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Pitchers Are Slowing Down To Speed Up

Welcome to Full Count, our weekly baseball column. This week, Rob Arthur is filling in for Full Count’s regular author, Neil Paine, who returns next week. Have anything you want them to write about? Tweet to Rob at @No_Little_Plans, or to Neil at @Neil_Paine.

Despite consternation from the commissioner and rule changes to speed up the game, baseball has never been slower than it is right now.1 Even in the short time since last season, the average delay between pitches has jumped a full second. It’s all part of a decadelong trend toward more sluggish play, and there’s an alarming reason baseball’s pace problem is likely to get even worse going forward: Slowing down helps pitchers throw faster.

Compared with 2007, the average MLB pitcher now holds the ball a full two seconds longer between consecutive pitches. This leisurely behavior has helped drag the average game out to a full three hours, five minutes — roughly 10 minutes longer than it was two years ago. Some have argued that the pace of the game isn’t a problem, but MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has announced that he intends to make baseball faster “for the benefit of the game and the fans.”

Regardless of where you stand on the pace-of-play debate, it hasn’t always been clear why players have slowed down so dramatically. Older hitters seem to gain from waiting longer between pitches, but that doesn’t explain why opposing pitchers have cooperated in slowing down the game. Hurlers must also have something to gain by letting the clock tick.

And indeed, in terms of baseball’s most valuable currency — fastball velocity — pitchers do benefit from a slower pace of delivery. I found this using a model that compared every pitch to the pitcher’s own average velocity, while normalizing for the count and number of pitches he had thrown in the game.2

Because I adjusted for every pitcher’s own typical velocity, this pattern isn’t just caused by a bunch of slow-pitching, hard-throwing relievers. Instead, pitchers truly seem to gain velocity by waiting longer to deliver the ball. For every additional second they spend (up to 20 seconds), pitchers throw about .02 miles per hour harder.3

Such a small difference in fastball velocity might seem too insignificant to chase. But every mile per hour matters: According to a 2010 study by Mike Fast (now employed in the Houston Astros’ front office), a single tick of fastball velocity is worth 0.3 runs per nine innings for a starter, and even more (0.45 runs per mph) for relievers. With players desperate for any advantage, a 0.1- or 0.2-mile per-hour bump is certainly worth the wait. And pitchers are taking advantage — those who took longer from one year to the next tended to see their fastball velocities increase slightly compared with what you’d expect based on their age.4

Where pace matters most, though, is at the team level. If a team’s entire pitching staff took an average of 10 extra seconds, the resulting 0.2-mile per hour increase would equate to about 10 extra runs saved per season. Using the classic sabermetric rule of 10 runs per win, that’s one whole extra victory — something general managers have been willing to pay upwards of $7 million to acquire.

No front office source was willing to confirm to me on the record that they knew about the connection between pace and fastball velocity. But it’s clear that some teams have been taking advantage. Comparing data I put together on the number of front office analysts working for teams with each team’s average pace, it turns out that the most analytically minded teams have also been the slowest.5 For example, Tampa Bay — well known as one of the most advanced sabermetric teams in baseball — has also been among the worst dawdlers, pitching about 5 percent slower than the average team.

Across baseball, the average four-seam fastball velocity has spiked a full mile per hour since 2010, and that jump has coincided with the drop in pace. Seven years ago, 55 percent of all pitches were thrown with a wait of less than 20 seconds from the previous pitch. In 2016, that’s down to 43 percent, and it will likely decline further this season. All in all, declining pace could be responsible for about 20 percent of the leaguewide increase in fastball velocity since 2010.

If pace really is helping drive fastball velocities upward, then MLB’s slowdown is inevitable. Even if the payoff in fastball velocity is tiny — a tenth of a mile per hour — throwing hard is arguably the most valuable skill in baseball. Unless Manfred succeeds in adopting aggressive new measures (such as a pitch clock) to combat baseball’s pace problem, we can expect fastballs to continue getting faster while the rest of the game slows down.

This year, putting the ball in play doesn’t pay

So far this season, fewer batted balls are falling for hits than they have since 2003. The leaguewide batting average on balls in play has dropped to .294, 6 points off last year’s average. Here’s a plot of MLB-wide BABIP over the past 17 years:

Why are we seeing such a drastic dip? It’s possible that teams are finally starting to reap the benefits of the shift, putting fielders in spots to steal away more hits. Maybe defenses have improved in some other way, or maybe colder early-season weather has been a drag on BABIP thus far.

Alternatively, players might be selling out to hit home runs more than ever before, making only glancing contact when they don’t drive the ball. Strikeout rates are higher than they’ve ever been, supporting the idea that hitters are eschewing other outcomes in order to hit long balls. Regardless of the reason, decreased BABIP (combined with more strikeouts and walks) leaves baseball with less action on the basepaths and in the field than ever before.

Insane stat of the week

Baseball’s injury problems aren’t getting worse this season

From Cy Young contenders to All-Star left fielders (some of whom even play for teams other than the Mets!), injuries have already claimed many players’ seasons. The rash of elbow and shoulder problems has prompted concern among fans and analysts about whether injuries are taking a larger toll this year than in previous seasons.

But according to injury data I assembled for an earlier article, the toll of 2017’s disabled-list members isn’t outside the norm. So far this year, the league as a whole has lost some 30 wins above replacement (WAR)6 to injuries. Prorated to a full season, that would end up being about 112 WAR, which would stand as only the third-worst total of the last eight years. The worst season by far was 2013 — the height of the Tommy John epidemic — when the league lost a whopping 163 combined wins to injuries.

Between Noah Syndergaard and a host of other All-Stars, we may feel beset by injury problems this season, but baseball’s health is not really trending any worse than usual — and things are much better now than they were four years ago.

Footnotes

  1. At least, not in the years for which we have data on game length, going back to 1920.

  2. Specifically, I used a linear mixed model for the analysis. Data for the chart came from the 2016 season, but I also tested the impact of pace on other years, from 2013-15, and found similar results.

  3. After 20 seconds, the benefit of additional time between pitches begins to level off, although velocity still increases slightly even out to about 40 seconds.

  4. The correlation between annual changes in pace and velocity was 0.1, with a p-value of 0.01.

  5. After adjusting for the league average number of analysts and pace in each year, there was a significant correlation (r=.35, p<.001) between the number of analysts a team employed and its average time between pitches.

  6. Averaging together the versions found at Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com.

Rob Arthur is FiveThirtyEight’s baseball columnist and also writes about crime.

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