It’s October, meaning baseball is finally relevant! Only one problem: games end way too late. Case in point: a 4 hour and 6 minute Game 3 in the Phillies/Rockies series. That’s absurd!
The average length for the 20 nine-inning Major League Baseball playoff contests last year was three hours, 16 minutes. With an average start just before 8:30 p.m., that meant the last pitch (on average) came at 11:44 on the east coast. During the regular season the average is 2.75 hours. Why are playoff games so much longer than the rest of the season?
The popular answer is television and more commercials. But if we look at the games closely, this is not totally the case. Throughout the regular season, the majority of games are on TV whether nationally or locally. Unlike other major sports, baseball is not ruled by a clock so there are no predetermined commercial slots.
This leads to long stretches of commercial free baseball unless the game is a pitching duel with short at-bats. Television can explain why there are no day games during the playoffs, but that’s a whole other conversation. The more correct answer is the concept of opportunity costs and the scarcity principle.
First, let’s look at opportunity cost. In the playoffs, teams have an incredibly reduced margin for error. The regular season lasts for 162 games over five months. Take for example the Minnesota Twins. The Twinkies entered the playoffs as a division winner yet had the worst record of all eight playoff teams at 87-76, a .534 win percentage.
The Twins only needed to win eleven more times than they lost to make the playoffs (including the tie-break game with Detroit). So when stretched out over the entire season, the opportunity cost of one game or even one inning is so low, players don’t have to exert full effort or worry about everything going their way. Broken down it looks like this:
Joe Mauer (C) hits a groundball to the shortstop. He can either: run his hardest to try and beat the throw, or jog without really trying to get to first safely.
Unless the shortstop or first baseman makes an error, Mauer will most likely get thrown out. If he hustles unsuccessfully, he is then winded and also faces the possibility of pulling a hamstring forcing him to miss a month of the season. If he jogs, he avoids injury on a play he probably wouldn’t make anyway. Although in terms of that at-bat he didn’t help his team, over the course of the game it might not have been an important out. And when looked at in terms of the entire season, it is definitely unimportant.
League wide, this lack of hustle at certain times leads to more outs. Outs speed up games, shortening them. Baseball players are the best at conserving their energy efficiently and hustling when it is necessary. They learn this through the experience of playing a full season and making sure they can last the full five months.
When it comes time for the playoffs however, any player who doesn’t bust their butt to the fullest is severely hurting his team. This is because of the almost complete lack of any room for error. The first round series’ are in a best of five games format and the League Championships and World Series are best of seven.
That’s a very condensed amount of games after coming off a 162 game season. The opportunity cost of not hustling is much, much greater because of the stakes. So, every player wants to get the most out of every at-bat.
This means guys will pass up hittable pitches because it wasn’t quite good enough. Every hitter wants to work the count and prolong the at-bat, which in most cases benefits him. So during the playoffs we see a lot more full counts and a lot more foul balls as hitters are trying to wear down pitchers and drive up their pitch count.
If Mauer’s regular season attitude held true in the playoffs as well, hitters wouldn’t worry about having quality at-bats. They’d just go up and swing at a decent pitch. They wouldn’t look to extend the at-bat as long as possible.
On the flip side, pitchers don’t want to be the one to give up the game winning hit or the hit that starts a rally. Because of this we end up seeing a lot of breaking balls and pitches outside the strike zone, which lengthen an at-bat. In the playoffs, pitchers try to outsmart their opponents almost to the point of absurdity. This is an attempt at applying the scarcity principle to the batters.
Pitchers don’t want to throw quality pitches that can be hit into the gap and score runs. The less good pitches they throw the less chance the other team can capitalize and score. Pitchers know they have a lot less innings to work with in the playoffs so they try to maximize their time on the mound by throwing a lot of junk in the hopes that they won’t give up many hits. In the regular season they can challenge hitters and experiment with pitches since they know one inning or game doesn’t affect the entire year.
When you couple hitters being much more cautious with pitchers doing the same and then throw in umpires’ reluctance to enforce speed of game rules, it’s only natural that playoff baseball games take such a considerable amount of time longer. Television surprisingly has little to do with the problem. Nobody wants to take a risk that falls short and costs the team so everyone walks on eggshells and micromanages every situation.
This leads to incredibly tedious games that while it may be good for statisticians, makes for terrible theater. It’s no surprise the Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series last year with strong pitching and aggressive batting.
They employed the same tactics and attitude that got them into the playoffs and almost unsurprisingly, it put them at the top. Maybe this October, every team should follow the Phils’ lead. It may just make for better games, but at the very least we’ll be able to get to bed at a normal hour.