Number of Pitching Changes and Pitches Thrown Key consideration of Longer MLB Games

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?

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