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A Guaranteed Way To Shorten Baseball Games

November 15, 2016
Spoiler alert: The time it takes to play a Major League Baseball game isn't as long as you think.

Spoiler alert No. 2: Despite some radical changes in the rules (the designated hitter), strategy (relief pitchers) and disputes (replays), the game itself doesn't take much, if any, more time to play than it did 50 years ago.

Sound preposterous? Impossible? It isn't. It just seems like it, and therein lies the problem nobody seems able to identify. Even though he's been there a long time, three decades or longer, nobody sees, or wants to see, the elephant in the room. It's called commercial time.

So here comes the public service announcement: An ironclad guarantee to reduce the length of a Major League Baseball game by at least 17 minutes. Based on average length of nine-inning games the last three years (3:02 in 2014; 2:56 in 2015; 3:01 in 2016) that would put baseball in the 2:40-2:45 range -- about the same as the theatre, opera or movies, where performances end the same way every night.

It would be drastic, but it's really a relatively simple task -- getting the average time back to where it was in the 1960s and 1970s. If MLB is serious, really serious, about getting the time of the game comfortably below three hours, then it will stop worrying about the pace and spend more time dealing with the down (dead) time, the 16 or 17 intervals between innings. 

And with the highest TV-rated World Series in the last 25 years, this would seem to be the perfect time. If baseball is honest, really honest, and admits it can't go there, then it's time to admit it's not just selling the game, but the event, the total entertainment package. In other words, the spring/summer/fall version of the NFL. It has gotten to that point with postseason ticket prices and is getting close during the regular season, so the time has come to either ‘fess up or cut time.

It took a while -- more than a century and a half if you count concurrent years -- but baseball finally got its classic matchup of "Lovable Losers" in the 2016 World Series. It came with a guaranteed "feel good" ending for everybody. Well, almost everybody.

It would've been better in 2004 if the Boston Red Sox (86 years) had met the Chicago Cubs (then at 96 and counting), but nobody's complaining. Well, almost nobody.

The pairing of the Cubs, who last won a World Series in 1908, and the Cleveland Indians, without a ring since 1948, provided enough droughts for anybody. That it managed to go seven games and end with a pulsating finish did wonders for the game, not to mention the TV ratings that lagged in recent years.

It also emphasized that, when games are exciting, it's more important than how well they are played or how long they take. Game 7, won 8-7 by the Cubs in 10 innings, was not classically played, but it had a near-perfect setting that made the four hours and 28 minutes it took to play tolerable. And therein lies the major complaint about the only team game without a time limit.

The length of Game 7 exposed a touchy subject for MLB, which seems to spend as much time trying to figure out how to speed it up as it does promoting the overall product. Let's face it, MLB has been trying to speed up the game for three decades, ever since it decided to slow it down, for obvious commercial reasons. Now the concern is more about the pace than it is about time.

In 1950, when TV was a novelty, radio broadcasts were still in infancy and "commercial time" was 65 seconds, the average time of a game was 2:23. By 1964, the average climbed to 2:35, and by 1984, it was 2:40, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. 

We need to pay attention and do some math here. In 1985, with cable TV now a major player, baseball decreed there would be a minimum of two minutes between each half inning. Minimum is the key word. Those numbers have climbed as high as 2:25 for local and 2:45 for national broadcasts.

Two years ago, with average game time of 3:02, MLB used what it called "creative ways" to improve the pace of the game. Time limits were put on pitchers and hitters to be ready when games came out of commercial breaks, admittedly a good idea. They helped cut the average time by six minutes, only to have the 2016 average creep back to 3:01, according to Elias.

But we're still tap-dancing around the issue here: the built-in delay of game. The time of game has increased in direct proportion to the increase in commercial time. I've researched scores of stories about baseball game times, and I haven't seen one that brings time of commercial breaks into play.

Here's the "non-creative" way to speed up the game: go back to 65- or 95-second breaks after each half-inning, or even 95 and 125 seconds if that's too drastic. Try that and see if it doesn't work a lot better than a 12-second pitch clock (still a good idea). It really isn't that big of a deal. In an age when vocal ("tonight's lineups brought to you by ABC plumbers," "the ABC brewing company seventh-inning stretch") or visual (backstop ads clearly visible from the main centerfield camera) advertisements are already infringing on the broadcasts, somebody needs to find a way to "creatively" cut back on the actual time play is suspended.

But here's another, maybe even bigger, kicker -- the elephant in the room has a friend, a very big friend. It's the Jumbo Scoreboard, where all those cute and sponsored, in-game segments (think Kiss Cam, Crab Shuffle, etc.) are displayed. Teams need those extra minutes to provide entertainment for spectators who complain the games are too long. 

MLB has put the onus on the players to pick up the pace, to the point of threatening $500 fines on flagrant violators. But it's hard to point fingers when the game has its own version of a "Four Corners" offense. 

I appreciate MLB commissioner Rob Manfred's concern for the game, but when he talks about drastic rule changes, like outlawing the shift or making the intentional walk automatic, I'm not sure how much he understands it. To be fair, he always uses the phrase "under consideration," which is never a bad approach, but there is always fear marketing people could influence the game.

The commissioner might not need or want my advice, but it's free, so here it is: The game is fine. Leave it alone. If you feel a need to speed it up, start at the top.

Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com.

Issue 227: November 2016