The Milwaukee Brewers defeated the Chicago Cubs 6-3 at spring training in Arizona on Tuesday.
It wasn’t a particularly interesting game. Cubs pitcher Drew Smyly was hit badly in his first Cactus League start, allowing 5 hits and 2 runs in 2 innings of work. Abraham Toro and Nelson Velazquez both came into play in the later innings and homered. The team brought together 13 pitchers to do their job.
The interesting number came at the bottom of the box score, and it would have been shocking this time last year. The playing time: two hours and 11 minutes.
Games like this have become the norm at spring training this year thanks to the introduction of the MLB pitch clock, which requires pitchers to begin deliveries within 15 seconds of receiving the ball with empty bases and 20 seconds with runners on base while batters must be ready with eight seconds left. One-game week of data shows MLB is heading towards the fastest pace it has seen in decades.
Two hours and 37 minutes.
That’s how long the average nine-inning game between MLB teams in spring training lasted this year using the pitch clock through 94 games. This number includes split-squad games but does not include games involving non-MLB teams or games that were called early due to rain.
That pace of play is 29 minutes shorter than last year’s average playing time of three hours and six minutes, which is a five-minute improvement over the 2021 record of three hours and 11 minutes, according to data from Baseball Reference itself. Almost half an hour of dead time that you would normally spend watching men pacing and staring at each other per game.
For perspective, a game that lasted six minutes longer than the Brewers-Cubs game was considered fast enough to make national headlines last postseason. Meanwhile, a same-score game on the final day of the season last year between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Boston Red Sox lasted three hours and 21 minutes.
If MLB games averaged two hours and 37 minutes, that would be the fastest game pace since 1979. Of course, that number will likely be different in the regular season for a few reasons.
How Will Pitch Clock Affect MLB’s Regular Season?
The big caveat about average game length so far is that the spring training games have big differences from regular-season games, but those differences could still lengthen the games, meaning upcoming regular-season games could be even shorter.
This week’s games averaged 11.35 runs per game, up 2.78 runs from last year’s regular season average. This is likely due to a lower quality of pitching, both because pitchers are still getting up to speed and teams are getting much deeper into their organizational depth charts for guns.
With more runs correlating to longer games, the regular season could tick by at an even faster pace once the scoreboard settles down.
On the other hand, spring training games aren’t usually intense enough to see mid-inning pitching changes and they don’t go into extra innings, so of course they can be a bit shorter than normal. But even that reduction might be a bit of an overstatement, since the average length of nine-inning games last year was still three hours and three minutes, and we haven’t seen that stat fall below two hours and 37 minutes since 1984 .
Games now probably take less time than hoped and expected. The result is a product that harks back to the days when baseball was at the top, even if there are a few hiccups here and there.
What about MLB’s other rule changes?
MLB’s pitch clock is the most visible rule change this year, but it’s not the only rule change being introduced.
The league has also banned shifts, limited pickup attempts, and increased the size of its bases. The intention behind the moves is to adjust the playstyle for more balls in play and stolen bases – a direct throwback to the widely lamented three true outcome-heavy state of the modern game – and it looks like these changes might work as well .
On Thursday, team stats on the MLB website this spring showed a .319 batting average on balls in play, the statistic that measures how often balls in play convert to outs. The league-wide regular season mark has steadily declined over the past five years as shifts have become more frequent, going from .300 in 2017 to .290 last season.
It should be noted that BABIP is usually exaggerated in spring practice due to lower defensive quality, but .319 is still a bit higher than the .310-.314 range in the last four full spring practices.
JJ Cooper from Baseball America also noted on Thursday that stealing base rates, both attempts and successes, have skyrocketed, from 0.77 attempts per game and a 72.9% success rate at 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, brace yourself for more base hits, more stolen bases, and less wait time this season, just like MLB wanted. Whether or not that’s a good thing given the changes is up to you.