BOSTON – The analytics crowd isn’t accepting blame for baseball’s big slowdown.
“I plead not guilty,” statistics pioneer Bill James said on Friday. “I don’t have nothin’ to do with this.”
As baseball games get longer and less action-packed, the sport has been looking for ways to reverse the fan-unfriendly trend. Among the biggest targets: infield shifts, and batters who swing for the fences – both tactics encouraged by analytics.
But James said on Friday that the trend toward inaction predated new philosophies like pursuing the “three true outcomes” – home runs, strikeouts and walks – that drag out the games.
“I don’t see the causal link between the things that we do and the aesthetic problems in the game,” James said at this year’s virtual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.
“A train running downhill will accelerate. It’s an out-of-control train and it is accelerating. But it was moving at a pretty good speed before we got involved in it,” he said. “It would be helpful if we could find a way to slow the train down.”
While baseball games hovered around 2 hours, 30 minutes for much of the post-WWII era, the length began creeping upward in 1979 and hit 3 hours in 2012; so far this season, a typical game takes 3:16, according to Baseball-Reference.
Commissioner Rob Manfred has said the time of game is not the problem: It’s the long periods of inaction. Those are often blamed on mathematicians who have essentially number-crunched exciting plays like stolen bases and the hit-and-run out of the game.
“From a team point of view, that’s not a concern of ours,” said Josh Ruffin, an advanced scouting analyst for the Minnesota Twins.
Manfred has appointed former Red Sox and Cubs executive Theo Epstein as a consultant to consider rules changes that would make the game more lively.
Major League Baseball has already limited visits to the mound, put pitchers on the clock between batters and cut down on pitching changes by requiring relievers to face a minimum of three batters. Rules being tested in minor leagues this year limit pickoff attempts or require infielders to be positioned on the dirt – taking away some of the incentive for defensive shifts. It’s also experimenting with larger bases, which could make it marginally easier to swipe a bag.
“There are a lot of fans that do miss stolen bases,” FanGraphs Managing Editor Meg Rowley said on the virtual panel at the analytics conference. “They don’t care that they’re inefficient.”
Sarah Gelles, the director of research and development for the Houston Astros, said she wanted to make sure teams have ample notice of any changes so they don’t build rosters with, say, left-handed relievers who can no longer come in to get one out. She noted that recent changes that raised the strike zone worked against the Pirates, who had loaded up on sinkerball pitchers.
“It really can create some unfair consequences,” she said. “From a team standpoint, I never like rules to change without prior notice. But I think if you’re going to do it, you need to test it out.”
In the meantime, she will be watching the experiments play out in the minors.
“As someone from an R&D perspective, that’s a fun angle,” she said. “I think it’s a pretty good approach.”
Until then, Gelles said teams aren’t going to change what they do, even if it makes the game less enjoyable for the fans.
“I’m here to win,” she said. “And I think everyone on the team will say the same thing.”