Maybe it's inevitable. Maybe it's unavoidable. Maybe it's simply built into the fabric of the sport. Maybe baseball games are just destined to take three hours to play. No matter what clocks are ticking. No matter what rules are changed. No matter what, period.
Maybe. Just don't tell that to the commissioner.
"I'm not prepared to accept the fact that we're always going to play three-hour games," MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said. "I think we need to continue to think about creative ways to make sure that the game moves along as quickly as possible."
Yeah, apparently. Because this sport is just a year removed from instituting a series of changes designed to, um, make sure that the game moves along as quickly as possible. And those moves actually did work. For a while.
At this exact stage of last season, the average nine-inning game was "zipping along" in a mere 2 hours, 53 minutes, 33 seconds. That was down more than eight minutes from the year before. But here we are just one year later, and guess what? That average has crept right back above the three-hour mark, to 3:00:26, an increase of nearly seven minutes per game.
That rise has left the commissioner frustrated. Imagine that.
"This topic is like dandelions," Manfred joked. "The minute you look the other way, you've got them all over your lawn."
So why is Manfred so convinced that this problem is fixable? Maybe because five years ago, the average game lasted about 2:52. And 10 years ago, it lasted 2:48. So he said again: "I am certainly not prepared to accept the fact that we cannot make progress on this issue."
But in order to fix it, baseball needs to diagnose the cause. So let's take a look at several popular theories and assess how valid they are.
Is it replay?
Replay reviews are up 35 percent compared with this time last year. So that's the big culprit, right? Sorry. Wrong!
If this were the NFL and that meant an increase from six replays a game to eight, then maybe. But despite widespread perception that there's a replay review every couple of innings, in fact the average team gets mixed up in only about four reviews per week. And on a full night of baseball (15 games), just 10 plays get reviewed on average.
So MLB has calculated that those additional replays are adding between 15 and 20 seconds per game to that sport-wide average. And yes, that figure was 15 to 20 seconds, when you divide the total additional time -- an extra two or three minutes in a couple of games -- by those 15 games per night.
In other words, replay does not explain seven additional minutes tacked onto the average game. But that's not the same as saying it's not a problem. Manfred expressed concern about the increasing number of replays. But it's the interminably long reviews that really drive him nuts.
"The 4-minute-and-50-second reviews don't make me that happy," he said, succinctly.
So baseball is looking into the number of replays and the time they take. Manfred intimated the sport will do what it can to address both issues before next season. But that's more a pace-of-game problem than a time-of-game problem.
In the meantime, if the mission is to diagnose where those seven extra minutes are coming from, the verdict is in: It isn't replay.
Is it the pitching?
OK, now we're onto something. Let's take a look at a few things besides replay reviews that have changed since last year:
Pitches per game: up more than six per game to 289.25, the most since 2009.
Walks per game: up 12 percent to 3.26 per nine innings, the highest rate in seven years.
Strikeouts per game: up from 7.76 to 8.05 per nine innings, the highest rate ever.
Balls not in play: that rate of 11.31 strikeouts plus walks per nine innings has never been higher.
Pitches per plate appearance: jumped from 3.83 to 3.88, the highest in history.
All right, what's the common theme here? Too many pitches thrown, plus not enough balls in play, equals (A) more time and (B) more dead time in the average game. It's no surprise, then, that the more baseball officials look at that equation, the more convinced they are that it accounts for a huge chunk of the reason for this vault back into the three-hour-game club.
So what's the verdict on this theory? On the money. It's simple math. Every extra pitch adds 22 to 25 seconds to a game if it's in the middle of an at-bat, and adds about 45 seconds if it's the first pitch to the next hitter. So there's four extra minutes per game right there.
Is it the pace-of-game rules?
A year ago, how much time did we all spend early in the season talking about the new pace-of-game rules? A lot! Remember? Hitters were supposed to keep a foot in the box at all times. Between-inning countdown timers started ticking. Relief pitchers had to get from the bullpen to the mound and warm up while dealing with the same timers. And the commissioner was constantly preaching "crispness" as the word he hoped would best describe the games.
But now, a year later, does anyone talk about those rules? Does anyone pay attention? Are the rules even being enforced? Increasingly, baseball executives are answering those questions, "No, no and no." So how many hitters and pitchers have just slipped back into their same old habits?
Even Manfred said of the issue, flatly, "We've lost a little focus." And that, he said, is "why we really are looking at a variety of ways to communicate on this topic, to try to get focus back on it."
One thing that's been going on behind the scenes is that MLB officials have made phone calls to individual players who have been bending or ignoring the rules and reminding them to get with the program. But beyond that, Manfred said, he thinks it's important for baseball to introduce changes each year because, if nothing else, it gets the whole sport talking about, and focusing on, things that matter. And this year, because labor negotiations are taking place, almost nothing changed on this front, other than time limits on mound visits.
"Not to make excuses," the commissioner said, "but I think that having a program of changes each year, even if those changes are controversial, can help create focus on the issue of pace of game."
So what's the verdict on players skirting the pace-of-game rules? Guilty as charged.
How will baseball respond?
New pace-of-game rules are coming to a bargaining table near you. We know that. As this summer's labor talks progress, MLB will be proposing "a package of issues" designed to address pace of game, Manfred said. He declined to get more specific, other than to mention the "active experiments in the minor leagues," which mostly involve pitch clocks between every pitch.
Would pitch clocks work in the big leagues? Well, minor league games mostly have the same commercial breaks that big league games have. And those games average between 2:45 and 2:50, not three hours. But there's also less game-planning in the minor leagues. And there's still very little indication that major league players would be cool with those clocks.
So that leaves, um, what exactly? A limit on catcher visits to the mound? Rules that require relief pitchers to face more than one hitter? A different definition of the strike zone? No one is sure. But it will all be on the table, for what that's worth. The challenge is to make those changes without altering the essence of baseball. And that's no easy matter.
"Pace of game almost has to be a continually evolving concept in a sport that doesn't have a clock," said MLB senior vice president Chris Marinak, who is overseeing the pace-of-game initiatives. "So we'll continue to make tweaks to the rules as we think that's appropriate. But at the same time, we have to be cognizant of not changing those core elements that make baseball special. We'd like to minimize dead time by taking elements out of the game that are not essential to that core. But we're not going to do things that change the nature of this sport."
Where will that lead them? It's too soon to tell. But if there's one thing we've learned from looking into this issue, it's that Manfred is a man who is not into waving surrender flags. His war on the three-hour baseball game has only just begun.