© Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

As Fangraph’s own Jay Jaffe noted last week in his article on the dominance of relief pitching this postseason, the average time pitched over nine innings has dropped by 15 minutes in the playoffs after the average dropped by seven minutes in the regular season. As Jay wrote, there are a number of factors contributing to less playing time in 2022, from reliever usage and rule changes such as the three-batter minimum, to technical adjustments like PitchCom, gameplay changes and reduced offensive production. Whatever the reason, it’s a shift that warrants exploration. League leadership has spent the better part of the last decade focused on shortening the length of its games; On his first day on the job, the commissioner talked about improving baseball’s speed of play. While games still average more than three hours this season, the seven-minute dip after the record-long average game in 2021 represents the sharpest single-year decline in the divisional era, and that sounds like music. Ears of Rob Manfred and Co

Average time of an MLB game

year regular season postseason
2016 3:00 p.m 3:29
2017 3:05 3:40
2018 3:00 p.m 3:40
2019 3:05 3:40
2020 3:07 3:38
2021 3:10 3:44
2022 3:03 3:29

Source: Baseball-Reference

per 9.0 innings

But the league’s goal in terms of playing time is more nuanced than shaving minutes at any cost. Yes, Major League Baseball is interested in fast games, which has led to rule changes like the upcoming pitch clock in 2023 and the existing three-batter minimum for relievers. Teams used 3.30 relievers per game in the regular season in 2022, down from 3.43 in 21, and fewer pitching changes meant less wasted time. But there’s also an interest in maintaining some level of offensive action — hence the introduction of designated hitters in the National League this year and the banning of shift sets with a pitch clock next year. Some improvements in playing time may come at the expense of offensive action and vice versa, and titrating the levels of each for optimal production is a delicate balance. In 2022, we see crime trending at relative levels, but on closer inspection, there is also some reason for optimism in terms of finding this balance.

before going up whyLet’s take a look what changed, starting with two possible root causes for longer games: the rate of pitches per game and the time elapsed between pitches. During this year’s regular season, batters saw an average of 3.89 pitches per plate appearance, mostly in line with their 2021 average of 3.91. Likewise, teams sent down a combined 74.9 hitters per game, just one case higher than 2021’s 74.8. That adds up to about one less pitch per game this year. Seven minutes isn’t an eternity, but a pitch is just a blip on the radar. Still, the change is increasing, and the 291 average combined pitches per game represents a drop of more than 10 pitches per game from 2019. More to come on that.

When considering game length, it’s also helpful to know whether the pitchers themselves are delivering those pitches faster or slower than in previous years. Fangraphs Pace, developed by David Appleman in 2010, takes a shot at measuring this by dividing the time difference between the PITCHf/x timestamps of the first and last pitches of a plate appearance by the number of pitches in PA minus one. Earlier this year, Baseball Savant introduced its own velocity metric called tempo, which measures the time between pitches, using pitches that take takes and throws to the same batter. By design, neither will be accounted for everything In pitches – they are intended to show a pitcher’s velocity under normal conditions – but they can give us a decent estimate of whether pitchers are working fast in general.

Both pace and tempo — which measure the bases empty and plate appearances with runners on — point to the fastest pace in the league during this year’s regular season. The league-wide pace dropped from 23.7 seconds to 23.1, while the league average tempo dropped from 18.3 seconds to 18.1, and a full second with the bases empty and men on went from 24.3 to 23.3. Each of these metrics increased over the past three seasons:

Speed ​​of play metrics

year Tempo (base empty) Tempo (runner on) the speed game time
2022 18.1 23.3 23.1 3:03
2021 18.3 24.3 23.7 3:10
2020 18.1 24 23.2 3:07
2019 17.7 23.9 22.9 3:05
2018 17.2 23.3 22.5 3:00 p.m
2017 17.4 23.5 22.7 3:05
2016 17.8 24.4 23.3 3:00 p.m
2015 17.6 24.2 23.2 2:56

Source: Baseball Savant

This is where PitchCom can make an impact, allowing pitchers to work faster, spending less time exchanging signals with their batterymates. A reduction of .6 seconds per pitch, as measured by Pace, would translate to roughly a minute difference for every 100 pitches thrown. It’s also worth noting that Pitchcom’s effect will be more pronounced on runners on base, given the tendency of pitchers and catchers to complicate their signals in such situations. Ultimately, this kind of accuracy is hard to measure, and the effect may be somewhat unclear in 2023 when pitchers are required to follow a pitch clock, but if a change of this magnitude is made, it would be partially responsible for the game being shortened this year. , may be an indication of what may be in store in the Pitch Clock era. Among the minor leagues, leagues that implemented pitch rules in 2022 saw significant improvements in the length of their games.

It’s also interesting to consider what trends are contributing to recent pitch counts, which could shave more minutes off game time in the future. Of course, one of the main determinants is the amount of plate appearances that turn into outs. Research has pointed to more changes in baseball being used this year, leading to declines in home runs, WOBA and total run production, and plate appearances being converted to outs at a significantly higher rate. The league’s .312 regular season OBP this year was its lowest since 1972. In the playoffs, he batted a paltry .280, highlighted by Houston’s staff spinning the third no-hitter in playoff history in Game 3 of the World Series. When more than 70% of hitters who come to the plate return to the dugout empty-handed, pitchers will move through the lineup very quickly. This is good news if you’re trying to shorten the game at any cost; If you are trying to balance, it is not happy.

Some trends, however, are good news for both game time and in-game watchability. For example, during the regular season, the league-wide unintentional walk rate was at its lowest point since 2016, dropping a full percentage point to 7.9% over the past two years. Aside from the competitive importance of a patient hitting approach, walks take time – during the regular season, the average plate appearance that makes a walk 5.8 pitches long. By comparison, it took an average of just 3.4 pitches to make a plate appearance that ended with a hit. Fewer instances of spending an average of six pitches to extend an innings without any ball action in play is exactly what those concerned about the maintenance of the game should celebrate. And the walk rate has dropped even further in the postseason, with unintentional walks down to 7.3% — exactly the same as last year, but almost two percentage points lower than in 2020:

Pitches to appear per plate by result

result Pitches/PA
to walk 5.8
kill 3.4
Strikeout 4.8
Non-SO out 3.4

Source: Baseball-Reference

Another metric to watch is strikeout rate, which fell to 22.5% for the second year in a row during the regular season. Strikeouts are an effective way to advance a game in that they keep runners off the bases, but they are a particularly inefficient way to manage time. During the 2022 regular season, it took an average of 4.8 pitches for a hitter to strike out, while it only took an average of 3.4 pitches for the average plate appearance to get at least one non-strike out. This is in line with historical averages. The more strikeouts a team recorded, the more pitches they got out of the game. As long as pitchers continue to get outs at the same rate or better in 2022, more outs with contact will mean shorter games:

Team Pitches/Game by Strikeout Total

SO Average pitches the game
3 134.9 100
4 137.6 225
5 139.2 398
6 142.0 544
7 143.7 631
8 144.6 667
9 147.9 623
10 149.6 515
11 150.3 388
12 150.5 288
13 154.5 171
14 152.1 127

Source: Baseball Savant

2022 regular season; At least 100 games

The decline in strikeouts didn’t last into the postseason, as the dominance of both starting pitching and relief pitching resulted in strikeouts in 27.0% of plate appearances – a major culprit in regards to the .212/.380/.360 slash line and .283 wOBA. The games are fast, but perhaps not as much as MLB wants, with hit rates down three percentage points and ball rates down two percentage points from last year’s playoffs. With the lack of balls in play, sometimes you get thrilling World Series no-hitters – more often, you get a lot of non-action.

The dip in walks and strikeouts during the regular season is the result of more contact due to a more aggressive approach at the plate, an approach that lineups haven’t had much success with against some of the league’s best pitching staffs. These playoffs. Hitters, perhaps aided by 15 more designated hitter spots, swung at more pitches this regular season (47.7%) than ever before (47.7%) with the highest rate of in-zone swings since 2002 (69.1%) in two decades of plate discipline data and the highest on out-of-zone swings in the data set ( 32.6%). Despite the less selective approach, batters were able to make contact at a higher rate than in recent years, hitting 76.6% of their swings with 63.5% of their swings on pitches outside the strike zone, the highest rates since 2018 and ’16, respectively. . In the postseason, the swing percentage increased further to 49.0%, but batters made contact on only 73.1% of swings, a significant drop from the regular season. This collective approach was limited in its overall impact on production, but if the walks and strikeouts continue to decrease, it could bring us closer to Manfred’s goal production.

Major League Baseball is in the difficult position of nurturing a sport that has a delicate balance between pitching and hitting. With very strong pitching, production can become a sea of ​​strikeouts; Hitting a lot, can increase game length – more hits means more plate appearances per game. But ultimately, if hitters can continue the trend, higher contact rates – fewer walks in place of strikeouts and a higher percentage of contact outs – will likely serve the purpose of a faster, more action-packed game. With improved technology and the right mix of rules around things like pitcher/defense deployment and velocity, we could find ourselves closer to Manfred’s vision – just hopefully without compromising the offense as much.