Hoping that it will increase fan interest, attendance and television ratings, Major League Baseball has installed a few rule changes designed to improve the pace of play and shorten game times.
MLB stopped short of enforcing a pitch clock and instead is limiting teams to six mound visits per game, whether from a coach, manager, catcher or infielder. The league is also mandating that innings start on time following commercial breaks and is hoping to streamline reviews by providing slow-motion replays to teams’ video rooms.
Some players are questioning why Commissioner Rob Manfred is set on shaving time off the game, but Manfred is looking at data that shows the length of the average baseball game is climbing. In 2017, the average game was 3 hours, 8 minutes — a record, and the sixth consecutive year it topped three hours, according to baseballreference.com.
Related or unrelated, the average attendance was 29,868 last season — the first time it dipped below 30,000 since 2003.
But data in the 2000s show the danger in trying to connect attendance and pace of play. That 2003 season with poor attendance had the quickest (along with 2005) average game time since 1988, at 2:49.
Conversely, the peak year for attendance was 2007, when an average of 32,696 attended games that were six minutes longer than 2005, at 2:55.
The conclusion that slightly shorter game times automatically equal more fans in the seats fails when the data jumps around so much from year to year.
So perhaps for there to be any meaningful change in fans coming out to the ballpark, Manfred can’t make moves at the edges of the game. Quickening game times by five to 10 minutes might not provide a good enough reason for fans to spend more money coming to games or watching them on TV.
Maybe Manfred has to be radical and institute the much discussed pitch clock that might cut the average game time down by 30-40 minutes. The last time baseball games were 2:30 or under was 1978. It was 2:40 by 1982 and has never really looked back since.
But would that produce the desired results of engaging more fans in the game? Would it harm the quality of play and adversely affect pitchers who might have to speed up their arms?
Manfred undoubtedly has fan surveys and marketing research that provide some of these answers, but until he’s willing to take a machete to the rules at the risk of alienating players and traditionalists, it seems as if these changes are unlikely to provide meaningful results.