It was right around the third-inning at-bat between Jose Berrios and Aaron Hicks when I threw my hands up. The American League wild-card game was nearly two hours old and the teams had recorded only 11 outs between them. Now Berrios was deliberating over every pitch like it was the last he’d ever throw, while Hicks dutifully fouled off two-strike offerings.
As it turned out, Hicks got an infield single, but Berrios retired the next batter, David Robertson set down the Twins quickly in the fourth, and the game moved along fairly briskly from there. But still, the contest, which the Yankees won 8-4, wound up taking nearly four hours, wrapping up at midnight on the East Coast. It was an exciting game with high stakes and thrilling moments, but it was also clearly a bit bloated.
There’s nothing new about the allegation that baseball has a “pace of play” problem. The issue has been dissected in a million think-pieces and addressed repeatedly by commissioner Rob Manfred. But Tuesday’s game reinforced the increasingly undeniable fact that baseball games sometimes move too slowly and go on for too long.
Yes, part of the issue during the AL wild card game was the number of hits and runs, which league brass can’t control. But we also saw some of the other plagues of slow baseball strike at the wrong time. Berrios was the most noticeable of several pitchers who took their time between offerings, likely thinking extra hard with so much on the line. Meanwhile, the game featured 18 strikeouts and nine walks, with batters working counts the way they tend to do in 2017. Five mid-inning pitching changes didn’t move things along either.
Molitor: "I'm sure the pace of play was to Commissioner Manfred's delight."
— Mark Feinsand (@Feinsand) October 4, 2017
Some diehard baseball fans and media downplay the pace of play problem, saying that baseball is fun and more baseball is better, and what else do you have to do anyway? But aside from disregarding the casual fans who tune in for big games and might not have as much tolerance for four-hour marathons, that attitude misses the point. Not only does slow play make the games longer, it also makes them worse.
I love baseball. I have been watching loyally since I was seven years old. I read about the game tirelessly, I pore through the stats, I play fantasy, I debate managerial decisions with my friends, I write about the sport almost daily, and I watch at least 120 games a year. And yet even I get bored when games average a pitch per minute and a ball in play per half inning. Yes, the breaks in the action offer time for strategy and analysis, but at a certain point that time for reflection turns into time for dozing off, changing the channel or checking Facebook. When you can watch a pitch, then process the game situation, wonder about the next offering, zone out a little bit, take a sip of beer and look at your phone, only to notice that there still hasn’t been another pitch, something is wrong.
This could improve next season if MLB implements the pitch clock that has worked at the minor-league level—and then actually enforce that clock, even during the playoffs when doing so might seem harsh. Finding a way to eliminate the strikeouts that are taking over the game (and therefore the walks that come with long counts) wouldn’t hurt either. One way or another, Manfred and company need to avoid alienating even their most devoted fans by bogging down games with between-pitch drudgery.
Some baseball fans instinctively resist the pace-of-play narrative because they think acknowledging the game is too slow means saying they don’t love baseball as much as they know they do. But the truth is that baseball has been played for a century and a half, and it has rarely looked like it did in the third inning Wednesday. If you truly love baseball, you shouldn’t want its biggest games to feel like slogs. You shouldn’t want the drama and excitement to be compromised by 20-minute one-two-three innings.
I love baseball, which is why I want it to speed up. Let’s enjoy the thrilling moments of Tuesday’s game, like Didi Gregorius’ game-tying home run, Byron Buxton’s incredible catch and Robertson’s incredible relief outing without having to worry about five-minute at-bats mixed in.