October brings falling leaves, great postseason pitching and hitting, and painfully long baseball games. Look no further than Game 2 of the World Series: On the game’s biggest national stage, the Cubs and Indians played a 5-1 game Wednesday night that took four hours and four minutes to complete. Interminable games like Wednesday’s contest are the norm for the MLB postseason — but even by that standard, this year has been by far the slowest in recent memory.
Baseball usually reserves its longest games for October, with the average game length jumping precipitously in the final month of each of the past five seasons. But even keeping that in mind, this year has been extraordinary: The last 27 games have featured an average game length of three hours and 24 minutes, the highest average for any continuous block of 27 games in the past five years (and far above the overall 2016 season average of three hours, two minutes). The only block of games that even comes close to the one we’re in now came in 2014 — and 2014 was before baseball commissioner Rob Manfred announced new rules designed to speed up the games. That this year’s games are surpassing the heights of 2014 even with those pace-of-play rules in place is extraordinary.
There are a number of contributors to baseball’s recent sluggishness, including instant replay reviews, reliever usage and pitcher pace. Managers are using replay-review challenges more aggressively in the postseason, averaging more than one per game, in comparison with the regular season average of 0.6 per game. Replay challenges take about 96 seconds each1, so the additional challenges are probably only adding a little less than a minute to the bloated postseason average.
Reliever usage is probably a larger factor. As I documented in a recent piece, managers are asking more relievers to chew up a greater fraction of the innings this postseason than ever before. So far this postseason, there have been 4.06 relief appearances per game, compared with a regular season average of 3.14 per game. Each pitching change can take up to two minutes and 30 seconds, so pitcher usage accounts for another two- to three-minute chunk of the sluggish pace.
Relievers themselves also slow the pace of the game. Relief pitchers take much more time between pitches — about 1.7 seconds more per throw — than starters do. Combine that leisurely tempo with the fact that relievers are being used more so far this postseason — about 14 more pitches are thrown by the bullpen per game — and we’ve accounted for another 25 or so extra seconds per game.
Speaking of slow pitching pace, by far the worst offender this year was the Los Angeles Dodgers’ bullpen. At 25.9 seconds per pitch, Dodgers relievers were 0.3 seconds slower between pitches than the second-place team (the Boston Red Sox, who also made it to the playoffs), 3.3 seconds slower — per pitch, mind you! — than their NLCS opponent, the Cubs, and 2.2 seconds slower than the AL champion Indians.2 Fans and announcers complain about replay challenges and pitching changes, but combined they probably have less impact on game length than specific teams (like the Dodgers) do.
So after the Cubs advanced over L.A. in the NLCS, it was fair to think that the strongest influence on this postseason’s slow games was out of the race, and that we might see snappier baseball in the World Series as a result. But despite the Cubs and Indians being two relatively fast-paced teams, the World Series has featured two of the longest games of the postseason, each with relatively little offense and only nine innings. There’s a big chunk of this postseason slowdown that doesn’t seem to be due to relievers, or replay, or pace. Maybe it’s the drama of the moment or the potential to break a title drought, but baseball games now take longer than at any point in recent memory.