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MLB Finds Time Can Move Slow

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May 21, 2017

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The view from here is the average time of a nine inning major league baseball game appears similar to the continual complaining about the 60,000 page federal tax code—not much seems to change.

Typical games last over three hours and some “marathons” push toward four hours or beyond.  A review of this morning’s 11 box scores for nine inning games in the Star Tribune showed six lasting over three hours, and five under that total.  All the three hour games were at least three hours and 20 minutes, with the longest game clocking in at 3:50.  The times for the games under three hours were: 2:35, 2:52, 2:52, 2:56 and 2:58.

These times are typical of MLB games and there are days when games played in under three hours are minimal.  Decades ago games weren’t so lengthy, with three hour affairs a rarity. Common were games that lasted around two hours and 30 minutes, or less.

Fans and owners have been wrestling with the problem of lengthy games for years.  Back in 2010, Baseball Prospectus reported games lasted an average of 2:55, but by 2014 the average was 3:08.  The next year MLB decided to enforce rules speeding up games and for the 2015 season the average came in at 2:56, according to an October 2015 A.P. story.  The average before the All-Star Game was 2:53 but after the mid-season break the average was three hours.

In 2016 the average game was back to three hours, according to an October 15 article by the New York Times that credited Baseball-Reference.com.  The Times story pointed out the Nationals-Dodgers five-game playoff series last fall averaged over four hours and there was an inning that lasted 66 minutes.  Times writer Benjamin Hoffman noted that in 1919 the Giants and Phillies played a nine inning game in 51 minutes.

MLB seems to have periods of lacking willpower in enforcing rules to speed up games.

St. Paul Saints owner Mike Veeck told Sports Headliners three hours is the “magic” number to avoid. Veeck, known as one of baseball’s great marketers during a career that included front office assignments with the White Sox and Rays, spoke about ways to speed things up.  He said there should be 90 seconds between innings (instead of two minutes or more).  He also emphasized there needs to be enforcement of 20 seconds or less between pitches, and hitters can’t be allowed to fiddle away time by stepping out of the batter’s box.

“The umpires have to have more say on the field, and the owners have to back them up,” Veeck said.

Mike Veeck

Veeck suggested owners know they can sell a lot more popcorn and beer during a long game than a short one.  There are also other revenue streams like team stores in stadiums that help line the pockets of owners.

While a captive audience for a long game can mean more cash for the home club, baseball runs the risk of alienating fans. Many fans find a long game boring.  Baseball is a leisurely game to watch and while it can be relaxing at 2:30, it may become tedious when it’s an hour or more longer.

MLB teams play 81 home dates and the fan who wants to attend several games or more has to consider the time investment.  Allow a couple of hours to go to and from a game, then add on nearly four hours at the ball park, and that becomes a hefty time investment for some folks to make several times per year.

“I think this is one instance where you have to absolutely do what’s right by the fans,” Veeck said. “If we are losing attention span, then we have to speed it up any way we can.”

Baseball should particularly fret about getting in front of younger generations with their limited attention spans.  A new marketing tactic is that Facebook is partnering with MLB to broadcast 20 Friday night games this season.

Twins general manager Thad Levine thinks baseball can look at things to speed the game up like requiring a pitcher to face more than one batter in an inning.  His suggestion is more than valid because often the No. 1 factor in making for long games is the parade of pitchers used over nine innings.  Baseball purists won’t like it, and Levine didn’t offer it, but certainly another way to speed up the game would be to limit the total number of pitchers than can be used in an inning.

During a conversation with Sports Headliners Levine placed emphasis on the question of what baseball leaders can do to make games more “compelling,” not necessarily faster. He said the effectiveness of relief pitching often means outcomes of games are pretty much determined by the sixth inning or so.  The depth and quality of bullpens frequently neutralizes offenses.  Football and basketball have more late game drama and heroics.

Despite critics who insist baseball is too long and boring, the game remains popular.  More than half of the 30 MLB teams are drawing 28,000 fans per game or more, with eight clubs attracting over 35,000, according to ESPN.com.  Those attendance numbers could continue to climb as summer approaches, and also because MLB has a bumper crop of exciting players.

The star list is long, impressive and youthful led by the likes of superstar outfielders Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. “I think the game is in a terrific place right now in the sense that there is just such a slew of young, exciting players in the game,” Levine said.

The Twins don’t have a superstar but third baseman Miguel Sano, 24, might qualify some day.  Sano is part of a Twins youth movement that shows promise on the field and for selling tickets for a franchise that has seen home attendance decline every season since 2010. Sano and centerfielder Byron Buxton, 23, were named this month to Keith Laws’ best under 25 list for ESPN.com.   Pitcher Jose Berrios, 22, looks like he has star power, too.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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