Length and Pace of Games: It's the Relief Pitching (mostly)

Tom Lynn/Getty Images

It won't come as a surprise that I would take a numbers/data based approach to answer the question of why have game times increased and why has the pace of play seemingly ground to a halt ?

It is my opinion that the primary reason is due to factors revolving around relief pitchers, and their usage. The increased percentage of innings going to relief pitchers has had several effects.

One of the most obvious is there are more pitching changes, and that takes extra time. But it's not the biggest factor, by far

The biggest factor by far is the number of pitches per plate appearance, with secondary factor being additional time to deliver the pitch. As you will see below there has been a large increase in pitches per PA, and this translates almost exactly into the increase in time of game.

So lets get to the numbers and you can follow along with how I got there. Important to note I started out from 1988. The reason for that is simple: Baseball-Reference has data for Pitches per Plate Appearance going back to 1988

Here are the original tables for both NL and AL


NL 1988 2016 % Change AL 1988 2016 % Change
Minutes 166 187 12.7% Minutes 173 182 5.2%
Minutes/9I 162 182 12.3% Minutes/9I 169 179 5.9%

Above you can see the time in minutes for total game time, and also for the avg 9 inning game has increased roughly 20-21 minutes in the NL and 10 minutes in the AL.. Remember those numbers.

Also Interesting to note that going back to the late 1980's the AL game times were already getting longish, and in recent years the NL has caught up to and in some years passed the AL in avg TOG. (Refer to full table in the links to see the year by year flow)


NL 1988 2016 % Change AL 1988 2016 % Change
Pit/PA 3.44 3.88 12.8% Pit/PA 3.59 3.88 8.1%
Pitchers/G 2.85 4.29 50.5% Pitchers/G 2.65 4.01 51.3%
IP by Reliever 29.2% 37.3% 27.7% IP by Reliever 28.9% 36.1% 24.9%
PA/G 75.6 76.3 0.9% PA/G 76.1 75.7 -0.5%
Pitches/G 260 296 13.8% Pitches/G 273 294 7.5%

  • Very clear increase of pitches per plate appearance, which may or may not coincidentally mirror the increase in game time
  • Pitchers used per game (per team) has gone up 50%. Another way to look at that is pitching changes have gone from 1.85 per game to 3.29 per team per game. So roughly 2.5-3 more pitching changes per game. If you figure from the time the coach leaves the dugout to the time the pitcher throws his first pitch is at least 3 minutes, that runs about 7-8 minutes longer per game than it did in 1988. So the number of pitching changes is a contributing factor for sure, but not the biggest issue
  • Note the percentage of innings pitched by relievers has risen of course.
  • Plate Appearances have remained stable, provided the run scoring environment is the same. If you refer to the table in the links you will see some ebb and flow as run scoring goes up and down, but mostly, Plate Appearances per game remain about the same, 76
  • HOWEVER !! With same number of PA , but more pitches per PA, you arrive at a 13.8% increase in pitches thrown in NL. You will also note that the % increase in the AL is less, because the AL was already starting from a higher number in 1988. I haven't analyzed why exactly the NL numbers accelerated so much faster than the AL over the last 5 seasons.

As we also know, the time to deliver pitches has grown. We only have data at FG going back to 2007, so I'm using those numbers. Check out below

NL 2007 2016 % Change AL 2007 2016 % Change
SP Seconds/P 20.5 22 7.3% SP Seconds/P 21.4 22 2.8%
TTl SP minutes 62.9 68.1 8.2% TTl SP minutes 69.3 68.8 -0.7%
RP Seconds/p 22.4 23.9 6.7% RP Seconds/p 22.9 23.6 3.1%
Ttl RP minutes 28 44 55.2% Ttl minutes 30 42 38.4%
Total Minutes 91.3 112.0 22.8% Total Minutes 99.4 110.5 11.2%

  • Relievers take more time to deliver the ball than starters
  • Since higher percentage of innings going to relievers than before, combined with the longer time to deliver, there is a multiplier effect on the increase in actual minutes
  • The actual increase in minutes when you calculate the added pitches thrown and the added time to throw comes out to 21 minutes in the NL and 11 minutes in the AL

Well, as I said initially, it's clear the MAJOR cause for the increase in time is linked to more pitches per PA and the added time to throw those pitches. What is also part of the circular effects is how the game has become such a power game. Strikeouts are at an all time high, as are homerun percentages. At the same time, velocity increases year by year.

NL 2002 2016 % Change AL 2002 2016 % Change
K% 15.1% 21.3% 41.1% K% 14.3% 20.9% 46.2%
SP FB Velo 87 92 5.7% SP FB Velo 86.2 91.8 6.5%
RP FB Velo 88.2 93.1 5.6% RP FB Velo 87.7 92.9 5.9%

  • Velocity for Sliders, Curveballs, and Changeups have also increase approx 3-4 MPH across the board
I believe that the decrease in workload for starters allows them to go max effort longer, which is a big reason for the Velo increases. At the same time, even the relievers don't have to "pace" themselves, as they face less batters per outing too. So everyone is out there throwing harder.

On top of that, the approach for hitters is to swing from the knob on every pitch and go for the long ball, not just try to put it in play.

So the combination of these two factors has lead to more strikeouts, which takes more pitches, which slows down the game and makes it boring.


1.) Require each pitcher that comes in to the game to face a minimum of 2 batters, or throw a minimum of 12 pitches.
Baseball already requires that a pitcher face at least 1 batter, (once a pitcher is announced he must face at least one batter). Simply make that two batters. This is not a fundamental change to the way the game is played. This would be an incremental around the edges type move. You need to be careful of unintended consequences, so you start here and see if it's giving the desired effect.

The net result here would be to reduce slightly the number of changes, but also give pitchers, both starters and relievers INCENTIVE to pitch to contact more, creating shorter plate appearances

2.) Rewrite ENFORCEABLE rules regarding staying in the batters box and also time to deliver the pitch. Currently as the rules are written, they are not practical or realistic. (12 second to deliver the pitch ??? Not gonna happen) When rules are not written in a realistic manner, they aren't adhered to or enforced.

But if you write it for 20 seconds than most pitchers will deliver between 17-19 seconds. Take longer than 20 seconds with nobody on base? Call a BAll

At the same time, all it takes is for the umpire to call a strike on the hitter once or twice when he refuses to remain in the box after taking a pitch to convince them to comply.

EDIT: Umpires did not really enforce this rule last year and the letter to player and small fine are no incentive. Let the umps call a strike, or a ball, at their discretion once the 20 seconds are up.

Hitters will feel pressure to just get in and hit, increasing their swing % and end up putting more balls in play. The pitchers, under pressure to deliver the pitch would be more likely to pitch to contact instead of trying to go max effort and make the perfect pitch every time to strike the hitter out.

The above two "fixes" would result in a reduction of pitching changes, pitchers per PA, and time to deliver pitchers.

The amount of time shaved off the game would be roughly 10-12 minutes , perhaps even more, and most importantly, the PACE would be much improved.

And it would get the K's under control without balooning offense, making the game more fun and interesting to watch.

So thats my take, and those are my solutions.