Baseball romantics wax poetic about their game being the only American professional sport with no time clock. But with major league games increasingly stretching beyond 3½ hours, the romance is being tested. ¶ “Brutal” is the way ex-Twin, current fan Kent Hrbek describes this year’s games. ¶ The Twins are on their way to being the slowest, most deliberate team in franchise history, with an average game time of over three hours for the first time ever. They have already played seven nine-inning games of at least 3 hours, 30 minutes, which projects to 20 over a full season — the Twins record is 10. ¶ Only eight seasons ago, in 2005, the Twins led the majors with an average of 2:37 a game. Every year since 1999, they beat the major league average. ¶ Now the Twins are pretty much like every other team, as the average nine-inning game has increased from 2:46 in 2005 to 2:51 in 2008 to 2:56 in 2012 to 2:58 — three hours in the American League — this season.

 

Why? The answers are complex and varied, some specific to certain teams, such as the Twins and their nightly parade of pitchers jogging in from the bullpen. Other factors — among them hitters constantly stepping out of the batter’s box and pitchers dawdling — are common to every team.

Bob Watson, who was in charge of monitoring the pace of games as baseball’s vice president of rules and on-field operations until his retirement in 2010, is disappointed in the recent uptick.

“I think the thing right now with MLB, no one’s focusing on it like when I was sitting in the chair,” Watson said last week. “You’ve got to stay on top of it.”

A major league spokesman said times continue to be closely monitored. Another league, meanwhile, is taking real steps.

The independent Atlantic League is experimenting this season with ways to speed up games. Its most significant changes are merely enforcing existing rules for the high strike (midpoint between shoulders and belt); keeping hitters in the box; and making sure pitchers deliver the ball within 12 seconds with no runners on base after a batter is set. Early results show that that has shaved 10 to 15 minutes off last year’s average game time, which was on a par with the majors.

If Atlantic League President Peter Kirk needed affirmation, it came Thursday when he and his son were at Fenway Park for Boston’s 6-3 victory over Texas, a 3-hour, 21-minute affair. The score was tied 3-3 in the seventh inning, but it was closing in on 10 p.m. The Kirks were so tired they left, missing a walk-off homer by David Ortiz.

“Those are the choices you have to make,’’ Kirk said.

Back in the day

Major league games averaged 2 hours, 30 minutes during the 1970s and early 1980s, an era Twins manager Ron Gardenhire refers to as “back in the day.’’ Marathon games were almost nonexistent — between 1966 and 1984, the Twins played a total of six games that lasted 3:30 or more, or one fewer than they’ve already played this season.

It was an era before almost every game was televised; before taking pitches became an integral part of offensive strategy; and before pitch counts and the specialization of bullpens.

In the era preceding widespread TV games, teams could be on and off the field every half-inning in 90 seconds. But by 1990, locally televised games were given 2:05 for breaks, and nationally televised games 2:25.

Gardenhire says players, particularly pitchers, know there’s no rush, so they stroll onto the field, with pitchers taking a casual approach in warmups. During a recent Twins game that was televised locally, the time between the final out in a half-inning and the ensuing first pitch was regularly between 2:20 and 2:30.

“We have pitchers waiting in the dugout [to take field],” Gardenhire said. “So many of the TV games, you’re waiting around.”

That probably won’t change. Those mandatory breaks allow for the money-making commercials that are a financial lifeline.

But there’s a lot more to longer games than TV. The difference between current 2:05 breaks for local TV and 90-second breaks of the 1970s is about 10 minutes a game, and the average game is 30 minutes longer.

Why? Starting pitchers seldom pitch complete games anymore — 28 percent of starts were complete games in 1971, compared to 3 percent in 2012 — and each pitching change adds time, especially in the American League where, because of the DH, it tends to come during play.

There are also more pitches per game, almost 30 more since pitch counts were first recorded in 1988. In comparison with 1970, the difference is probably a lot larger, because of umpires’ reluctance to call the high strike as defined in the rule book; the increased emphasis on patience on the part of hitters; and the tendency of pitchers to nibble at the corners.

“When I played, you didn’t see 3-and-2 counts that often,” said former Twins star Tony Oliva. “Now, only a few pitchers will really challenge.”

Perhaps the greatest waste of time is hitters stepping out of the batter’s box and pitchers stepping off the mound, contemplating every pitch as if their future hung in the balance.

Baseball’s existing rules prohibit batters from stepping out of the box without umpire consent, which apparently is implicit. The major league average is 22.5 seconds between each pitch, a full second longer than in 2010.

During his tenure, Watson instituted time-saving measures — including fining some players for being too slow — after the average length increased to 2:58 in 2000; by 2003 that time had been reduced to 2:46. Michael Teevan, a spokesman for MLB, said the commissioner currently has a special committee for on-field matters that closely reviews the pace of games.

“We want games to be played sharply, and we must meld that desire with all the traditions and realities of the game,” he said.

Watson, asked the one thing he would do to shorten games, said: “I’d would probably say having pitchers stay on the mound, and batters stay in the box.”

The Twins way

The Twins of 2013 offer a microcosm of the factors that have lengthened games, beginning with a starting pitching staff that has no complete games.

“We’ve had trouble with our starting pitching, and that factors in immediately,” Twins General Manager Terry Ryan said, adding that he hopes the cold spring has been part of the problem. “When a starter doesn’t set the tone, usually the game drags on.”

It’s not necessarily that the Twins are throwing more pitches than most staffs — they are 10th in the majors in pitches per plate appearance — it’s that they face more batters than the norm. The Twins give up a combination of 1.41 hits and walks per inning, ranking 29th out of 30 teams.

Offensively, they have become one of the most patient teams in the majors. Josh Willingham, Joe Mauer, Chris Parmelee and Brian Dozier rank among the top 16 in pitches per at-bat.

Twins hitting coach Tom Brunansky sums up long games simply by saying, “We take a lot of pitches, and our staff throws a lot of pitches.”

Scott Diamond said long games are “not good for fans, and not good for players either. ... You have to stay focused over that length of time, and that’s tough to do.”

But most players say longer games are simply a byproduct of strategy in the modern era. Hitters step out of the box, they say, to break a pitcher’s rhythm. Of course, pitchers say they slow down to get a hitter out of his rhythm.

“Certain situations call for an extra breath, taking a little longer,” Justin Morneau said. “But that’s part of the beauty of baseball. You never know how long a game is going to last.”

Beauty in this case is clearly in the eye of the beholder.

“We try so hard with our demographics to get younger, younger, younger, but it’s tough to get that young family in there [with games going so long],’’ said former major league GM Joe Klein, now the Atlantic League’s executive director. “If we turn young kids off with 3½-hour baseball games ... well, hello soccer, I guess.’’