Study says foul balls are MLB's real pace-of-play problem, and it can't be fixed

Mark Townsend
·Yahoo Sports Contributor

Since taking office on Jan. 25, 2015, the primary goal of Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has been to speed up the game. In the last four years, Manfred’s mission has led to several notable rule changes and experiments. Among them, a 20-second pitch clock, which is making its experimental debut in spring training this weekend after being implemented in the minor leagues in 2015.

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However, a study conducted by FiveThirtyEight’s Travis Sawchick suggests there’s an issue in play that might even go beyond the amount of time between pitches, and beyond the number of mound visits, pitching changes and intentional walks in terms of its impact on MLB’s pace. It’s also an issue that comes with no easy fix, and possibly no fix at all.

The issue? MLB has seen a significant increase in foul balls.

How significant is the foul ball increase?

According to FiveThirtyEight’s analysis of Baseball-Reference.com data, the number of foul balls increased by just under 12 percent compared to the 1998 season. That equates to nearly 14,000 more foul balls overall, or nearly six more foul balls on a per-game basis. It might not sound like much on the surface, but with batters also being more patient at the plate, the extra pitches add up quickly.

From FiveThirtyEight’s report:

Overall, there were 26,313 more pitches in baseball in 2018 (724,447) than in 1998 (698,134). That’s the equivalent of adding 88 games, or roughly a week, to the schedule.

A record 3.9 pitches were thrown per plate appearance in the 2017 and 2018 seasons, according to Baseball-Reference.com, up from 3.73 pitches per plate appearance in 2002 and 3.58 in 1988. And about half of the growth in total pitches can be attributed to foul balls.

With the pitches adding up, so too is the extra time. The average time of a nine-inning MLB game in 1998 was two hours, 47 minutes. Last season, it was three hours flat. On the bright side, that was down five minutes from 2017’s average game length, which was the highest average in league history. So at least some fixes, like limiting mound visits, appear to be helping.

Why are there more foul balls?

According to Chicago White Sox first baseman Yonder Alonso, the improved quality of pitching is the biggest factor.

“As a hitter, the game is evolving to be tougher,” Alonso told FiveThiryEight. “There are times when you are going to have to waste a pitch. And there are times when you are not necessarily trying to waste a pitch but it’s an emergency hack, an emergency swing. You are swinging very late just hoping for another swing, another pitch.”

It makes sense. Pitchers are throwing harder than ever, which means batters have to be more defensive than ever. But it’s not just pure velocity. It’s the threat of it. Batters have to adjust to off-speed pitches midstream, and they have to guard against a pitcher that isn’t necessarily challenging them, but is consistently staying around the plate.

There’s another interesting aspect too, according to the study. Despite an increase in foul balls, fewer are being turned into outs. In 2003, there were 4,372 foul outs in MLB. That number fell to a record-low 3,262 in 2016, and only slightly ticked back up to 3,450 last season.

The reason for the drop is obvious. Stadiums are now being designed with less foul ground in the field of play, which means less opportunity to create outs. As for stadiums that already existed, whenever they add new seating it usually results in fans being brought closer to the field. Those added seats come at the expense of the existing foul ground.

A significant increase in foul balls might be the reason for MLB’s pace-of-play issues. (AP)
A significant increase in foul balls might be the reason for MLB’s pace-of-play issues. (AP)

What can MLB do to fix its foul ball problem?

Not a lot, really. Unless they’re willing to adopt some extreme rules. Getting those approved though would be an uphill battle.

Creating more foul ground clearly isn’t an option for existing stadiums. Maybe the league could look to add a guideline that future stadiums would have to adhere to, but that’s not likely to gain much support.

Perhaps the most feasible option would be putting a limitation on the number of foul balls that can occur in a single at-bat. Last season, for example, Brandon Belt of the San Francisco Giants hit 16 foul balls in a single at-bat. The at-bat saw 21 total pitches, which tied the MLB record.

Occurrences like that are obviously rare, but allowing an unlimited number of foul balls does create the possibility of several drawn out at-bats in a single game. When at-bat counts rise, so do pitch counts. When pitch counts rise, so does the likelihood of a pitching change.

Of course, deciding where the limitation line should be drawn is another battle that would almost certainly prove impossible to sort out. Because of that, the foul ball is likely to remain pace of play’s most enduring nemesis.

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