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How to Shorten the Length of MLB Games—and Make Them More Competitive? Researchers Have an “Out” Strategy


NYU researchers who outline a rule change that would shorten major-league baseball games by almost half an hour while making contests closer and, perhaps, re-igniting interest in the game. 

Two NYU researchers have outlined a rule change that would shorten major-league baseball games by almost half an hour while making contests closer and, perhaps, re-igniting interest in the game. (c)iStock/carywilliams

How can Major League Baseball shorten games, make them more competitive, and, perhaps, boost fan interest at the same time?

Recent rule changes, such as a limited number of mound visits, have done little to shorten baseball games—contests currently average three hours and five minutes. It’s likely these marathons will continue to have an impact on attendance, which was down 9 percent in the first half of the MLB season.

Moreover, the 2018 season is plagued by a lack of competitiveness—at least in the American League, where only six teams are vying for five playoff spots.

If MLB’s intent is to truly speed up contests, and increase its competitiveness, some contend, a more radical change is in order.

One proposal comes from two New York University researchers who outline a rule change that would shorten major-league baseball games by almost half an hour while making contests closer and, perhaps, re-igniting interest in the game. 

The proposal, outlined by Steven Brams, a professor of politics, and Aaron Isaksen, a researcher at the Tandon School of Engineering’s Game Innovation Lab, calls for reducing the number of outs the leading team is allowed during its at-bats. 

The duo labels its proposal the catch-up rule and works as follows: If a team is ahead or goes ahead during its turn at bat in an inning, it would have only two, rather than three, outs before its side is retired. 

To test the efficacy of its proposal, they re-ran, under the catch-up rule, all MLB regular-season and post-season games (more than 100,000) for the past 50 years (1967-2017). Specifically, to estimate the length of nine-inning games under the catch-up rule, there are three cases:

·      Neither team is or goes ahead in its at-bat half inning: 3 + 3 = 6 outs required';
·      One team is or goes ahead in its at-bat half inning: 2 + 3 = 5 outs required.
·      Each team is or goes ahead in its at-bat half inning: 2 + 2 = 4 outs required. 

If this provision had been in place for all of these games, excepting those that ended in extra innings or concluded in a tie, the following would have occurred:

·      A reduction in the number of outs over nine innings from an average of 52.5 to an average of 45.9—a 13-percent decrease, resulting in an estimated 24-minute reduction in the length of games;
·      A reduction in the winning team’s average margin of victory from 3.21 runs to 2.15 runs—a 33-percent decrease—making games more competitive;
·      An increase in the number of tied games (which would, in reality, move to extra frames) from 10,053 to 15,493—a 54-percent uptick. However, because only 14 percent of all analyzed games using the catch-up rule would go into extra innings, this increase would have only a minor effect on the average length of games, increasing it from 45.9 to 47.2 outs, or 1.3 outs—about 3 percent.

The researchers acknowledge that if the catch-up rule is adopted, teams would undoubtedly make adjustments to try to exploit it. Because there is a disadvantage for an at-bat team to be ahead and have only two outs, it will want to try to jump ahead by as much as possible before it incurs two outs. For example, it would not make sense under the catch-up rule for an at-bat team, ahead and with one out in an inning, to use a sacrifice bunt to advance on-base runners, because then it would have to retire immediately after the sacrifice.   

The catch-up rule may lead to other strategic adjustments, such as in batting order, the use of pinch hitters and runners, and conditions under which to steal bases.  

“But there is not a great deal that teams can do to capitalize on the catch-up rule because success at hitting and stealing is highly individualistic,” the researchers write. “Unlike other sports, a team’s performance is much less a function of team effort than, for example, scoring in football, basketball, or hockey. Accordingly, we would expect the adjustments that teams might make in, say, batting order would not have much effect. In short, the basic features of baseball are likely to stay the same.”