How to Improve Baseball: Trade Speed for Endurance

aerial view of baseball field
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Baseball is something that I really enjoy. Beyond just watching a game, there is a rich history to the sport1. That history ties together generations going back to the Civil War. People playing baseball in the 19th century would recognize the game today and vice versa–or, at least, that used to be the case.

Baseball has always been a business. To deny that is to deny obvious history. For a time, the business and the game seemed to find precarious balance. That no longer seems to be the case. Business has taken over. When I read baseball history, of times when the players were underpaid and taken advantage of, I rooted for the players and hooted at the owners. Free agency was a big break for players, finally releasing them from the barbed hook of the reserve clause. The problem is that the players became part of the business. When players almost routinely get 8- and 9-figure contacts, how can it be otherwise? When teams invest that much in players, how can they not look to do anything they can to increase viewership of the game, even if that means changing the very nature of the game itself?

The biggest complaint I read about baseball is that it is too slow. At the end of the Second World War, the average length of a baseball game was 2 hours and 7 minutes2. In the year I was born, the average length jumped to 2 hours 23 minutes. The average length of a game passed the 3 hour mark for the first time in 2014. In 2021, it was 3 hours and 11 minutes the longest so far.

I find the last stat interesting. For years baseball has been tweaking the game to find ways to speed it up. For example, they made it so that pitchers could call an intentional walk without requiring a pitcher to throw any pitches. That would speed up the game. I considered that intentional nonsense. Meanwhile, “instant” replay was introduced to the game, but there was nothing “instant” about it.

Now there is talk of adding a pitch clock to the game. Clocks are anathema to baseball. One of the things that makes the sport unique is that there is no clock, never has been. Introducing one takes things too far for my taste.

Another complaint is that there is not enough action in the game. People want to see hits, they want action. I agree with that, but I also appreciate the strategy of the game in much the way I imagine a seasoned chess player sees the strategy of a chess game unfolding on the board before them.

What to do then? How do you speed up the game while generating more “action”?

I have what I think is a fairly simple solution: trade speed for endurance.

Fans of my age (and older) will often lament that too few pitchers pitch complete games anymore. Indeed, if we take another look at the years we looked at above, then we’ll find that at the end of the Second World War, there were an average of 2.13 pitchers per game. In the year I was born that jumped to 2.45 pitchers per game. In 2021, the most recent full season, there were 4.43 pitchers per game. The reason pitchers no longer pitch complete games is because they throw so much harder than they used to. The 100 MPH fastball is commonplace today. Pitchers who throw that hard have to protect their arms. Teams have to protect their investment in those pitchers3, and therefore, starters now routinely aim to go 5-6 innings instead of nine.

At the same time, hitters don’t hit as much because they are facing 100 MPH pitches. They strike out a lot more. When they do connect, however, they send the ball sailing over the fences because to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and a 100 MPH fastball will fly if you can manage to make contact with it. So we don’t see a lot of excitment on the field anymore. We strikeouts and home runs.

When I say that baseball should trade speed for endurance, I am talking about a solution to address both of these problems. Baseball should look to trade speed (100 MPH fastballs) for endurance (more complete games). Two main results of this address the problems at hand:

  1. If starters were required to go a minimum of 8 innings (unless injured), the game would speed up. There would no longer be 4-5 pitching changes per game. Each pitching change takes from 2-3 minutes. Cutting these down from 5 to 1 per game shaves off 8 to 12 minutes per game. Immediately our “average” length drops from 3 hours and 11 minutes down to 2 hours 59 minutes.
  2. Forcing a starter to pitch 8 innings means severely limiting 100 MPH fastballs. This means more hitting and more hitting means more action during the game to make the game exciting.

There is no need to add a pitch clock. No need to introdce rules that prevent strategy like infield shifts. Pitchers have to rely on more than just a fastball to get batters out. They need their teams to back them up. Hitters get back into the game.

Of course, such a move more or less elimates the need for middle relief, and while that’s unfortunate, some sacrifices have to be made to maintain the integrity of the game. Closers are still allowed in this scenario, although I’d encourage starters to go for complete games.

As to whether or not such changes would really work, one can point to history. Until around 1962, it was more common for there to be 2 pitcher in a game than 3. There were of hits, lots of action, and faster games. Maybe not as many home runs, but we are looking for action and excitement right? Plus, wouldn’t it be cool to see pitchers go the distance again?

This is my suggestion for how to improve baseball: trade speed (of pitches) for endurance (of pitchers) and see what happens. I think more people would watch games just to see how these changes would play out.

Written on April 21, 2022.

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  1. My reading list tells me that I’ve read 39 books on baseball and baseball history in the last quarter century.
  2. See this link in for these stats
  3. See how the Dodgers pulled Clayton Kershaw in the 6th inning of a perfect game for just that reason.

One comment

  1. I agree with this. The pitching has gotten so good it is ruining the game! Recently there was guy pitching a perfect game he was pulled (I’m blanking on the name). If you are pulling a pitcher pitching a perfect game to save his arm long term, I just thing that means something has gone awry. I feel like we’re almost heading towards the abolition of starting, middle, and relief pitchers. They’ll just all go out and pitch 1-2 innings in a rotation.

    There’s an old Econ Talk podcast with the host interviewing Bill James about this topic. It’s a few years old, but fascinating. The way I remember it, is that Bill essentially that you can’t make discrete rules to shorten the game – the players will find ways around it. The only way was essentially to give all the players a bonus if the average game time went down (or something like that – it might have been team, etc). But to incentivize with money the goal of shorter games and let the players figure out how to make it shorter.


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