Why baseball games are so damned long
On April 13, 1984, the Mets played the Cubs at Wrigley Field. The home team won, 11-2. Both teams combined to throw 270 pitches. Both teams combined to allow 27 baserunners, and 74 batters came to the plate. There was exactly one mid-inning pitching change.
On April 17, 2014, the Brewers played the Pirates at PNC Park. The home team won, 11-2. Both teams combined to throw 268 pitches. Both teams combined to allow 27 baserunners, and 75 batters came to the plate. There was exactly one mid-inning pitching change.
The game from 1984 lasted two hours and 31 minutes.
The game from 2014 lasted three hours and six minutes.
Our goal is to figure out where the extra 35 minutes came from.
This isn’t a perfect, peer-reviewed experiment. It will not prove anything definitively. No two games are ever the same, of course, with different hiccups and quirks mixed between the balls and strikes. Just because the games are nearly identical, that doesn’t mean this is an unimpeachable answer as to why baseball games are longer.
But as many of the variables were eliminated as possible. Even though the best source for vintage baseball games was eliminated by copyright ninjas, I still found a full game from 1984 with commercials on YouTube. The MLB.tv game from 2014 didn’t have the original commercials, but it did have the same timing of the original commercial breaks.
Why are modern baseball games so much longer? Is it because of extra commercials? Batters fidgeting with their batting gloves? On-field delays? Slow home-run trots? It has to be the commercials, right?
We aim to find out, and we’ll go inning-by-inning. (You can skip to the end for the conclusion, but you’ll miss old commercials, Harry Caray quotes, and a picture of a kid picking his nose.)
The first thing we need to do is get the ol’ ballgame up on the Smart Set.
Steve Trout starts for the Cubs, and he’s facing a 19-year-old Dwight Gooden, who’s making his second career start. Pretty sure I wouldn’t have gotten a ballgame this interesting if it wasn’t for the Smart Set picking it out.
Over in the game from 2014, there is not a 19-year-old Dwight Gooden. There is Edinson Volquez and Yovani Gallardo. Adjust your expectations accordingly.
The announcers for Cubs/Mets are Harry Caray and Steve Stone. Let’s check in with Stone as he describes Gooden:
STONE: (Gooden) reminds me of a Bob Gibson, but he has better control.
That’s something we would have joked about on Twitter on for an entire day, except he wasn’t wrong! Gooden was brilliant before the innings caught up to him, and there might not be a better example of bottled lightning in baseball history. He did have superior control to Gibson at the same age, and he was an instant demigod, the platonic ideal of what a pitcher should be.
Let’s check in with Harry Caray in the first inning:
CARAY: By the way, Gary Matthews and his family are looking for a two- or three-bedroom apartment, preferably in a high-rise. Anybody who’s interested in renting their apartment or home, please contact the Cubs’ public relations office at 281-6955.
If you rent your apartment to Gary Matthews, he’ll leave you some free passes to the game now and then.
This probably still applies, so maybe everyone reading this should call the Cubs’ PR and let them know about Craigslist, just in case he’s still looking.
Trout sets the Mets down quietly in the first inning of the 1984 game, but Gooden gives up a run on a double and a single.
Volquez gives up a two-out RBI single in the first inning of the 2014 game, and Gallardo allows a long, gorgeous home run to Andrew McCutchen, who makes baseball better when he’s at his best. Make baseball better again, Andrew McCutchen.
|Combined pitches (inning)||40||36|
|Combined pitches (game)||40||36|
|Batters faced (game)||9||11|
|Runs scored (game)||1||3|
|Commercial time (game)||4m 29s||4m 37s|
|Time of inning||17m 9s||21m 52s|
|Time of game||21m 38s||26m 29s|
Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh
Ha ha, that rascal. It’s a good lesson, though. When life gives you "my legacy is tethered to that time I committed an unusual, horrific assault," make "my legacy is tethered to that time I committed an unusual, horrific assault"-ade!
A relatively quiet inning, with neither team scoring.
I guess if we’re going to pass the time, let’s listen to some more Harry Caray. Oh, he has someone in the booth with him!
CARAY: HEY, LISTEN, never mind that sweet talk. Bobby … Uncle Bobby Collins, with his arm around Denise Cannon, first, awbdwirrbl, to heck with you, Bobby, I want to talk to Denise.
POOR DENISE: Alright, hi, Harry!
CARAY: Is the (Cubs’ home) opener the lead story on the 9:00 news?
POOR DENISE: Well, it certainly should be, it’s an exciting day, and the weather permitted us to be here.
CARAY: Grmdrmuorplm, did you have anything to do with the other pretty girls the Cubs hired here?
POOR DENISE, NERVOUS: No, but I’m glad that they’re here? They’re, uh, beautiful ladies.
CARAY: You look terrific.
Good work, ‘80s.
Also, it’s really, really, REALLY hard not to imagine Will Ferrell saying all of this.
|Combined pitches (inning)||21||24|
|Combined pitches (game)||61||60|
|Batters faced (game)||16||15|
|Runs scored (game)||1||3|
|Commercial time (game)||8m 52s||9m 22s|
|Time of inning||8m 15s||11m 3s|
|Time of game||34m 16s||42m 17s|
The Brewers had a little action, getting a Ryan Braun double and a Jonathan Lucroy single, reminding us that, good gravy, they used to be a very talented team with exceptional players.
Other than that, though, both innings are quiet.
Let’s check back in with Harry Caray:
CARAY: Here’s our new camera position, it can show you the keister of John Vukovich quite often.
CARAY: You sure get some good shots, Artie.
This actually happened in the first inning, but I didn’t want to overwhelm you.
|Combined pitches (inning)||24||35|
|Combined pitches (game)||85||95|
|Batters faced (game)||23||28|
|Runs scored (game)||1||4|
|Commercial time (game)||13m 16s||14m 21s|
|Time of inning||10m 3s||19m 10s|
|Time of game||48m 44s||1h 6m 25s|
The fourth inning is quiet in Pittsburgh, but it’s when the Mets light themselves on fire.
To be fair to Doc Gooden, there were a couple of hard-luck hits, and there were also a couple of questionable calls, including on a pitch that could have been a strike three and changed the whole inning. Considering that Gooden went 16-8 with a 2.40 ERA after this game, allowing a .538 OPS and striking out 267, I’m taking his side.
The Cubs keep hitting and hitting in this inning, with walks and singles, and a pitcher reaching on a hilarious bunt, and more singles. Gooden is removed from the game mid-inning, and there are step-offs, mound visits, pickoff throws, stolen bases, and caught-stealings. There are even boos for Leon Durham, who as far as I can tell committed the sin of being very good for the Cubs for years.
If this game happened in 2014, it would have taken four hours. As is …
|Combined pitches (inning)||56||31|
|Combined pitches (game)||141||126|
|Batters faced (game)||35||36|
|Runs scored (game)||6||4|
|Commercial time (game)||16m 52s||18m 42s|
|Time of inning||32m 39s||15m 13s|
|Time of game||1h 24m 59s||1h 25m 58s|
Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh …
His eyes are blurred out because I didn’t want to take the .001-percent chance that a throwaway joke in a dumb baseball article would ruin his life, but this kid is a hero.
The Cubs score a run, and neither of the other three teams do. This is important because it reminds us all that tedious innings weren’t invented in 2010. The Cubs scored their run on a quick Ron Cey homer — dude literally runs like a penguin, I thought that was some sort of obscure nickname — and their inning still took forever.
This is a reminder that there’s some boring that’s always folded into baseball, and it will never be taken out completely. There were boring innings when the games were 2½ hours, too.
|Combined pitches (inning)||34||25|
|Combined pitches (game)||175||151|
|Batters faced (game)||44||43|
|Runs scored (game)||7||4|
|Commercial time (game)||21m 11s||23m 28s|
|Time of inning||12m 47s||10m 43s|
|Time of game||1h 42m 5s||1h 41m 28s|
Meanwhile in Chicago:
STEVE STONE: Looks like that’s a great way to pick up radio signals.
STEVE STONE, BREAKING AN AWKWARD SILENCE, UNABLE TO CONTROL HIMSELF: Hard to eat peanuts with that thing, though.
Maybe we should just pass a law that television broadcasts shouldn’t show kids in the stands.
Leon Durham hit a triple to shut up the booing Cubs fans, and I sent some cheers back through time to support him.
Other than that, not much is going on. You’ll notice that the Brewers and Pirates are tied at 2-2, yet they’re nearly 17 minutes past the Cubs, who are leading 8-0 and had some long, long innings. This is because baseball games are too damned long now. We have conclusions below!
Milo Hamilton is in the booth for Harry Caray, who’s doing radio for the middle innings. Let’s check in with Milo:
HAMILTON: The Cubs are pleasing themselves and their fans this inning!
|Combined pitches (inning)||27||30|
|Combined pitches (game)||202||181|
|Batters faced (game)||52||50|
|Runs scored (game)||8||4|
|Commercial time (game)||25m 32s||28m 9s|
|Time of inning||9m 22s||16m 8s|
|Time of game||1h 55m 48s||2h 2m 17s|
In the Brewers-Pirates game, we have our first umpire review. I regret to inform you that it takes forever, just a little over four minutes. Considering that baseball is limiting reviews to two minutes now, feel free to lop two minutes off the 2014 game in this exercise.
However, that doesn’t explain everything. This inning also included …
- Eight pickoff attempts
- A batter stepping out because the pitcher was taking too long
- A mound conference
- A stolen base and an error on the throw
The pickoff attempts were lustily booed in the grandest of baseball traditions, and the Pirates end up scoring three runs. They were not a quick three runs.
The Cubs and Mets trade homers in their game, and it’s worth noting that home run trots took just as long then as they do now. They didn’t run around the bases like jackalopes back in the ‘80s, hoping to keep the spirit of unwritten rules. They took their sweet time, just like today.
I know, I’m disappointed, too.
|Combined pitches (inning)||35||40|
|Combined pitches (game)||237||221|
|Batters faced (game)||62||60|
|Runs scored (game)||12||7|
|Commercial time (game)||29m 30s||36m 30s|
|Time of inning||14m 16s||26m 24s|
|Time of game||2h 14m 2s||2h 37m 3s|
This was the big inning for the Pirates, the one where they scored six runs and broke the game open. There was a mound conference that took a healthy chunk of time, and Wei-Chung Wang looked like a Rule 5 pitcher who hadn’t pitched above Class A before the season and was left out to dry. Which he was.
This fits in perfectly for our comparison, though, as there are no mid-inning pitching changes in the inning. The 2014 game isn’t taking forever because of lefty-righty matchups. The managers in both games let their relievers take their lumps. Cross one theory off the list, at least for this game.
In the bottom of the eighth inning of the Cubs-Mets game, Jose Oquendo hurts his hand in the field. As the trainer helps him off, Steve Stone has thoughts:
STONE: This is a horrible blow for the Mets. Oquendo … is like Ozzie Smith with a better arm.
Now I don’t feel so bad about laughing at the Gibson/Gooden comparison earlier.
While it would have been even better if all four teams scored all of their runs in the same inning, for science, we’ll just have to deal with the Cubs having their big inning early and the Pirates having their big inning late.
|Combined pitches (inning)||18||39|
|Combined pitches (game)||255||260|
|Batters faced (game)||69||72|
|Runs scored (game)||13||13|
|Commercial time (game)||33m 13s||42m 36s|
|Time of inning||6m 42s||20m 45s|
|Time of game||2h 24m 26s||3h 3m 53s|
The Brewers were very, very committed to getting back to the hotel room, and I commend them for that. Eight pitches, six swings. This is how every 11-2 game should be in the ninth inning, with the trailing team actually trying to complete the comeback and playing normal baseball if they accidentally get, like, five hits in a row.
It still wasn’t enough to let the 1984 game catch up to the 2014 game. It wasn’t even close.
|Combined pitches (inning)||14||8|
|Combined pitches (game)||269||268|
|Batters faced (game)||74||75|
|Runs scored (game)||13||13|
|Commercial time (game)||33m 13s||42m 36s|
|Time of inning||5m 46s||3m 37s|
|Time of game||2h 30m 12s||3h 7m 17s|
What did we learn?
- Every man in Chicago is issued a tan trench coat or overcoat when he turns 30, and it is permanently attached to their upper torso. They are eventually buried in it.
- Milwaukee telecasts have a "Tavern of the Game" that are sponsored by the Tavern League of Wisconsin.
- Before Craigslist, announcers had to find apartments for new players in addition to their regular duties.
These are the most important takeaways, but you might be interested in the ones about the time of game.
Commercials aren’t the primary villain. They don’t help the pace of the modern game, but I figured that was going to be the half-hour difference right there, and the conclusion would be simple. But the 1984 game had 33 minutes and 13 seconds of commercials, and the 2014 game had 42 minutes and 36 seconds. Considering the times of the respective games, the older game actually devoted a similar chunk of their broadcast to time away from the action.
There’s a little bit of an asterisk here, though, as I’m defining "commercial" as the time that runs from the beginning of a commercial break to the first pitch of the next inning. If we’re talking about actual BUY GEICO, YOU MEATY ROBOTS time, the 1984 game featured 19 minutes and 17 seconds of actual ads, whereas the 2014 game had 28 minutes and 25 seconds.
Here's another asterisk: There was a mid-inning pitching change in both games, but only the 2014 game cut to a commercial. That's right: for nearly three minutes in 1984, the cameras just hung around, watching a dude warm up, as announcers talked about nothing and the network threw money out the window. It was somewhere between maddening and refreshing. So if you want to count that as a 1984 commercial, the gap shrinks even more.
Still, the 1984 game took a much longer time coming back from break to get the game started, which means that the players were mostly hanging around on the field, not playing baseball, roughly the same in both eras. They just got better at stuffing more ads in the telecast. It’s possible that this is a quirk of WGN, and that they wanted to make sure all of the different randos cycling through the booth had time to chat with Harry Caray before the first pitch.
Time between pitches is the primary villain. I tallied up all the pitches in both games that we’ll call inaction pitches — pitches that resulted in a ball, called strike, or swinging strike, but didn’t result in the end of an at-bat or the advancement of a runner. These are the pitches where the catcher caught the ball and threw it back to the pitcher, whose next step was to throw it back to the catcher. Foul balls didn’t count. The fourth ball of a plate appearance didn’t count. Stolen bases didn’t count. Wild pitches didn’t count. Just the pitches where contact wasn’t made, and the pitcher received a return throw from the catcher.
There were 146 inaction pitches in the 1984 game.
There were 144 of these pitches in the 2014 game.
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 is how a game can have an almost identical number of pitches thrown, batters faced, baserunners, hits, walks, strikeouts, and runs scored compared to another game, yet take more than a half-hour longer. This, plus the modest difference in commercial breaks, explains nearly everything. It took nine seconds longer for a pitcher to get rid of the ball in 2014.
In the 1984 game, there were 70 inaction pitches that were returned to the pitcher and thrown back to the plate within 15 seconds.
In the 2014 game, there were 10.
In the 1984 game, there were 32 balls, called strikes, or swinging strikes that took 20 seconds or more between pitches
In 2014, there were 87 balls, called strikes, or swinging strikes that took 20 seconds or more between pitches.
That’s it. That’s the secret. It isn’t just the commercials. It isn’t just the left-handed pitchers coming in to face one batter, even though that absolutely makes a huge difference in the games when that does happen.
It’s not like every at-bat in the 2014 game was rotten with hitters doing a Nomar Garciaparra impression between pitches, either. It was a marked difference in the modern players doing absolutely nothing of note. The batter taking an extra breath before he steps back in. The pitcher holding the ball for an extra beat.
There was a video review that took four minutes in the 2014 game, but that wasn’t the biggest problem. There were extra commercials, but that wasn’t the biggest problem. The difference between the two games, 30 years apart, was that baseball players are lollygagging more. Or, at least, taking their sweet time to collect their thoughts.
The good news? There’s an easy fix. Baseball is already experimenting with pitch clocks in the minors, and I haven’t heard or read a complaint about them from anyone who regularly attends minor league games. They’re in the background. You get used to them. That’s it.
Baseball will keep trying different ideas, from limiting pickoff throws to limiting mound visits. They’ve already messed with intentional walks, and umpire reviews are going to be less accurate but shorter. The 2014 game didn’t feature the new rules preventing hitters from stepping entirely out of the batter’s box on inaction pitches, which has already helped a bit.
Based on one unscientific deep dive into a pair of similar games, though, the biggest problem with the pace of play is, well, the pace of play. Pitchers don’t get rid of the ball like they used to. Hitters aren’t expecting them to get rid of the ball like they used to. It adds a couple minutes to every half-inning, which adds close to a half-hour.
Fix that, and you have a head start on what Major League Baseball believes is its biggest problem.
Now if you’ll excuse me, my Smart Set is telling me that the Olympics are coming on soon.
I can’t wait.