At approximately 9:19 p.m. Pacific time on Tuesday, April 25, San Francisco Giants rookie catcher Blake Sabol capped off a three-run comeback in the bottom of the ninth by taking a two-out, two-strike breaking ball from St. Louis Cardinals closer Ryan Helsley over the center-field fence in San Francisco. At 9:22, the Giants’ Twitter account declared victory. One minute later, the Royals’ Twitter account followed suit: In Phoenix, K.C. closer Scott Barlow had gotten a grounder to third from Diamondbacks first baseman Christian Walker for the final out of the game. Three minutes after that, it was the Angels’ turn to celebrate: In Anaheim, Oakland’s last hope, Esteury Ruiz, had grounded out to second against Angels closer Carlos Estévez. One minute, there were still three MLB games going on; roughly six minutes later, all three were over, and baseball was done for the day.
If you had to pick one day from this season to sum up the impact of the pitch clock, you could do worse than that day: last Tuesday, April 25. All 30 MLB teams were in action, and on average, they took two hours and 36 minutes to go about their baseball business, exactly in line with the full-season standard for nine-inning games in 2023. That alone is remarkable, given that nine-inning games in 2022 took three hours and three minutes, on average, which was actually less time than they took in each of the three preceding years.
Fans who follow baseball closely, and a good many people who don’t, know that the pitch clock has cut almost half an hour off the average MLB game time this year. What may be even more remarkable, though not nearly as widely remarked on, is how alike in length this year’s games have been. April 25’s 15 contests included close games and lopsided games, shutouts and slugfests. But there weren’t any extra-long games that were balanced out by a bunch of extra-short ones. Only 36 minutes separated the longest game (2:52) from the shortest game (2:16). Every East Coast game was over before 10 p.m. ET, and every West Coast game ended shortly before 12:30 a.m. ET. On that night, you could almost set your watch to baseball—traditionally, and either famously or infamously, the sport with the most malleable, variable approach to time.
April 25 was one day, but that predictable pattern is pretty representative of this season as a whole. Most of the pitch-clock headlines have, understandably, been about the total time saved relative to last year: At this rate, over a 2,430-game regular season, MLB will have trimmed more than 68,000 minutes, 1,130 hours, or 47 days of hitters lollygagging in and out of the batter’s box and pitchers either staring into space or peering in at signs for the pitches they’d eventually get around to throwing. But the games aren’t just shorter than the ones MLB fans had grudgingly become accustomed to. They’re also significantly more uniform in duration. And even more than the reduction in average game length, it’s the reduced variation in game length that has truly transformed the sport into something unseen in living memory.
Baseball’s trademark refusal to stick to a timetable has long been a source of delight or a source of frustration, depending on the observer. In 1971, Roger Angell wrote, “Since baseball time is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly; keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young.” Eight years later, Herb Caen expressed the same concept a little less lyrically and romantically: “The clock doesn’t matter in baseball. Time stands still or moves backward. Theoretically, one game could go on forever. Some seem to.”
Theoretically, that’s still true: Baseball’s clock governs the time between pitches and batters, but not how many pitches or batters there are. In practice, though, it’s now almost impossible for games to go on as long as they used to: The longest game thus far this season, an 11-inning affair, lasted only three hours and 50 minutes. In the first 400 games of 2019, 26 lasted longer than that. (The longest nine-inning game this season, excluding an extreme 3:44 home run derby in the thin air of Mexico City, lasted 3:38, or 3:29 if we rule out Opening Day.) After centuries of surrendering to the vagaries of extra innings and dawdling players, MLB has defeated time in a different way: by strictly controlling it.
The graph below shows the average and standard deviation of MLB game lengths, in minutes, in each season since 1920. (For consistency’s sake, the sample includes only the first 400 games of each season, excluding games that ended before the ninth inning; the 400th game of the 2023 season was played this past Saturday.) The red line indicates the average; the blue line denotes the standard deviation, a measure of how closely the individual game times were clustered around the average. The lower the standard deviation, the less variable the game times.
The red line has indeed dropped precipitously: The last time the first 400 games of a season (excluding <9-inning games) sped along like this was 1981. But the blue line’s swan dive puts the red line’s dip to shame. The last time the standard deviation of game length was this low was 1942, when wartime curfews were in effect, the cork and rubber used in baseballs were in short supply, and offense plummeted to levels not seen since the dead-ball era. To find another season with such consistent game times before that, you have to go back two additional decades, to 1922. Even then, more than a century ago, it was unusual for game times to feature so little variation. Not since the first decade of the 20th century, when runs were scarce, the setting of the sun imposed a nonnegotiable stopping point, and games took less than one hour and 50 minutes, on average, have game times been so dependable in consecutive seasons.
As one might imagine, the zombie runner is partly responsible for this standard-deviation downturn. Since the runner on second to start extra innings was imposed in 2020, no game has gone longer than 16 innings. Eliminating really long games reduced the variability in 2020, 2021, and 2022 game lengths to lower levels than in any previous season since 2006. It also helped shrink the game time gap between the longest and shortest games of more than or equal to nine innings among the first 400, which even last year was already the smallest since 1942. (The massive spike in 1984 in the graph below comes from the longest-ever major league game, which went 25 innings and took just over eight hours.)
Of course, those extremely long-lasting tilts were always rare. (Rare enough, I would argue, that it wasn’t worth wildly altering the rules and distorting the scoring environment in extra innings just to preclude the occasional 18-inning marathon—but I’ve probably ranted enough about that.) But when we limit the sample to nine-inning games only, the standard-deviation drop-off is just as apparent. With extra-inning games excluded, the average game time this season is still shorter than in any season since 1984—and the standard deviation of game time is smaller than in any season since 1933. The bulk of baseball games’ newfound uniformity, then, comes from the clock. And as the early-season violations and hiccups have subsided, game times have gotten even more homogeneous: The standard deviation of the first 200 games was a few 10ths of a second greater than the standard deviation of the next 200.
In some respects, the way games are played today tends to make them longer. As I wrote in March, “There are more foul balls hit than there used to be, and more pitches thrown; there are more pitchers used, and more ads aired.” Yet despite those trends, clock-equipped games in 2023 are, on average, taking no longer than non-clock-equipped games did 40 years ago, which means that something must be moving faster now than it did then. That something is the players, whose lollygagging—whether sporadic or rampant—has been effectively, formally limited for the first time.
Even in the early ’80s, as Sam Miller recently wrote, “The players were able to set whatever pace they wanted, and some of them wanted to set it at Slow.” Now, no pitchers have the option to set their pace slower than 15 seconds between pitches with the bases empty or 20 seconds with runners on, and batters must be in the box and alert to the pitcher by the eight-second mark. Among the pitchers who qualified for Baseball Savant’s pitch tempo leaderboard last year, the disparity between the fastest and slowest pitchers, on average, was 13.2 seconds with the bases empty. This year, it’s 7.9 seconds. The fastest workers aren’t that much faster—they were well under the current limit before there was a limit—but the slowest workers have been forced to speed up dramatically.
As a result, the game-to-game fluctuations in pace and length have smoothed out. All else being equal, the time differences between matchups of slow workers and quick workers are less pronounced now, which means that game durations diverge less. That increased consistency has introduced fans to an unfamiliar phenomenon: the capacity to confidently anticipate when a game will end.
For decades, the difficulty of doing that has been portrayed as a problem for baseball. In 1969, the major leagues were coming off an offensive outage that exacerbated concerns about the future of the sport and prompted rules changes intended to improve pace and action. (Sound familiar?) That February, a Kansas City Star column asked, “Can Baseball Save Itself?” The article quoted an anonymous “director of one major league team’s local telecasts” who identified unpredictable timing as the biggest obstacle between baseball and national exposure:
The popularity of any sport today is no longer measured by the turnstile. … And baseball hasn’t been pushed as a network TV attraction because how can you schedule a baseball game for a network time slot when you don’t know how long the game is going to last? A while ago NBC was all set to put major league baseball on its network. The day before the deal was to be closed, the Mets and the Giants played a Sunday doubleheader game that lasted until 11:30 at night. Imagine what that would have done to scheduled TV programs across the country! The next morning NBC dropped the whole idea. … If you want my opinion about what’s wrong with baseball, that’s it. Baseball teaches kids a great moral lesson—the game is never over until the last man is out. Unfortunately, those same words give cold chills to the television networks.
In other words, networks prefer programming that stays within prescribed time slots, not programming that defeats time and, in turn, screws up the rest of the schedule. The bugaboo that “baseball games don’t always end on time” (as one 1992 piece put it) has been cited intermittently ever since, including as one reason for the International Olympic Committee’s decision to drop baseball as an Olympic sport.
“Whether it’s soccer or softball or even football, which takes a long time, it’s pretty predictable, whereas baseball, its main predictability is it’s going to be a long time,” a sociology professor told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a 2018 article about baseball’s aging audience. The same month, the Star Tribune asserted, “With people having more options and less time than ever, the unpredictable length and overall duration of a baseball game—formerly charming—is hurting the sport’s popularity.” The average game time in 2023 is 16 percent shorter than it was in 2018, but it’s also 41 percent less variable. MLB publicly promoted the pitch clock as an antidote to slow, long games, and it is, but it’s also a solution to uncertain scheduling. The league is probably pleased about that too.
There is some cost to pitch-clock baseball’s comparative conformity. Few fans of any ilk miss four-hour, nine-inning slogs, but baseball sickos (like me) miss the novelty and oddity of ultra-long games, and night owls (again, like me) miss having games going on in the wee hours on the East Coast. (If only the pitch clock had come in before the zombie runner, the latter might never have arrived.)
It’s hard to argue, though, that in a world where (almost) every other form of media tells viewers or listeners how long of a commitment it requires, MLB would have been better off stubbornly resisting the pressure to rein itself in. Network schedules matter less in an era of regional sports networks and, increasingly, streaming services, and maybe baseball missed the boat on garnering national TV airtime. But if MLB wants to own the next generation and make baseball more of a national game, the league is probably better off with a product that’s not only faster than before, but also more easily planned around. And in this season, more than in any other that today’s fans can recall, baseball games are really running like clockwork.
Thanks to Kenny Jackelen of Baseball-Reference for research assistance.