Fans of Major League Baseball are used to hearing about pace of play issues. Commissioner of Baseball Rob Manfred has seemingly made it his singular goal to address what he sees as the largest problem facing MLB moving forward; the length of games. MLB hasn’t done anything yet to truly address this issue, instead, they have instituted half measures and minor rule changes that haven’t really shown to have any sort of legitimate impact on game time or pace of play. Across the globe, a team in the Australian Baseball League has taken an extreme step towards affecting change as far as game length is concerned.
Entering their second ABL season the Auckland Tuatara made the decision to limit every one of their 20 home games to 7 innings. Changing the number of innings played is certainly a measurable step towards affecting game time, good or bad. I will fully admit that I am not a fan of 7 inning games, but that doesn’t mean I don’t understand why the Tuatara made the decision to change the inning count in their home games.
Baseball is a burgeoning sport in New Zealand, they have a problem that MLB doesn’t for a second have to worry about. People aren’t familiar with baseball in New Zealand and offering a quicker game to fans who could grow impatient makes sense. MLB has a core audience, they know they can tinker with the rules of the game and not worry about losing much, if any, of that core audience. The Tuatara don’t have that luxury, they need to create new fans and draw them in from pre-existing sports with baked in fandoms. My hope is that the Tuatara are using 7 inning games to bring fans in and then in a few years they will switch to regular 9 inning games. That may prove to be wrong, but even if that ends up being the case it’s easy to see why the Tuatara made the decision to make the switch to 7 inning games.
The real question is, what if any effect did the change to 7 innings have on game length? First, a couple of caveats. Weather affected a number of games in the 2019-2020 ABL season. Also, Auckland was the only team to play every single home game and not have any of those home games end earlier or later than the scheduled full number of innings. Weather and doubleheaders (in the ABL the first game of a doubleheader is 7 innings) caused some games to end early for some teams. Also, some teams had games go into extra innings. This will create some random variance in the first set of results.
Auckland played 20 home games, and at 7 innings long each the average game time ended up being 2:20:51. The Canberra Cavalry actually had the longest average game time at 2:57:49. However, they only played 16 home games thanks to air quality causing four games to be canceled. The longest average game time from a team that also played 20 games ended up being the Perth Heat at 2:55:51. In a straight-up comparison, Auckland’s 20 games were 35 minutes shorter than the same number for Perth. On the whole, the ABL average game time in the 2019-2020 season, minus Auckland, was 2:50:45. The average ABL game was 29:54 longer than the average Auckland game.
The above tells us a lot, but with so many variables in place, it doesn’t truly tell us whether Auckland’s efforts impacted game length in a meaningful way. To better answer that question we’ll remove every home game from a non-Auckland team that was longer or shorter than 9 innings. When we do that the ABL average time, minus Auckland, changes to 2:56:46. Auckland’s game length remains the same, 2:20:51. That’s a difference of 35:55 between Auckland and the rest of the league when they are exclusively playing 9 inning games.
I’m not going to argue that baseball teams across the globe subtract the 8th and 9th innings from their games. I like the nine-inning format and I don’t mind games that are a little longer. The ABL is a league that is well known for having a slow-moving pace, and that has never bothered me. ABL overall attendance saw a 21% increase during the 2019-2020 season. That’s a sign of a league with fans who are enjoying the product they present. At the same time, the Tuatara posted an increase of 58% compared to their 2018-2019 numbers. Surely some of that is due to Auckland being much better in their second season, but perhaps some of that is due to the shorter games attracting more fans with a limited amount of free time on their hands?
The only real conclusion I can draw from what the Tuatara did in 2019-2020 is that 7 inning games do significantly shorten game time and ABL fans seem to enjoy both the traditionally longer ABL games and the newer, much shorter, Auckland home games. It will be interesting to see how these numbers change in the seasons to come. If anything Auckland is presenting a different approach to professional baseball as we mostly know it. An approach that perhaps shows that pace of play isn’t the issue, but rather MLB games times that have become too long.
Special thanks to Joseph Aylward for his research assistance.
Lead photo courtesy of Unknown – Stuff