it was at 21.7 seconds per pitch. Granted, it may be 1 second, but one more second in between every pitch leads to a much longer game, to say nothing of how it extends the season.

To put things into perspective, a six-pitch at-bat in 2016 took 2 minutes and 16 seconds to complete; while the same at-bat was done in 2 minutes and 10 seconds in 2008. Obviously, six more seconds per plate-appearance is a lot in the long run.

The MLB touched on the three main ideas in the New York Times piece during their 2014 Arizona Fall League adjustments. Unfortunately, none of the rules were adopted. With that said, it’s obvious that if implemented, each rule would help the sport shorten length of games.

According to MLB.com, the six rule implementations went as follows:

1. 20-Second Rule

Requires the pitcher to deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives the ball with the bases unoccupied. The penalty prescribed for a pitcher’s violation of the Rule is that the umpire shall call “Ball.”

2. Batter’s Box Rule

The batter shall keep at least one foot in the batter’s box throughout his at-bat, unless one of a series of established exceptions occurs, in which case the batter may leave the batter’s box but not the dirt area surrounding home plate. (Exceptions include a foul ball or a foul tip; a pitch forcing the batter out of the batter’s box; “time” being requested and granted; a wild pitch or a passed ball; and several others.)

3. No-Pitch Intentional Walk

In the event a team decides to intentionally walk a batter, no pitches shall be thrown. Instead, the manager shall signal to the home plate umpire with four fingers, and the batter should proceed to first base to become a runner.

4. 2:30 Inning Break Clock

There shall be a maximum 2:30 break between innings. Hitters must enter the batter’s box between the 2:00 and 2:15 marks. If the batter has not entered the box by 2:15, the Umpire should call an automatic strike. When the batter is set by the appropriate time and the pitcher fails to begin his windup before the conclusion of the 2:30 period, the Umpire should call a ball.

5. 2:30 Pitching Change Break Clock

There shall be a maximum 2:30 break for pitching changes, including pitching changes that occur during an inning break. The first pitch must be thrown before the conclusion of the 2:30 period or the umpire shall call a ball. The clock shall start when the new pitcher enters the playing field (i.e., crosses the warning track, or foul line).

6. Three “Time Out” Limit

Each team shall be permitted only three “Time Out” conferences per game (including extra innings). Such conferences shall include player conferences with the pitcher (including the catcher), manager or coach conferences with the pitcher, and coach conferences with a batter. Conferences during pitching changes, and time outs called as a result of an injury or other emergency, shall not be counted towards this limit. A manager, coach or player will not be permitted to call a fourth time out in violation of this Rule. In such cases, the game will continue uninterrupted, and offenders may be subject to discipline.

With these rules in place, the average game time decreased by ten minutes.

Does shaving off ten minutes lead to more viewership, less boredom, and increased popularity? Who knows. Recall the distinction made earlier, though, between length and pace. So it absolutely seems true that 10 less minutes spent watching batters adjust equipment, pitchers fondle the rosin bag, and managers converse on the mound, wouldn’t hurt.

Let’s continue exploring the importance of this distinction. Put differently: the problem surrounding baseball’s slowness may not be its lack of speed, but rather the boredom that stems from its slow crawl. Therein lies the flipside to the “shorten the length of games” argument.

It’s not enough to shave a few minutes here and there; baseball is fundamentally a more slow-moving affair than other sports. Football can, on occasion, challenge baseball in this regard. But its action is more intense, when it happens, then baseball’s action is.

Alva Noë, a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, touched on this idea in a piece for NPR. While he agrees that baseball is boring, Noe attributes this factor to the same thing that makes classical music or physics boring — it’s difficult.

It takes not only experience, but also curiosity and patience to realize what’s at play in a baseball game. For one who can perceive all this, the game is anything but slow. In fact, it’s way too fast. You’ve got to be quick to keep track of what’s going on so that you don’t get stuck making decisions too late. The game has evolved techniques of distributed decision making. Managers signal catchers who guide pitchers; they relay messages to coaches who communicate with hitters and runners and fielders

Of course it’s a slow sport. It’s gotta be slow. Given its structure, the game cannot be ramped up anymore without sacrificing quality of play and its strategic component.

The players and fans don’t see it as boring. Perhaps new fans can’t easily be convinced its pace is perfect, or that it is worth the time spent on getting into it, but that’s different from making the absolute declaration that it is slow and boring.

For the Times readers who shared this sentiment, their answer basically was: baseball isn’t checkers; it’s a game of chess. As one reader, Barbara Ames, put it:

Baseball feasts on strategy. The visits to the mound; the stepping out of the box; the examination of the ball, the pre-inning warm-up tosses — all of it gives us the chance to restart our thoughts about how the next half inning is going to play out. The pitcher’s toss to hold a man on base provides an opportunity for something exciting to happen that can change the game.

But baseball need not be enjoyed only by ultra-strategy types. The truth is, there are many types of people who should be able to enjoy the leisurely pace of a baseball game. You don’t go to a game because you’re in a hurry. You go to one to relax and watch how it all unfolds. One of the great things about baseball is that there is no clock. You get to chill out, have a conversation or two, and take what amounts to a mini-vacation. Now more than ever, it offers an escape from our time-obsessed lives.

For the baby-boomers who grew up with television as their main medium of entertainment, watching a baseball game didn’t require any effort. And there wasn’t much else on anyway. Today’s viewers — and especially Millennials and Gen Z-ers — reckon with a thousand different viewing options, and an endless buffet of attention-dominating, or at least attention-diffusing, forms of entertainment.

In that sense, perhaps baseball is a game out of its time. Structurally, it would ruin it too much to ramp its pace up in meaningful ways. But culturally it cannot compete with sports and other forms of entertainment more action-packed and deliberately faster.

If we can’t agree on pace of play, we can at least agree with Dennis Shields from Platteville, Wisconsin.

The Cubs finally win a World Series and now we decide baseball is broken? Let’s have the Cubs win another before we declare baseball in trouble.

Wait, that’s not going to take another 108 years, will it?

Berny Belvedere contributed to this story.