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Stakes Aside, 2016 Postseason Play Is Rob Manfred’s Nightmare

Playoff viewership is way up and a beleaguered franchise is about to taste glory, but those golden narratives are masking troubling trends for the state of the game

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There’s a chapter of Titanfall 2, the futuristic first-person shooter that came out last week, in which the player has to hop between an orderly past and an apocalyptic present. Press a button, and you’re transported back to a gleaming laboratory, full of spotless hallways, whirring robots, and patrolling guards. Press it again, and you’re returned to the same spot years later. It’s recognizable but run-down, its formerly spotless surfaces marred by broken doors, overgrown vegetation, and gaping holes in the floor.

At times, watching this year’s MLB playoffs has been a bit like wandering through that latter-day lab. As exciting as some of the postseason’s series have been, and as riveting as we’ve found its most memorable moments, we’ve also seen some of the sport’s least spectator-friendly trends intensify. October’s robust ratings are at least partly a product of a compelling playoff field, featuring multiple teams with legendarily long title droughts. Subtract the high stakes and rich backstories, and the postseason would start to resemble pro-offense/fast-paced-play commissioner Rob Manfred’s worst nightmares about baseball’s on-field future.

The length of the average nine-inning game time in the playoffs this year has expanded to 3:24:30, up almost 24 minutes relative to the regular season. That overall increase is the product of smaller advances along several fronts. The average time between pitches has climbed a full second, to 22.8 seconds. That’s not even counting the longer breaks for pickoff attempts, pitcher-catcher conferences, and non-pitching-change mound visits by managers and coaches — the last of which, at least, become more common in the playoffs (6.3 per game, up from 4.1 per game prior to the postseason). The average time between innings — or, more accurately, between the last pitch thrown in one inning and the first pitch thrown in the next — is also up, from 161.0 seconds to 199.6 seconds. To make matters slower, playoff managers have used 9.3 pitchers per game, up from 8.3 during the regular season. And they’ve also called for 1.0 replay reviews per postseason game, compared to 0.6 per game prior to the playoffs.

It would be one thing if October’s longer game lengths were the result of more runs, but the delays have coincided with less action than usual. Thanks to superior pitchers, more aggressive managing, and colder temperatures, offense (as represented by weighted on-base average) is down and strikeouts are up — not relative to only the regular season, but also compared with previous postseasons. The table below shows the progression in each of these areas since 2010, the first year Baseball Prospectus had data on time between pitches.

Of course, many of the length- and pace-altering differences between regular-season and postseason baseball stem from the very stakes I just casually said to subtract. Higher stakes mean more importance attached to each pitch, which means more time taken to recover and strategize. With more scheduled off days and more money and glory riding on every delivery, managers pull their starters sooner to avoid the “times through the order” penalty, and then make even more pitching changes to set up optimal matchups. And with built-in suspense and fewer competing games going on, many more viewers tune in, which leads to more ad dollars and, inevitably, more ads. All sports are subject to some of these delays during the playoffs, but baseball’s lack of a clock makes it more susceptible than most.

It’s not a great thing that baseball gets slower and less eventful at the point in the season when the most people are paying attention. Serious fans who logged six months of steady viewing along the path to the postseason might not mind what they perceive as protracted suspense, but drawn-out, uneventful ordeals such as World Series Game 2 (4:04) and, to a lesser degree, Game 3 (at 3:33, the second-longest nine-inning 1–0 game ever, behind only one other recent postseason contest) aren’t well suited to hooking casual fans. Throw in 8:0something start times on the East Coast, and the postseason’s long games and low scoring are perfectly calibrated to fuel the widespread perception among non-fans that baseball is boring.

On the bright side, most of the causes of postseason slowpokery are conditions endemic to October. When baseball comes back in April, the stakes will be back to normal, and game lengths will return to more palatable levels. The problem is that postseason games are leading indicators, early warning signs that tell us where regular-season baseball might be headed if MLB does nothing to correct its course. This year’s regular season, for instance, featured more time between pitches and more pitchers used per game than the playoffs did in 2010, and this year’s regular-season strikeout rate was closer to that of the 2010 playoffs than that of the 2010 regular season. It’s not hard to imagine the 2022 regular season looking more like the 2016 playoffs than the 2016 regular season in certain respects. And that’s an unsettling prospect, given that this postseason has featured 1.25 strikeouts for every hit.

In that sense, then, that interminable Game 2 may have been a canary in the coal mine, a disturbing vision from the Ghost of Baseball Yet to Come. We put up with, and perhaps even celebrate, slow-paced playoff baseball because there’s so much story to spice it up: the Indians and Cubs competing not to be the longest losers; Clayton Kershaw coming in for a short-rest, legacy-restoring save; relief aces (Andrew Miller, Kenley Jansen, Aroldis Chapman) being pushed beyond not only their normal limits, but beyond the boundaries all of baseball has erected around the closer. Buoyed by big-market matchups and the certainty that one pennant winner’s curse will be broken, this year’s playoffs have drawn great ratings. Strip away October’s inherent intrigue, though, and we’d be left with a version of baseball that actually would be more boring than that of the regular season.

If the forces that conspire toward slowness are left unchecked, we’re almost guaranteed to get there: Games have been getting longer, and strikeouts more common, for decades. If it wasn’t too late for Scrooge to avoid suffering the same fate as Marley, it’s not too late for MLB to avoid having the typical game look more and more like Game 2. But that can’t be accomplished without banishing some of its “Bah, humbug” behaviors.

The version of baseball we’re watching this postseason — low-contact, low-scoring, and with plenty of pauses — is exactly the one that Manfred has devoted a large proportion of his actions and comments as commissioner to combating. Although regular-season offense isn’t as pressing an issue as it seemed to be at the start of last season — thanks to a mysterious (and quite conveniently timed) explosion in home run rate — strikeouts and slow-paced play remain threats.

Manfred successfully reduced the length of games last season, his first as commissioner, largely by cutting down on the time between innings, but game time ticked back up again in 2016. To reverse the creeping climb, the commissioner could implement any number of non-revenue-reducing measures that he’s either reportedly or openly considered, ranging from the mostly cosmetic (doing away with intentional balls, limiting mound visits) to the unobtrusive and practical (installing the pitch clocks that are already in use in the minors) to the more dramatic and risky (restricting pitching changes, or, more sensibly, shrinking — and eventually, perhaps, automating — the strike zone, which is still inflated compared to where it was at the end of the aughts). He could also try to make each game more meaningful by shortening the schedule, although it’s doubtful that slashing the season by 5 percent would lead to a playoff-like feel.

Unfortunately for Manfred, the Titanfall 2 solution won’t work; baseball can’t press a button to revert to an expeditious time. Instead, the commissioner might be better off borrowing the ocean-liner analogy often employed by President Obama. The sport keeps wanting to go one way, and it might take time to turn.

Thanks to Zach Kram, TruMedia, and Harry Pavlidis of Baseball Prospectus for research assistance.