WADE BABINEAU EDITORIAL CARTOON: Saturday, March 28, 2020
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WASHINGTON —There has been no lack of stories in the baseball postseason. The hard-luck Washington Nationals suddenly becoming the anti-Nats and steamrolling their opponents. The tragedy of Clayton Kershaw and the schadenfreude of the New York Yankees. The fascinatingly inept PR disaster that is the Houston Astros.
But there is one story that should dominate all discussion at the World Series: good heavens these games are long. It is a crisis. It also might not have a solution.
On Friday night, the Astros beat the Nationals 4-1 in Game 3 to climb back into the Series. It was a game that had much of what makes playoff baseball exciting: tense battles, high-leverage moments, Baby Shark.
It was also an interminable slog. The game took four hours and three minutes from first pitch to last. That is longer than Avengers: Endgame, or any of the Lord of the Rings films, even the extended editions with the bonus orcs.
According to Baseball Reference, it was the first time in Series history that a nine-inning game with five runs or fewer took four-plus hours to complete.
According to Baseball Reference, it was the first time in Series history that a nine-inning game with five runs or fewer took four-plus hours to complete
There have been just nine World Series games in 116 years that went nine innings and took more than four hours, again according to Baseball Reference. Two of them have taken place in this still-truncated Series. On Saturday night, Houston’s 8-1 win, which evened the World Series at 2-2, was a relatively brisk three hours and 48 minutes — still about 45 minutes longer than an average game this past season.
Why is this still happening, especially at a time when baseball’s pace-of-play issues have long been a point of discussion?
Game 3, conveniently, provided a distillation of many of the current problems. Washington and Houston combined to use 10 pitchers, which reflects a modern trend. In 2019, teams combined to use just under nine pitchers per game, on average. That is up almost two pitchers per game since 20 years ago. The pitchers-per-game number has risen in each of the past six seasons.
But the number of pitches that are being thrown by all these guys is also increasing. There were 3.93 pitches per plate appearance in 2019, the fourth straight season in which that number has ticked upward, and the highest number in the 20-plus years it has been tracked. This is a direct result of popular tendencies in which batters try to work long counts and pitchers try to avoid contact. On Friday night at Nationals Park, the combination of nibbling Houston pitchers and patient Washington hitters led to an absurd 4.6 pitches per plate appearance.
On more statistic about Friday’s Game 3: the average time between pitches was almost 24 seconds, an increase of about two seconds from the regular-season average.
All of this is how games that start just past 8 local time end up finishing past midnight.
Dave Martinez, the Washington manager, joked on Saturday that he could have used a couple cups of coffee in the dugout. Haha, funny guy, how about you tell the fellas to swing the damn bats?
None of this is new or unexpected. Major League Baseball and the players’ union agreed to a rule for next season that will see pitchers required to face at least three batters, unless they finish an inning. And commissioner Rob Manfred has been a big advocate of a pitch clock, but a 20-second clock that was tried in spring training was abandoned and won’t be considered again until 2021 at the earliest.
But even those kinds of fixes, much like the move to make the intentional walk an immediate thing instead of a four-pitch sequence, won’t have as much of an impact on the lengths of games as the recent fundamental changes to the sport that cannot simply be reversed.
Teams use more pitchers now not because there aren’t enough tough farm boys anymore — as much as one might be wistful for Nolan Ryan pitching until his arm fell off — but because they all know that pitchers have a drop off in performance once hitters have already seen them twice. And when starters come out of the game earlier, it is more likely to lead to a parade of relievers who throw hard, but not for long. Teams would rather carry a pile of short-inning relievers than a crafty veteran who might work five innings at a spell once a week. So, something like the three-batter minimum might sound like it would have a noticeable effect, but consider the events of Friday night, when the Astros used six pitchers: five of them faced at least three batters, and the sixth, Josh James, struck out the only batter he faced to end an inning. The new rule would have made zero difference.
What, then, is baseball to do? It can’t force hitters to swing more, nor require managers to leave their starters in longer, not when such changes would run contrary to modern, evidence-based strategy. But something must be done, and the only realistic solutions might be the kinds of drastic changes that the sport has been reluctant to implement. The fiddles that MLB have attempted so far have been overwhelmed by the tectonic shifts in the way baseball is played.
And, so: Robot umpires that would deliver a consistent strike zone and quicker at-bats? Shorter leadoffs and a ban on pick-off moves? A restriction on the number of foul balls per batter?
Ned Yost, the recently retired Kansas City Royals manager and an old-school baseball lifer, answered a few questions about pace of play in spring training before he became a little grumpy.
“Make it a seven-inning game,” he said. “That’ll speed it up.”
He was kidding. But he might not be wrong.
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