Baseball Games Push Attention Span Limits
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
The New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox begin a three-game series at Fenway Park tonight, and all eyes will be on Boston's star pitcher Josh Beckett and Yankees' shortstop Derek Jeter, but the fans will also be watching the clock. The two teams have become notorious for playing the longest games in baseball.
Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis joins us now. Hi, Stefan.
Mr. STEFAN FATSIS (Sportswriter): Hey, Robert.
SIEGEL: The length of Yankees/Red Sox games has received a lot of attention this year. One major league umpire called them pathetic and embarrassing. So how long do they take to play, actually?
Mr. FATSIS: They take a long time. The average length of a Major League Baseball game last year was two hours and 52 minutes. The Yankees and Red Sox clocked in at an epic three hours and 39 minutes for their games, and that was a full 29 minutes longer than any other intra-divisional matchup not involving one of them. So the question is why?
These are two very good teams with patient hitters, cautious pitchers. Each game is treated to some extent like it's the last one these teams will ever play, so there are a lot of pitching changes and a lot of visits to the pitching mound by coaches and managers. And there are just a lot of players on these teams who take a long time at the plate to adjust their equipment and, you know, get sent out of the batters' box. And their games are often on national television, two of them are this weekend, which means longer commercial breaks.
SIEGEL: But it's baseball. It is a slow game. It's a slow summer game. Is the long game really that much of a problem?
Mr. FATSIS: You know, I don't know. I mean, baseball has been trying to get the length of games down for more than a decade. I think it's impossible to quantify how many fans are turned off because Derek Jeter is fiddling with his wristbands.
It's not ideal though and I think that it points to a bigger problem in baseball, that's a contributor to the length of games. But I think it's more central to whether we're losing our love of the game. And it was highlighted on sportsillustrated.com this week by the terrific baseball writer Tom Verducci.
And Verducci says that the baseball itself is just getting hit a lot less than it used to. He reports that in April, 28 percent of all plate appearances ended in a walk or a strikeout. And that is fully one-third more than three decades ago. Pitchers are on pace to set a record for strikeouts per nine innings, hitters are more and more selective, and the result is fewer hits, even fewer balls being hit into fair territory at all.
SIEGEL: And there are solutions proposed for this problem?
Mr. FATSIS: Well, if you like watching pitchers and catchers play catch, there's no need to change anything. But if you want to see more action, yes, make the umpires enforce a larger strike zone. That will force batters to swing more and result in more balls in play. And it might speed up the game too.
SIEGEL: But the April numbers that Verducci cited in Sports Illustrated add up to what's been a very, very good year for pitchers so far in Major League Baseball.
Mr. FATSIS: Absolutely. Absolutely. The Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays have four starting pitchers, each who have allowed less than three runs per nine innings, and that explains why those two teams have the best records in baseball. Then there are three National Leaguers with remarkable starts to the season: The San Francisco Giants' intriguing Tim Lincecum; he's four and O with a 1.7 earned run average. His teammate Barry Zito has been a huge disappointment since joining the Giants in 2007 with a seven-year $126 million contract. This year, he's five and O with a 1.49 ERA.
Best of all has been Ubaldo Jimenez, a 26-year-old right-hander from the Dominican Republic. Last month he threw the first no-hitter in Colorado Rockies' history. He has a six and O record and a 0.87 earned run average. He has given up four runs in 41 innings - amazing stuff.
SIEGEL: Zero point eighty-seven ERA.
Mr. FATSIS: That's impressive.
SIEGEL: Big success. Who's the big bust of the year so far?
Mr. FATSIS: Well, if you're talking about sort of the pre-season media forecasts - not matching reality - the Seattle Mariners are the busts. They received iconic treatment in the off-season around their plan to build their team around pitching and especially defense. This was lauded as the next big thing in baseball. But they've produced even less offense than predicted. They are next to last in the majors in batting average, on base percentage and runs scored.
They've hit just 10 homeruns in 28 games. Three teams have hit more than 40. Paul Konerko of the Chicago White Sox, he's got 12 all by himself.
SIEGEL: Stefan, set aside a lot of hours for that Yankees/Red Sox series.
Mr. FATSIS: I'm going to, and I'll stay up late and use the DVR.
SIEGEL: Stefan Fatsis joins us most Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports. He has an essay in the new anthology "Top of the Order: 25 Writers Pick Their Favorite Baseball Player of All Time."
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