Thursday, June 7, 2018

Revisiting the Pace of Play in MLB

Back in April 2014, I wrote about the slow pace of play that was affecting MLB. To summarize that article, the first three weeks of the 2014 season saw baseball at its slowest and dullest, at least by two statistics that I use: Pitches Per Minute (PPM), which measures the pace of the game; and Runs Per Hour (RPH) which can be used to quantify "excitement". Although I wrote that article early in the season, the numbers held up - with 1.55 PPM, 2014 was the slowest MLB season on record, while the 2.61 RPH figure was the lowest ever. To compare, RPH was 2.68 in the 1968 season, which was so friendly to pitchers that the mound was lowered in 1969 (and RPH jumped 20%, the largest year-on-year increase in history). Obviously RPH is an arbitrary way of determining whether a baseball game is exciting (I prefer pitchers' duels), but it did tell a story - fans were spending more time at the ballpark and seeing less action.

Well, I'm sure that MLB saw that article, because they changed something (juicing the balls perhaps) and runs per game jumped, going from 8.13 in 2014 to 9.29 last year. But games remained long, with games averaging 3:08 (3:05 for 9-inning affairs) in 2017. Worried that baseball was losing younger fans, Commissioner Rob Manfred instituted significant rule changes aimed at reducing game times (limiting teams to six mound visits per game, for example) starting this year. With the season over a third of the way complete, I thought it would be worth investigating if these new rules have changed the pace of the game.

First, it is important to understand the difference between the length of games and the pace of play, related terms that are used interchangeably in the media but are distinct. Pace of play measures how fast a game moves, while the length of the game is how long it takes from first pitch to final out. A long game need not necessarily be played at a slow pace - game time is a function of many things, including the number of pitches, pitching changes, reviews, manager arguments, injuries, etc. That is why I use PPM to measure the actual pace of a baseball game. For me, a PPM around 1.67 (300 pitches in 3 hours or a pitch every 36 seconds) indicates a good pace; under 1.6 is noticeably slower and over 1.75 is quite fast.

The first chart below shows that game times have slowly increased since 2005, with a slight decrease so far this season to 3:04 (2:59 for 9-inning affairs). Note that all data is sourced from Baseball Reference for games up to and including June 6.

Meanwhile, pitches per game has remained fairly stable until 2015, but has risen recently, with last year's 296.4 the highest, though this year's 298.3 will surpass even that.

Over the years, games were getting longer and pitch counts were range-bound, so pace had to be decreasing and the chart below shows that, including the low point in 2014. Last year wasn't much better at 1.577. But with the pace-of-play changes implemented in 2018, PPM has increased to 1.614, the fastest since 1.656 in 2011. So it looks like the rule changes are having some impact on the actual pace of play. It remains to be seen if the trend will continue, but I have seen some great games recently where the PPM was above 1.7 and it is much more fun to watch when pitchers are actually pitching.

Finally, let's take a look at Runs per Hour. Interestingly, this statistic is dropping this year despite shorter game times, as baseball has been relatively low scoring (RPG is 8.77 so far). There are a number of possible reasons for this drop, including cold weather early in the season and the increase in strikeouts. I don't think that MLB can do much more to change the game, so it will be worth following this stat over the next few years.

Overall, however, it seems like MLB has weathered its least entertaining period in history with no adverse effects. The 2014 season was terrible for fans who actually pay attention to the game (almost nobody from what I can tell when I attend) and baseball made some changes to improve the pace of the game. So far, those changes are working but with so many other fundamental parts of the game also changing (strikeouts exceeding hits, relievers starting, etc.), the overall impact of pace-of-play rules remains to be seen. I'll check back again in 2022.



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