Much of the discussion this year has been this constant focus by how long games are, a focus driven largely by the media which would prefer that every baseball game fit nicely into a 3-hour block of time that works for TV and radio programming. While I agree things could be done to speed up the game, I am not totally sold on this notion that baseball is losing the younger crowd. Can more be done to modernize the ballpark to the new ways fans like to interact, no doubt. Look at the roof top deck at Coors field and the swimming pool at Chase Field as great examples. But clearly something is driving attendance at levels never noticed in baseball history. When it comes to how long the game is, we must take stock of a couple key points.
Baseball Reference posted a blog entry a few years ago, which showed that the average number of pitches thrown per team per game was increased from roughly 136 in 1988 to 146 in 2009. An extra 20 pitches combined per game equals about another half inning of work if you looked at it based on a 15-16 average pitch count per inning thrown by any given team.
The same entry by Baseball Reference noted the greater number of relief pitching appearances, a bit over 7,000 in just over 2100 games in 1988, more than 14,000 in 2009, which had just over 2420 games. Clearly the extra 300 games could not have produced double the relief appearances.
With that, I decided to go to Baseball Reference and do a very basic search. How many times did a team use at least four pitchers in a game, or put another way, call on at least three relief pitchers. If every team went to the bullpen exactly 3 times per game and if every game would be played on a schedule, then you would in theory have 2430 games with six pitching changes, three per side. This would result in a total of 14,580, which was around the total in 2009. So with that said, how many times did a team have at least three pitching changes in a season?
I went back to 1980 and in that season, 924 instances were noted where a team made at least three pitching changes. That comes to 35.53 times per team that season where no fewer than three relief pitchers were called upon. The total number of such games actually took a very slight dip and held right around 900 in 1982-84, I didn’t count the 1981 season because of all that happened with the strike and the impact on teams coming back to resume the season after nearly two months off. The first real jump came in 1985, when 1,047 such games take place, for an average of 40.26 instances per team of at least three relief calls. By 1992, this number had taken a massive jump up to 1580 occurrences, 60.77 per team and then up to 65.54 such games per team the very next season in 1993. IN 1997, the number was up to 79.57 games per team with three or more pitching changes. Surprisingly, the number during another expansion year of 1998 would actually dip down slightly to 75.67, but it would go back up in 1999 to 82.1. After taking just a tiny dip in 2000, the number climbed to 84.43 games per team in 2001 with three or more changes. IN 2004, the number was 90.83, in fact 2750 times a team used at least three pitchers in relief, at least one team on average in every single MLB game went for three relievers. IN 2007, teams would use three or more relief pitchers 3,020 times. Now in a full 2430 game season, this means that out of the 4,860 pitched games by the 30 MLB pitching staffs, they would call upon those extra relievers at these higher rates 60% of the time. The average number of games per team where at least three relief pitchers were used now reached a mark of 100.67, nearly three times the rate in the 1980 and 1982-84 seasons. If one team alone makes three pitching changes, that has the potential to add 6-7 minutes, especially if those changes are during the middle of an ongoing inning. IN 2014, the numbers were nearly identical to 2007, 3,006 games where a team made three or more changes.
Now clearly more can be done to move the game along, as I timed games where it took 30-45 seconds between pitches, 3-4 minutes between the time a pitcher was pulled and the next guy threw a pitch that counted in the proceedings. Clearly that can and should be changed. More advertisers bills can be paid by doing in-game sponsorships as is done in the commercial free halves of a World Cup game. But while we can hope that baseball will legislate something to deal with the slowing tactics used by both batter and pitcher, you will never be able to change the way managers use bullpens today, with all of the statistical data that shows every single aspect of the pitcher/batter matchup. Teams would and should do all they can to try and maximize their advantage based on this data. So before you complain about how long games are getting, ask yourself, would you be happy if your favorite team’s manager did not do all he could to maximize the chances of giving the team a winning edge?
Baseball is a sport rich with stories of amazing accomplishments and dramatic conclusions to unforgettable pennant races. While the wild card has certainly allowed some weaker teams to be part of the post season experience from time to time, one cannot argue with the increased drama that this development put in place for baseball fans.
The two division era gave us our first one game playoff on Monday October 2, 1978, when the Yankees famously beat the Red Sox at Fenway Park to claim the AL East, ultimately going on to a second straight world championship. The dodgers would sweep three games at home against the Astros in 1980 and force a fourth straight game at Dodger stadium, though the Astros would get up off the deck and win the decisive game 163 on Monday October 6, 1980 and thus the franchise’s first NL West crown. Those two playoff games would be the only such contests during the two division era from 1969-1993, though it almost happened a few other times.
In 1971, the Giants went to the final day of the regular season with a 1 game lead over the Dodgers in the NL West. ON that Thursday September 30, the Dodgers would defeat Houston 2-1 in Los Angeles, but it would ultimately not matter as the Giants took a 5-1 victory against the Padres in San Diego. IN 1972, the Red Sox and Tigers were facing each other to close the season. Teams lost some games due to a strike that were not made up during the early days of the season and the Red Sox and Tigers would end up finishing a half game apart. Detroit clinched on the penultimate day of the season, Tuesday October 3 to win the AL East title.
September 30, 1973 brought a strange situation. ON that day, the NL East leading Mets split a pair at Chicago against the Cubs, leaving the Mets at 81-79 and in first place. The problem, the 81-81 Cardinals and 80-81 Pirates were mathematically still alive. On Monday October 1, the Mets had to make up a pair of games while Pittsburgh made up a game. All the Mets had to do was win the first game and the second would not matter, if they had lost both, they would have tied the Cardinals at 81-81 and a Pittsburgh win would have created a three-way 81-81 tie for first place. What happened on Monday October 1 you ask? Pittsburgh lost at home to the Padres and the Mets won at Chicago, giving the Mets the division at 82-79.
Wednesday October 2 was the close of the 1974 season. Pittsburgh came in leading the Cardinals by a game in the NL East. The Cardinals were rained out and Pittsburgh won in extra innings. Had Pittsburgh lost, the Cardinals would have had to play the next day to see if they would pull into a division tie.
Pittsburgh almost was involved in another playoff situation in 1979. ON Sunday September 30, Pittsburgh won at home to claim the division which was also the result of a Montreal Expos loss. Had Pittsburgh lost that day no matter what happened in Montreal, the Expos would then have had to make up as many as two games to decide if it would be the Pirates, Expos, or a tie to end the 1979 regular season in the NL East.
A similar situation almost played out between the Reds and Astros in the NL West, but Cincinnati clinched earlier in the week. Otherwise, the Reds could have also had to make up a game and potentially play Houston in a playoff, foreshadowing what the Astros would face in 1980.
The 1982 season had without question the best finish in the two division era. When the day started on Sunday October 3, the Braves lead the Giants by a game in the NL West, the Cardinals lead the Phillies by a game in the NL East and the Brewers and Orioles were tied in the AL East. Baltimore and Milwaukee would be decided that day because they ironically faced one another, so game 162 was the win or go home game for both, one the Brewers one easily 10-2 in Baltimore. AS for the NL drama, it didn’t quite play out. The Phillies won their game 4-1 over the Mets, then watched as the Cardinals took a 5-4 game at Wrigley in 14 innings, remember no lights were at Wrigley in those days, so had the game gone on longer, they would have had to resume on Monday and then have a playoff had the Cardinals lost. The drama in the west was later in the day in California, as Atlanta lost at San Diego 5-1, but the Dodgers would also lose at San Francisco 5-3, giving the Braves the division title. This would foreshadow later games impacting the Dodgers and Giants in races with the Braves.
The 1985 season did not have final day drama, but it nearly worked out that again three divisions were in play. The Royals edged the Angels by a game in the AL West, the Blue Jays did the same to the Yankees by 2 in the AL East, while the Cardinals slipped by the Mets by 3 in the NL East. It would be 1987 that would bring the next round of great drama. The Tigers would storm back the final week to catch and then pass the Blue Jays. ON the final day in Detroit, the Tigers had a one game lead and if they won, it was all over, while a Toronto win would have forced a playoff the next afternoon. The Tigers would ultimately win that day and avoid the third division playoff in history, a third that would not come during the two division era.
The 1988 season was known for one race, the AL East. The Red Sox, Tigers and Blue Jays were tightly bunched to the end, Boston clinched on the final Saturday, so Sunday October 2 had no impact.
The same played out in 1989 with the blue Jays getting by the Orioles on the final Saturday, a Baltimore win at Toronto would close the season on Sunday October 1 and a single game separated the battle of the birds. Toronto would be involved yet again in 1990 with a dramatic ending, the situation on Wednesday October 3, the final day of the season would be a carbon copy of 1987. Toronto was down a game and facing the team they needed to catch, this time Boston and again on the road. Again Toronto would fall and the Red Sox edged the Jays by a pair in the AL East.
Remember the earlier comment about the Giants, Dodgers and Braves. The 1991 season saw a great comeback as the Braves would catch and pass the Dodgers. Atlanta won on the final Saturday and the dodgers fell at the Giants, helping the Braves escape with a clinching NL West celebration at home against the rebuilding Astros. But 1993 would be the season to remember and it involved these same three teams. The Giants had lead the NL West for most of the 1993 season, but then the Braves caught fire starting the night their ballpark literally did just that, on July 20, 1993. The final day of the season brought a pair of teams tied in the NL West with 103-58 records. Atlanta would win at home over the expansion Rockies, taking all 13 games against Colorado. The Giants had to win at Los Angeles to force the playoff, the Giants had helped Atlanta by beating the Dodgers in 1982 and 1991. This time the Braves were cheering for the Dodgers to come out on top and they would do so in an 12-1 route on Sunday October 3.
The 1994 strike kept us from enjoying the drama that a wild card could have given us that first year, but 1995 and the new three division alignment would prove to be great. The Yankees would claim the wild card on the final day of the season, Sunday October 1. The Angels and surging Mariners who were battling for the AL West were also in contention for that Wild Card slot. Those clubs went to the final day of the season tied and both won, forcing an extra game on Monday October 2 in Seattle. We almost had another playoff that same day for the NL Wild Card. The Astros had gone into a late season tail spin and the Rockies kept winning. ON the final day, Houston had to win at the Cubs and have Colorado lose at home to the Giants. Houston was down early but stormed back for a win. Unfortunately, Colorado would turn the exact same trick and minutes after the Astros won, they learned that they would not be flying to Denver for a Monday playoff at the Rockies to settle the first NL wild card. Under today’s rules, that game would have taken place with Houston as the second wild card and those Yankees, they would have had to play a home game against the loser of the AL West playoff for the AL Wild Card which turned out to be the Angels.
The 1996 season is one that would have been memorable under today’s rules. The final day of the season September 29 only left one thing to settle, who would win the NL West and who would be the wild card. The Dodgers and Padres would each get one of these two slots and they faced one another, ultimately San Diego took the division crown and both would lose in the NLDS. But had there been two wild card teams in 1996, things would have been very interesting. The Dodgers would have played a home game in the wild card against the Montreal Expos, the same team they beat in the 1981 NLCS. The American League, what a crazy situation we would have faced. Yes the wild card team that year was Baltimore, but who would Baltimore play you ask? We honestly can’t answer that question, because the second wild card would have been a potential three-way tie. The Mariners would have held the second slot at 85-76, but they would have to make up a game. If they had lost, they would have been 85-77, the same record also belonging to the White Sox and Red Sox. Baltimore would have had two off days at home to see who survived had that played out.
The 1997 season brought the same type of situation in the National League. While all divisions and the top wild cards were settled, the Yankees would have played the Angels as the second AL wild card that year, the NL would have featured the Marlins waiting to see who won a wild card playoff game between the Mets and Dodgers who both finished 88-74.
The 1998 season is remembered for the home run race, but a great wild card race took place in the NL. On the final day, the Cubs and Giants were tied, the Mets were a game out. New York had to win and hope for losses by the other two, which did happen. Unfortunately on September 27 of 1998, the Mets also lost. As for the Cubs and Giants, both blew big leads to the same teams they blew leads to three years earlier, the Giants against the Rockies again in Denver, the Cubs against the Astros, this time in Houston. The cubs and Giants had a playoff in 1998 which would have been the same with the new system today, while in the AL, Boston would have played host to Toronto.
The 1999 season featured a great race in the NL Central between the Reds and Astros, the Mets were also in on this as a wild card. Ultimately, Houston edged Cincinnati on the final day when both clubs won, but the Mets won as well forcing the Reds into a wild card playoff. Had Houston lost in those days, the Mets would have claimed the wild card because Houston and Cincinnati would have played a game to decide the division and the loser would be out altogether. This situation forced a later change in the rules. Under the system now, the loser of a playoff like that would then go on and play the wild card game. No other divisions were close that year, your AL wild card would have again been in Boston, the visiting team being the 87-75 Oakland Athletics.
The 2000 season had a memorable ending. The final day saw the Indians needing a win and they needed Seattle to lose. Had this happened, Seattle then would have had to play a makeup game the next day. The results of that game could have then resulted in an Oakland and Seattle playoff and Cleveland sneaking in as a wild card, much like the Mets almost did a year earlier. The Mariners and athletics both won, giving Oakland the AL West and Seattle the wild card. The Indians would have been the second wild card that season in the AL. The Braves would edge out the Mets in the NL East, the Mets as the top wild card would have played the 86-76 Dodgers who would have claimed the second wild card by a game over Cincinnati.
The 2001 season had one thing to decide on the final day, Sunday October 7, who would win the NL Central and who would be the wild card. Houston beat St. Louis and on head to head, the Astros claimed the division, the Cardinals the wild card, both were 93-69. Today, they would have had a playoff, the loser would then have hosted the Giants in the wild card game, while the AL wild card would have been Minnesota at Oakland.
Not much drama remained in 2002, other than to decide another division/wild card arrangement, between the Giants and Diamondbacks. Ultimately Arizona won the division and the wild card Giants who came so close to a championship would have first had to play the single game at home against the Dodgers. The Angels would have played at home in the AL wild card, against the winner of a playoff between the Mariners and Red Sox who each were 93-69.
In 2003, the Astros would be eliminated from contention on the final Saturday by the NL Central champion cubs. Had a wild card been around for a second team in 2003, the Astros would have played at the marlins. Over in the AL, the Red Sox would have been at home against the mariners, a rematch from the prior year.
The 2004 season saw the Giants just miss out on the NL West to the Dodgers and to the Astros in the wild card. The Cubs and Phillies also had less than memorable finishes that year. Houston would have hosted San Francisco in a wild card game, while Boston would have hosted Oakland in the AL.
IN 2005, the Yankees and Red Sox ended tied just like the Cardinals and Astros in 2001, New York getting the division title. Had they played it off, the loser would have then been home for a wild card against Cleveland. IN the NL, the Phillies who were edged in the NL East by a pair of games by Atlanta, would have played at Houston for the wild card.
IN 2006, a situation like 1973 was in place. Houston had a chance to win and with a Cardinals loss, the Astros would have been in position to play a makeup game that could have forced a tie. Houston lost though and so the drama never materialized, even though the Cardinals did lose for their part, so St. Louis won the NL Central. Detroit which had lead all year would lose in extra innings on that same October 1, giving the AL Central to Minnesota and the Tigers a wild card. The Padres and Dodgers would tie for the NL West, but the situation was just like that 10 years earlier in 1996, with the Dodgers this time claiming the division. Under today’s rules, Detroit would have had a home playoff in the wild card with the white Sox who edged the Angels for that slot, while in the NL, the dodgers and padres would play a game to decide a division title, sending the loser to a Wild Card game at home against an 85-77 Phillies club.
Everyone remembers 2007, at one point the NL West, East and wild cards were all in play among five teams going to the final three days of the season, the Diamondbacks, padres, Rockies, Phillies and Mets. The Phillies would get hot and claim the NL east on the final day, the Mets would lose in a most memorable way. The Padres would do the same as the Mets, while the Rockies could not lose a game. The Phillies and Diamondbacks would win the divisions and the Rockies and padres would play a most memorable playoff for the wild card which would be the same today. The Mets would still be on the outside looking in. IN the AL where the drama was so much less significant, the Yankees would have hosted the winner of a playoff between the Mariners and Tigers under today’s system, thus much more drama.
The 2008 season saw a makeup game on Monday September 29 with the Tigers and White Sox in Chicago. The Sox had to win this game to get into a division playoff with the Twins, had they lost, Minnesota would have won the AL Central. The White Sox won this game, then beat the Twins on Tuesday September 30 to get the division title. Meanwhile on the final Sunday for everyone else six years ago today, the Mets again had blown the division to the Phillies but had wild card hope. They came in tied with the Brewers, Milwaukee won and the Mets lost at home to the marlins, just as they had done the prior year. IN 2008, we all remember that great Rays series against the Red Sox in the ALCS. Under today’s rules, it might have never happened, because Boston would have first had to beat the Yankees at Fenway in the wild card game. The NL matchup would have opened a door this year for the Mets, as they would have traveled to Milwaukee, thus both New York teams would have been the second wild cards in the final year of their former ballpark homes.
The Twins and Tigers would have yet another division playoff in 2009, an epic collapse by Detroit allowed Minnesota to force this one game playoff at the Metrodome, a game the Twins won in extra innings. No other real drama played out that year, the Dodgers and Rockies had the best race with the Giants in the NL West, ultimately the Dodgers took the division and Colorado the wild card. The Rockies would have hosted the Giants in the NL wild card, the Marlins just missing out by a game, while the Rangers would have traveled to Boston in the AL, edging the Twins and Tigers.
The 2010 season brought another one of those great merged races for the NL West and wild card. The Giants would win the final Sunday October 3 to take the division title, a loss would have meant a playoff with the Padres the next day. Under today’s system, the padres would have traveled to Atlanta for a wild card and in the AL, it would have been a repeat of 2008, only this time the Red Sox and Yankees would have played in the Bronx.
We all know about 2011, as every baseball fan remembers the night of Wednesday September 28, three years ago today. We know how it all ended in sudden fashion for the Rays and Red Sox, Braves and Cardinals. We were this close to having a pair of wild card playoff games the next day featuring those matchups and that is largely what lead to the system we now have. The divisions were long since settled.
In 2012 under the new system, we all remember the great comeback the Athletics had that lead them to the AL West crown, with the Rangers who had been in first nearly the entire season finding themselves in a home wild card with the Orioles, a game they would lose. The Cardinals and Braves had their memorable game in Atlanta, infield fly rule anyone? The 2013 season brought the great race to the end that involved the Rays and Rangers ultimately in a playoff to decide who would go to Cleveland and play in that AL wild card game.
But now we come to today and the potential is here to upstage all of these previous endings. Opportunities for lots of chaos existed in 1982, 1995, 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2007 under the old system. Things would have been crazy in 1996 under this new system. But now, 2014 might bring us what 1982 did not, what 2007 did not, what 1996 could not bring because of the system in place. This 2014 season could in about 15 or 16 hours give us something that we have never had before, multiple playoff tie breaking games on the same day after the seasons conclusion. We have never had more than one, 1978, 1980, 1995, 1998, 1999, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2013. Under the old systems, we could have had a pair in 1982, 1995, 1998 to break a three-way tie, and 2011. We were this close to three such games in2007, but now we are closer to three such games than at any time in baseball history. NO matter who you are rooting for, enjoy this day. The one team with more than any others at stake is clearly the mariners, so here’s hoping that at least they get a playoff with Oakland on Monday. A Mariner win and Athletics loss brings us just that result. Meanwhile, the Cardinals and Tigers win the divisions if they just win later today, if they lose, the door is open for the Royals and Pirates to move into division ties and force playoffs on Monday. So while today is a sad day for those who love regular season baseball and for whom thoughts of spring training already exist if the playoffs are not in site, rejoice that we could be on the verge of experiencing something never before witnessed in professional baseball at this level.