The pressure of postseason baseball is one its biggest selling points — that feeling of tension that builds up to every season-defining pitch.
But that buildup can also make the games take forever. According to Retrosheet’s data, the average playoff contest in 2021 took 3 hours and 40 minutes, up nearly 15 percent from a regular season that had already set an all-time high (3:11) for the longest games on record. While 2022’s regular-season games checked in at a comparatively brisker average of 3 hours and 6 minutes — merely fifth-longest all-time — it’s probably fair to expect this month’s typical postseason matchup to take at least 3.5 hours.
The 2022 playoffs might see the last of these megalong games being the norm, however, so enjoy them — or snooze through them — while they last. That’s because last month, MLB passed a series of rule changes that (among other differences) will mandate pitch clocks starting next season, limiting pitchers to 15 seconds between receiving the ball from the catcher and the start of their delivery with the bases empty, and 20 seconds with runners on base. The new timing mechanism has the potential to speed up the sport considerably at its highest level, as minor leagues that strictly adhered to a clock shortened their games by around 20 minutes.
Why does a pitch clock have such an effect? It might not seem like it would change much when the average pitcher currently uses the equivalent of 12.5 seconds to deliver the ball with the bases empty and 17.5 seconds with runners on base, both below the thresholds of next season’s timers (according to an estimate that converts MLB’s Statcast pitch-tempo measurements into the framework of the pitch-clock rules). But those averages hide a sizable cohort of pitchers who will need to pick up their pace next season.
With the bases empty, nearly 15 percent of the 398 pitchers who qualified for Statcast’s leaderboard in 2022 took more time on average than the clock will allow, with 23 taking at least 10 percent longer than allowed and eight taking at least 20 percent longer. That group was led by St. Louis Cardinals reliever Giovanny Gallegos and his 20.0 second average with the bases empty, a tempo 33 percent slower than what the pitch clocks will allow next season. Collectively, the qualified group in blue above took 6.2 hours beyond what the timers would have allowed.
By comparison, fewer pitchers (12 percent) would have come in over the timer threshold with runners on base, even though they tended to work even slower in those situations. But the outliers with men on are even more separated from the rest of the pack than with the bases empty:
At the far right of the chart, there’s Gallegos again, tied with Atlanta’s Kenley Jansen at an absurd 25.2 seconds per pitch with runners on. (Both pitch for playoff teams, by the way.) They’re joined in that cluster by Alex Colomé of the Colorado Rockies and Devin Williams of the Milwaukee Brewers, both of whom took 24.5 seconds to throw. While nobody else checked in with a timer-equivalent average over 22 seconds, there’s no doubt that the the looooooong wait between pitches with runners on base — particularly for relievers, who tend to pitch at a slower pace than starters and throw a larger share of their pitches with bases occupied — helps drag games down to a crawl.
That sluggish pace will probably be a theme throughout this postseason, as it’s that time of year when bullpen arms take center stage and pause to collect themselves a little bit more before every pressure-packed throw. But they should also know what’s coming afterwards. Although the majority of pitchers ought to be mostly unaffected by the new timing rules, nearly 20 percent of qualified hurlers will need to speed up their average time with either the bases empty or runners on. And in turn, that should make for a faster product when we tune into the postseason again a year from now.
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