Detroit — During baseball games, it’s tradition to sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” as part of the seventh-inning stretch. There is a line in the chorus: “I don’t care if I never get back.”
With the current pace of Major League games, getting back is taking a little bit longer, and the seventh-inning stretch could be replaced by a seventh-inning nap.
Baseball is the rare sport that functions without a clock, and the time needed to finish a game is increasing — so much so that the seventh inning usually begins after more than two hours.
Over the years, game lengths have swelled due to a number of factors, including TV commercial breaks, increased times between pitches and now replay reviews, which were expanded this season.
Like most teams, the Tigers are taking longer, with a nine-inning game lasting an average of three hours, six minutes, this season. That’s the fifth-highest average in the American League, behind the Rays (3:17), Yankees (3:11), Red Sox (3:11) and White Sox (3:07).
On an inning-to-inning and batter-to-batter basis, the pace of the game continues to be a concern. From 2009 through last season, Tigers games increased an average of 14 minutes — from 2:46 to 3:00.
In 2007, Major League Baseball instituted measures to try to speed up games but soon abandoned them after they had little effect. Commissioner Bud Selig reiterated recently that the game length is not a major concern to fans but he is looking into the issue.
“It’s about the pace of the game, not the time,” Selig said. “We are the same as last year; we are right at three hours. I have some clubs that are playing longer, but we have an interesting group that are playing 2:30, 2:35, 2:45, proving it can be done.”
The Tigers have topped three million fans at Comerica Park two straight seasons, so game length is not impacting attendance.
“They are definitely longer. I can remember going to games back when Ernie (Harwell) was doing them and it was 2½ hours,” said Tigers fan Terri Ann Harps of Detroit. “I don’t mind too much — I’m not leaving until it’s over.”
Selig, however, is concerned about the length of games, noting that there are unnecessary delays.
“There are things we can do,” he said. “The interesting thing is that I seem to be the one most concerned. Because people talk and talk about the length of the game — and all sporting events take longer, by the way — but the fans are coming out in record numbers.”
Generally, games in April are longer than the rest of the season, peaking at 3:14 last season. But as the months pass, game times are quicker, reaching a low of 2:55 last July.
The Tigers’ longest game this season was 5:16, in a 13-inning loss at Cleveland on May 21; the shortest game was 2:26, in a 3-1 loss at Oakland on May 28.
The Royals have the A.L.’s shortest average, at 2:53, in nine-inning contests.
Part of the reason is pitchers getting stretched out — becoming more accustomed to longer outings — and finding a groove in the summer months.
“The first 10 years I played, the starting pitcher would pitch six innings, at least. He had to really be getting hammered for the bullpen to go,” said Tigers Hall of Famer Al Kaline, who played from 1953-74.
“The starting pitchers were always the best pitchers and would stay in there unless they were getting beat up. The pitchers (now) are at fault, too, because they don’t throw strikes and they walk around the mound.
“Everything adds up — 10 seconds here and 20 seconds there can mean a lot.”
Among the culprits is the basic tenet of baseball — the pitcher throwing to the batter. It’s a seemingly simple process but after the first pitch of an at-bat, pitchers and hitters get into their own routines to try to establish a rhythm.
“One of the biggest things with pace of game is regulating the starting pitchers on when they throw the ball,” Tigers starter Max Scherzer said. “If there’s no foul ball, you have to be walking back up toward the rubber backward so that as soon as you catch it, you’re right back on the rubber and let’s go.
“You see pitchers who throw and they’re walking around the mound. They take too much time between pitches. It’s amazing how fast a game goes if you have starters who are on the mound firing.”
According to MLB rules, if there are no runners on base, pitchers have 12 seconds between pitches. That was one of the changes that was instituted in 2007 to try to speed up the game; the penalty was a ball if the pitcher didn’t comply. Hitters were required to keep at least one foot in the batter’s box or were assessed a strike. But in the years since, the rules have gone unenforced.
“The games are taking longer because we’re allowing pitchers to take breaks between pitches,” said Tigers fan Sandi Carothers of Detroit. “We allow little stolen minutes throughout the game where, if you cut down on most, it makes the game much shorter.”
Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez steps out of the batter’s box after almost every pitch — and is regarded as one of the most focused and patient hitters. The time between pitches in one of Martinez’s at-bats can reach 20-25 seconds, meaning that his time during a plate appearance can total three to four minutes. Other Tigers hitters, such as Rajai Davis and Ian Kinsler, stay in the batter’s box and have much shorter at-bats.
The differing techniques have yielded similar results, though, as Martinez (.335) leads the American League in average and Kinsler (.304) is 12th.
With the expansion of instant replay this season to include manager-initiated challenges, reviews are adding to game times. One prevailing notion is that those challenges are significantly increasing game times.
But in the Tigers’ first 53 games, there were 35 challenges, with an average time of 1 minute, 43 seconds.
Among the Tigers games that had a replay review, the longest challenge took 3:54 but the pace of the process has quickened since the early lag in April. In the 20 Tigers reviews since the start of May, only seven have taken longer than the average time, and five were less than a minute.
Only two Tigers games have had as many as three reviews, one of which totaled eight minutes, during a game that lasted 3:06; that time was still at the average this season. In the other game, the three challenges totaled 3 minutes, 30 seconds, of the 3 hours, 43 minutes, in the total game time.
But even the replay process is being refined. As the season progresses, the reviews are being completed more quickly and are less of an intrusion on the game. In past years, managers often argued with umpires for several minutes, which could balance with the average time of about two minutes that replays are taking.
“I do think that ultimately that has the potential to be a wash,” FoxSports.com national baseball writer Jon Paul Morosi said. “I know that in theory as the concept was dreamed up, that was one of the things that was mentioned the most — that it’ll take as much time to review it as it does to argue it. I do think that baseball hopes the review time parallels with what the argument time used to be.”
The time is somewhat reduced by team replay coordinators, who quickly review the video in the dugout then signal the manager whether to make a challenge.
“I would like to see managers forced to make a decision in a more restricted time frame,” Morosi said.
All of the Tigers games are on local TV on Fox Sports Detroit or nationally on ESPN or Fox Sports 1. In every televised game, there are commercials between innings and during some pitching changes. In general, the inning breaks are about two minutes for FSD games and 2½ minutes for national games. Additional promotions and updates — generally about 15-30 seconds — during the broadcast also add to the game length.
Counting the middle and end of each of the first eight innings and another in the middle of the ninth, there are 17 TV breaks in a game, which equates to about 34-40 minutes of commercials and promos.
“TV’s the majority of it; there are things we could do as players to help speed it up a little bit,” Scherzer said. “At the end of the day, it’s not much. There’s only little things that players and pitchers can do to speed it up between innings.”
For the production value of a game, teams play walk-up music for players as they approach the plate. That can add up to 30 seconds to each plate appearance, which totals at least 30 minutes for each game.
“When we used to play, it started at 8 (p.m.) and we were done at 10,” said Tigers radio analyst Jim Price, who played catcher from 1967-71. “Now the guys have their own music and you have to wait for the music before they make their entrance and they’re out of the box every pitch.
“The umpires used to yell at you to get in the box.”
Some of those breaks allow for more TV replays of key plays and other in-game promos.
“Sometimes we’re ready to go and we have to wait on TV,” Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter said. “It’s not always us.”
For all the delays in a game, including more pitching changes and specialty relief pitchers, there aren’t any specific measures in place to try to speed up the game.
Though the average age of baseball fans continues to get older, baseball isn’t suffering from lower attendance or malaise.
“We live in a short-attention-span generation. The appeal of baseball is it doesn’t have a clock and it’s timeless,” Morosi said. “It’s the notion to step away from the immediate time-compressed nature of life; baseball is an antidote to that.”
Even traditionalists don’t want to change the game to become like soccer and other sports that rely on a clock but drag on at the end, like basketball with its stream of timeouts.
“I hate to think of baseball on a clock,” Kaline said. “But to make it as popular as it is and hopefully will continue to be, we have to do things for the people that are watching, sitting in the stands, watching television.
“You have to be thinking more about the game than your own self.”