MLB games averaging 2 hours, 37 minutes after a week of spring training, would be fastest pace since 1979
Spring training games are ending a half-hour faster than in last year's regular season
The Milwaukee Brewers defeated the Chicago Cubs by a score of 6-3 Tuesday at spring training in Arizona.
It was not a particularly interesting game. Cubs pitcher Drew Smyly got roughed up in his first Cactus League start, allowing 5 hits and 2 runs in 2 innings of work. Abraham Toro and Nelson Velazquez both entered the game in the later innings and homered. The team combined to trot out 13 pitchers to get their work in.
The interesting number came at the bottom of the box score, and it would've been shocking this time last year. The time of game: 2 hours, 11 minutes.
Games like that have become the norm at spring training this year, thanks to the introduction of MLB's pitch clock, which requires pitchers to start their deliveries within 15 seconds of receiving the ball with bases empty and within 20 seconds with runners on base, while batters must be ready with eight seconds left on the clock. The data through one week of play indicates that MLB is heading toward the fastest pace it has seen in decades: 2 hours, 37 minutes.
That's how long the average nine-inning spring training game has lasted through 94 games with the pitch clock. That number includes split-squad games but does not include games involving non-MLB teams or games called early for rain.
That pace of play is 29 minutes shorter than last year's average game time of 3 hours, 6 minutes, which was a five-minute improvement on 2021's record of 3 hours, 11 minutes, according to data from Baseball Reference. That's cutting nearly a half-hour of dead time per game.
For perspective, a game that lasted six minutes longer than that Brewers-Cubs game was considered so quick it made national headlines last postseason. Meanwhile, a game with the same score in the final day of the season last year between the Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox lasted 3 hours, 21 minutes.
If MLB games average 2 hours, 37 minutes, it would be the quickest pace of play since 1979.
How will the pitch clock affect MLB's regular season?
The large caveat to the average game length so far is that spring training games have major differences from regular-season games, but those differences could still be lengthening games, meaning upcoming regular-season games could be even shorter.
This week's games have seen an average of 11.35 runs scored, 2.78 more runs than last year's regular-season average. That's likely because of a lower quality of pitching, both because pitchers are still getting up to speed and because teams are going much deeper into their organizational depth charts for arms.
Because more runs correlates to longer games, the regular season could go by at an even brisker pace once the scoreboard calms down.
On the other hand, spring training games usually aren't intense enough to see mid-inning pitching changes, and they don't go to extra innings, so they might naturally be a bit shorter than normal. But even that shortening might be a little overblown, as the average length of nine-inning games last year was still 3 hours, 3 minutes, and we haven't seen that stat go below 2 hours, 37 minutes since 1984.
Games likely just take less time now, as hoped and expected. The result is a product that harkens back to when baseball was on top, even if there are some hiccups here and there.
What about MLB's other rules changes?
MLB's pitch clock is the most visible rule change so far in spring training, but it certainly isn't the only rule change.
The league has also banned shifts, limited pick-off attempts and increased the size of its bases. The intention behind the moves is to adjust the game's style to encourage balls in play and stolen bases — a direct push back against the widely lamented Three True Outcome state of the modern game — and it looks like those changes might be working, too.
Entering Thursday, the team stats on MLB's site worked out to a .319 batting average on balls in play this spring, the statistic that measures how often balls in play are converted to outs. The league-wide mark for the regular season has steadily fallen the past five years as shifts became more prevalent, going from .300 in 2017 to .290 last season.
It should be noted that spring training BABIP is usually inflated due to the lower quality of defense, but .319 is still quite a bit higher than the range of .310 to .314 over the past four full spring trainings.
JJ Cooper of Baseball America also noted Thursday that stolen-base rates, both attempts and success, have skyrocketed, going from 0.77 attempts per game and a 72.9% success rate in spring training last year to 1.16 and 80.6% this year. The Cincinnati Reds stole 14 bases in 14 attempts in their first five games.
Basically, fans should get ready to see for more base hits, more stolen bases and less waiting time this season, just like MLB wanted.