Most fans of Major League Baseball (MLB) feel a mix of anger and dread when they hear the words “pace of play.” It’s the debate that’s been dominating baseball for the past few years and doesn’t show any signs of letting up.
With baseball games continually getting longer (the extent of this is debatable, but the average game length has been over three hours since 2012) and overall viewership reportedly falling (another contested statistic), MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has been doing everything in his power to try and stop baseball’s fall from grace as America’s pastime. He’s added timers between innings and batters, limited visits to the mound per game, and next year will be instituting laws that will stop the rapid and regular switching of relief pitchers who only face one or two batters.
The thing is, he’s missing the point.
Yes, baseball games are getting longer, but who said that was a bad thing? The first year to average three hours per game was the 2000 season. No season has averaged under two hours and 45 minutes since 1986. However these are all, in essence, semantic points. At the end of the day, there are some legitimate reasons to believe that baseball is becoming less popular, and fans can only fault Manfred so much for trying to do his job.
That being said, there’s a much larger point to be made here. Baseball is so overwhelmed with these arguments over whether it’s taking too long or is “boring” that even hardcore fans seems to be ignoring the most important thing of all: Baseball is currently in a golden age.
Now “golden age” can mean a lot of things, and it’s not necessarily spread evenly. In an era where half the teams in the MLB seem to be trying to rebuild by tanking and trading away their best players for prospects, things might not seem so fun right now. If you’re a Baltimore Orioles fan, things may seem like they’ll never be fun again. But bringing the designated hitter to the National League isn’t going to solve those problems, so they’re not of particular relevance to this article.
So what do I mean by “golden age” then? Look no further than the ad campaign the MLB themselves ran for opening day this season. The video was of a group of baseball’s best players in a press conference, each comedically answering questions in order to create hype for their specific team and upcoming season. The end of the commercial came with the Los Angeles Angels’ Mike Trout, objectively the best player in baseball, sitting front and center and simply uttering the words, “Let the kids play.”
Whether they realized it or not, the MLB touched upon exactly what makes baseball so incredibly great right now. Who are these players being shown off as the faces of baseball? Kids. The oldest player in that video was the New York Yankees’ Giancarlo Stanton, who’s only 29 years old, and he was far from the biggest name or face involved. The New York Mets’ Noah Syndergaard, the Yankees’ Aaron Judge and the Philadelphia Phillies’ Rhys Hoskins are 26. The Houston Astros’ Alex Bregman and the Cleveland Indians’ Francisco Lindor are both only 25. The Atlanta Braves’ Ronald Acuña Jr. is 21. Mike Trout himself is one of the oldest players in the commercial, and he’s only 27. The Phillies’ Bryce Harper and the San Diego Padres’ Manny Machado, the two names that dominated off-season free-agent talk this year, are both just 26 themselves.
It’s possible that in five years some of these same faces will be showing up in the same kind of ad, likely joined by highly touted up-and-comers like the Yankees’ Gleyber Torres, the San Diego Padres’ Fernando Tatís Jr. and the Toronto Blue Jays’ Vladimir Guerrero Jr. As the choice by the MLB to make this kind of ad shows, baseball is currently in possession of more marketable stars than they know what to do with, and they aren’t going away anytime soon. They’re young, they’re hungry and they’re all damned good at playing the game they (and we) love.
That’s all not to mention the real reason that baseball games are getting longer, which is pretty clearly foul balls. Now, before you say something rational about how foul balls aren’t interesting, I’m here to tell you that you’re wrong. Well, not exactly.
What’s really interesting about it is that it means at bats are getting longer, which means that more hitters are battling it out and giving us more interesting showdowns with hitters. The really amazing thing, though, comes from the reason behind the rising number of foul balls—pitching is getting faster.
A quick google search will tell you that online magazines have been writing on this topic since 2015, and the cause hasn’t changed. In fact, from 2008 to 2015 the velocity of the average fastball rose from 90.8 to 92.1mph, and it’s gotten even higher since then.
All of this is just a long-winded way of saying that pitchers are striking out a lot more batters. If you zoom out a little, you’ll see that the average pitcher in 2018, the last full MLB season, struck out 8.5 batters per nine innings, up from 6.6 20 years ago. That’s a massive spike, and at the end of the day, strikeouts are fun.
While that’s admittedly a more debatable point, defense in general can be boring to watch even for the most committed of baseball fans, but everyone loves a good strikeout in a tense situation. Getting the opponent to whiff at a slider with the bases-loaded and two outs? That can be just as exciting as any home run.
Speaking of which, my final point is just that. There is nothing more universally accepted as exciting in baseball than the home run, and baseball players are hitting more and more of them.
Last year, the New York Yankees hit 267 home runs as a team, more than any team has hit in any one season before, and if you ask any Yankee fan (myself included), they’re looking likely to hit even more this year. In 2017, there were over 6,000 home runs in the MLB, and there have been more than 15,000 hits in the last three years alone, which are both records.
In short, baseball is full of younger players who throw the ball harder and are hitting more home runs. If you think the games are getting too long, I get it.
Honestly, I get it if you think baseball is boring in general, but that’s a different argument for a different time.
At the end of the day, though, if you love baseball, don’t get bogged down by pace of play arguments. They’re important, but they’re missing the point, because baseball right now is more fun than it’s been in a long time.
Though I have to admit, if you are an Orioles fan, there’s only so much I can do for you.