Major League Baseball has hunted for ways to speed the game up. The pitch clock, not allowing hitters to step out of the batter’s box in between pitches, just generally encouraging everyone to hurry up. Almost anything to shave seconds.
The games were too slow, too long, too dull in an era of instant gratification. Baseball was trying to keep up. Feedback from everywhere was showing how necessary it was to find a process to make games faster.
They were making progress, if only modestly. But, this year has produced a significant slow down. Nationals games are rarely less than three hours. The players have noticed. The manager has noticed. Time of game this season has become a warning shot of what the future may be like if the designated hitter and three-batter minimum stick in the National League.
“We all want to play 2:40 games,” Max Scherzer said.
The Nationals have played 45 games this season. Three went to extra innings, one was called after six innings. So, they have played 42 full games.
Of those, just 17.1 percent -- or seven of them -- have been played in less than three hours. Three of those seven were seven innings as part of doubleheaders. The shortest nine-inning Nationals game this season took 2:41.
Last year, 31.6 percent of the games finished in less than three hours. All were nine innings. The shortest nine-inning game was 2:15.
The same is true in the reverse. This year, 19.5 percent of non-extra-inning games have taken 3:30 or longer. Last year, that number was 14.8.
When asked, no one had a single, definitive answer as to why games are taking so much longer this season. Just theories and laments.
“One, DH,” Davey Martinez said. “Two, you notice pitchers are throwing a lot of pitches. A lot of pitches. I think it’s a combination of both. Our bullpen guys, when they come in the game, they’re over 20 pitches a lot of times when they come out. Starting pitchers have been throwing a lot of pitches….I can’t really put a finger on it. When you look at all the numbers at the end of the game, you’re looking at over 300 pitches for both teams [combined].”
The most egregious slog of the season was a 3:12 7-inning game between the Nationals and Braves. Washington won, 10-9. That’s a lot of runs for seven innings. It will stretch out the game.
However, the teams combined to throw 303 pitches in seven innings. Of those, 147 were strikes. Which means there were a lot of balls, but also a ton of pitches not put in play. The Nationals alone had 31 foul balls in the game.
“With all the foul balls that go on, I think that’s the main driver of our game time,” Scherzer said. “I don’t think anybody has figured out why pace of game has slowed over the years. I think we all have our thoughts. But, it’s just kind of the way baseball is played at this time. For me, I think the thing you can look at is the foul balls really do slow the game down and there’s just no way to get around that with the rest of the league throwing as hard as we do, the style of game play now is conducive to playing longer games. You’d love to figure out a way to get the games short, but no one’s figured that out, so good luck.”
The hope is a watered-down talent pool as a result of expanded rosters is also part of the issue. That goes away next year. The short preparation period for pitchers could also be contributing. That, too, goes away next year. The three-batter minimum for pitchers was supposed to speed up the game by cutting down on pitching changes. But, its intent has appeared to backfire. Pitchers who excelled more as specialists either give up hits now or are unable to put away hitters quickly. They are dealing with more difficult matchups. The result has been a rule that undermined its intent.
A few changes alone won’t dial time of game back to 2019 levels. The DH instead of pitchers hitting is guaranteed to prolong the game. Many pitchers are focused on hard throwing as opposed to execution. It’s part of the reason foul balls are up. So, baseball’s pace and total time may be an unsolvable problem. The sport just needs to hope enough fans can swallow the continued slow down. If this season is any indication, the game is heading in the wrong direction.