Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred will visit Target Field on Friday before the Twins begin a three-game series with the Red Sox. One might imagine he will make some opening comments about the beauty of the ballpark and the Twins’ strong start in 2017. The conversation at some point will almost certainly also turn to one of his chief objectives as commissioner: improving the pace of play in baseball, with one of the results being the shortening of games.
What Manfred will encounter with the Twins, though, is a paradox — and maybe even a nemesis.
MLB made a concerted effort to tackle length of games in 2015, bringing the average time down to 2 hours, 56 minutes. That number crept back up to 3 hours last season, leading Manfred to seek more changes designed to improve pace of play for 2017.
And yes, pace of play and length of games are two different things. But they are also tied together — particularly when talking about initiatives like the automatic intentional walk (instituted for 2017) and discussions of a timed clock between pitches (talked about for the future).
The average nine-inning Twins game this season has lasted almost 3 hours, 8 minutes. Their 25 games this season have featured exactly six intentional walks (four by Twins pitchers, two for Twins hitters), shaving a handful of seconds off their total.
But let’s be clear: intentional walks are about 0.01 percent of baseball’s speed problem.
There won’t be any meaningful progress on pace of play and length of games as long as unintentional walks are valued and strikeouts are accepted.
Going back to 1988 — the first year data is available — the average plate appearance lasted 3.58 pitches. In 2017 so far, that average is up to 3.88 in 2017. Looked at another way, in 1988 there were an average of 268 pitches thrown per game. Last year, there were 294 per game. Increases in strikeouts have grown dramatically since then as well.
The Twins this season are tied for second in MLB in walks at the plate (112). They are seeing 3.96 pitches per plate appearance — above that MLB average of 3.88. Walks have been a key to the Twins’ offense, fueling several big innings. We saw it again Wednesday, when three of the four walks Minnesota took off of A’s starter Kendall Graveman ended up scoring in a 7-4 victory. Graveman threw 94 pitches despite getting knocked out with one out in the fourth inning.
It’s a good strategy. But it’s no wonder Twins games are lasting so long and that MLB game times have crept up. Deep counts aren’t the only factor — long commercial breaks and frequent pitching changes/meetings are also culprits — but all those extra pitches add up fast.
When it comes to pace of play, Manfred has sought more dramatic changes and sounds frustrated by resistance from players. One of those possible changes involves an alteration of the strike zone.
Just know that if on Friday the commissioner lauds the Twins while also wishing for faster games, those things don’t seem compatible in 2017.