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Should MLB games be 7 innings long?

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Despite a dream matchup of Boston vs LA the World Series ratings were down 25% from last year. While local ratings remain strong it’s the latest warning sign for the MLB’s long term viewing future that the national engagement with the sports and its stars is waning. It’s better to act before the floor falls out than after.

Baseball has a length problem. Not only does the season run 6 days a week but the games clock in at 3 hours, 5 minutes on average. To watch all your team’s games requires a commitment of 18-20 hours a week compared to 6-8 to a sport like the NBA or 3 for the NFL, and times have changed. It’s not just competing with other sports or other TV shows for that attention, but competing with Netflix, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, apps, etc. Even if someone finds the time to watch all of their own team’s games, are they turning into Mike Trout’s Angels game after it ends? In the NFL everyone watches the Sunday night and Monday games even when it doesn’t contain their team. Likewise in the NBA people are interested in seeing league wide storylines like Lebron on the Lakers or the Warriors. This is where the MLB appears to be losing the most ground and it’s a numbers problem. More time watching local teams means less time available to watch anyone else’s.

Reducing the games played in the season would be ideal, but would be near impossible to get owners to agree. A 110 game season would be mean 26 less home games of revenue, and 52 less games on television for each team.

My proposal while radical would be a softer landing: 7 inning games, which would take down the average to about 2 hours 20 minutes. If people miss that extra 45 minutes of baseball a day, they can use it engaging in other team’s games or highlights which is precisely what the MLB needs. At the gate the same price can be charged for 7 inning games as 9, if anything it’s easier for people to fit shorter games in their schedule. Television loses 45 minutes of airtime a game, but perhaps the stations can just play other baseball games. The MLB could also add more games to the schedule as double headers.

The arguments against it would be:

  • Baseball is a 9 inning game, at 7 innings it’s no longer baseball: While the purists would be upset, there’s no easy solution here if the MLB wants to be relevant a generation from now.
  • Statistical history becomes meaningless: Like the first it hurts purists, but there would be a division between the old era and the new era statistically. The PED asteriks have also tainted the record books already.
  • Pitchers lose their jobs as the worst starters and relievers are weeded out: Making the player’s association agree to this would admittedly be one of the biggest obstacles, although it leaves more revenue for everyone else.
  • The relationship of starting and relief pitchers changes: Starters would not go as long, but with a regular 4 or 5 innings they’re still more important than relievers. They would also be available to pitch in more games and would have the star showcase of more complete games and more no hitters. If the MLB doesn’t want teams like Oakland to go “all reliever” and eliminate the starting pitcher, reducing the amount of pitchers teams legally carry on a roster would make it no easier than it is now to use the strategy.
  • Low scoring games: In addition to shorter games, pitchers are well rested, batters see them less and the worst starters and relievers are eliminated, all of which leads to less runs. The other way to see it however is every scoring opportunity they do get is heightened in importance, every home run makes a bigger splash league wide. A tie game in the 5th inning with men on base feels quite different in a 7 inning game with relievers waiting to finish it out than it does now. The drama could increase and a single player can be the hero of a game more often. The relationship between how high scoring a sport is and popularity is overall mixed. The most popular sport in the world soccer regularly has 1-0 or 2-1 scores.
  • It doesn’t change the real problem, the game is too slow: I’d point towards the popularity of football and soccer as examples how “slow” games can be popular. In football there’s so much time with the game stopped between plays, challenges, timeouts, commercials, etc. that it makes the speed between pitches in baseball seem rapid in comparison. The difference is that every football play is more meaningful than every pitch largely due to the season being ten times as short. Likewise in soccer a lot of time is spent passing the ball around the middle of the field but it hasn’t reduced its popularity. Finally I would point out that for most of the 20th century baseball’s pace didn’t stop it from being popular.
  • Is 7 innings enough of a difference? Or should they just go all the way with a draconian 6 inning games? Instead of games being merely as long as NBA and NHL games, being even shorter at 2 hours would make up for playing twice as long a season. On the flip side it pushes starting/relief pitcher strategy closer to the tipping point of no longer being the current game, and this idea is crazy enough anyways that I figured 7 is a compromise for the current fanbase and player’s association.

There’s a lot of risk going to 7 innings of a currently profitable league and the people who love the current league would be unhappy. But without a major change there’s a serious danger of the MLB being horse racing or boxing a generation from now as “your father’s sport” and minor tweaks to the speed of the game aren’t moving the needle. The real difference between baseball and the other sports is being 162 3 hour games a year. Either the length of the season or the length of games may have to be sacrificed.

 

Written by jr.

November 1, 2018 at 5:13 pm