Tank Talks Sox: Why are Red Sox games taking forever?

For starters, they have assembled a rotation of clodhoppers

David Tanklefsky
June 16, 2017 - 2:26 pm
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Thursday night's Red Sox game, a 1-0 pitcher's duel between Boston ace Chris Sale and Philadelphia rookie Nick Pivetta, wrapped up in a tidy two hours and 25 minutes. It was the third quickest Sox game of the year. For Red Sox fans, games like that are a cool drink of water in a desert of excruciatingly slow baseball games.

A few numbers that will make your eyes bleed:
-The average nine-inning Red Sox game this year has taken three hours and 16 minutes, a full 12 minutes longer than the big league average.
-This year, Boston has played 35 games of at least three hours and 20 minutes. That's the most in baseball by five games.  
-The 2014 Tampa Bay Rays hold the record for most games in a season of 3:20 or longer with 67. The Red Sox are on pace to play 86 of them.
-Seventy-two percent of Boston's nine-inning games have taken longer than league average (3:04).

Mother's Day was the absolute nadir of brutal baseball. Boston and Tampa Bay, playing a rain-soaked matinee at Fenway Park, took four hours and 32 minutes to complete a nine-inning baseball game. Out of some 200,000-plus games in the history of professional baseball, it was the third-longest nine-inning game in history. All of this begs one question:

What on earth is taking so long?

Marathon Red Sox games are nothing new. Conventional wisdom has held for decades that the Red Sox play in a hitter's ballpark, score a lot of runs and hence play longs games. But the recent spike is indicative of baseball's larger pace of play issue. In 2014, the length of an average nine-inning game climbed over three hours for the first time in history. The following year, MLB was able to shave six minutes off the average game length by enforcing rules about how long a pitcher could take between pitches and by instituting a pitch clock in between innings. 

During the 2015 season, MLB cut down the time between pitches by close to a full second. That alone was responsible for a majority of the reduction in overall game time. Take the average number of pitches in a game (about 289 in 2015), subtract one second between every pitch and you save close to five minutes per game.

The problem is baseball has gone backwards since then. Last year, average time between pitches rose by more than half a second. This year it's up a whole second from last year and more than a second and a half from 2015. The result has been disastrous for pace of play: the average time of game has risen to an all-time high 3:04. 

That's troubling for MLB. When the most high pressure NBA and NHL playoff games are taking literally hours less time than a soporific baseball game in early June, you've got problems. When seemingly everything else in life is getting shorter, baseball games are getting way longer. That's not a good recipe for long-term success.

Part of the reason Red Sox games are taking even longer than usual is they have gathered a pitching staff of total clodhoppers. Of the nine pitchers to have started games for Boston this year, six take more time than the already-increased average time between pitches. 

David Price and Drew Pomeranz are the biggest culprits. Though he's started just three games, Price is the sixth slowest out of 244 starters in terms of pace, averaging 27.5 seconds between pitches. Pomeranz is 25th at 25.5.

Let me pause here to just point out how insane this has gotten. It should not take a major league pitcher half a minute to decide what pitch he's going to throw. Hey David Price, you've got four or five pitches. You're not Satchel Paige. You don't have seven different types of screw balls. You've got great stuff. How 'bout pick a pitch, throw it and live with the consequences? 

I don't even know what to say about Pomeranz at this point. I always fight people who say baseball is boring. There's always something going on, some subtle drama taking place just under the surface of the game. But Jesus is it boring when Drew Pomeranz pitches. Here's the best way to explain how long he takes on the mound: David Ortiz literally rounds the bases in less time than it takes for Drew Pomeranz to throw a single pitch. 

Most of Boston's starters have always been slow, but this year they're even slower. Price and Rick Porcello are averaging two seconds longer between pitches compared to last year. It's taking Pomeranz more than three and a half seconds longer between pitches.

Boston's relievers don't get off the hook either: they're the slowest in the American League.

This year, Sox pitchers are averaging about 153 pitches per game. That's up about six pitches from 2015, when game times were significantly lower. With an average pace of 25 seconds between pitches, those six extra hurls alone account for an increase of about two and a half minutes per game.

As always, thank God for Chris Sale. He's one of the 20 fastest starters in baseball. Sale has been the starter in seven of the 14 games the Red Sox have played in under three hours this year. When Sale isn't on the mound, Sox games are an average of 17 minutes longer than when he is. 

While pace usually has more to do with the pitcher, Red Sox hitters take their sweet time too. Sox sluggers typically wait 25 seconds between pitches, second most in baseball and two and a half seconds longer than 2015. Sox pitchers are seeing 154 pitchers per game, two more than two years ago. So add another 50 extra seconds on per game there.

But for all the number crunching, it's still hard to figure how Sox games are a staggering 16 minutes longer than they were two years ago.

There's all sorts of little moments that add up but are hard to quantify, including the ungodly amount of catcher visits to the mound when Christian Vazquez is behind the plate and the number of challenges or possible challenges manager John Farrell invokes. The Sox aren't averaging more challenges this year than any other year, but it does seem like there are a lot of "non-challenge" moments where Farrell stands atop the dugout steps with his hand out like a traffic cop, holding the umpires until he gets word from someone in the clubhouse that the play wasn't worth challenging after all. 

The current three-true outcomes environment in baseball is a contributing factor as well. Strikeout rates and home run rates are at an all-time high. Boston pitchers have the fourth highest K-rate in baseball and Sox hitters have the seventh highest walk rate. Lots of walks and lots of strikeouts mean longer at bats and longer games.

All of this is possibly more problematic for baseball overall than for the Red Sox specifically. Boston may be more inured from the self-inflicted march toward irrelevance that baseball seems hell-bent on than other markets because people here are simply baseball nut jobs. 

Last season, despite a heavy increase in game length, Boston was still the seventh best TV market in the league and viewership rose by 33% year over year. If the team is winning, interest is high no matter how long it takes to play the games.

Speaking of TV, the Sox have already played eight times on national television, which features commercial loads that add about six extra minutes to every nine-inning game and more with pitching changes. So the clock ticks up there as well. 

Pundits often say it's going to be a long summer for losing teams but for this Red Sox club, it's going to be a long summer either way.

 

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