February 25, 2015
Indians Get a Head Start
If the Cleveland Indians discovered the fix—or more accurately, the workaround—to baseball’s pace of game problem, they did it by accident.
In a move that didn’t make too many waves on Lake Erie, even in our slowest month for baseball news, the Indians will shift five home games from the usual weekday start time of 7:10 p.m. to the special time of 6:10 p.m. The games are all Mondays, Tuesdays or Wednesdays and all on or before May 13.
Barring any change from 2014 in the time of games, with the average major-league game lasting approximately 3:08 and the average Indians game taking 3:12, this should put the final pitch at an average of approximately 9:20 in the evening. That’s about when you’d expect a good-old-days Roy Halladay-Mark Buehrle start to end assuming that one started at the usual time. We always enjoyed those.
Ask the Indians why they’re making the move to earlier first pitches in five early-season games, and the time of game issue had nothing to do with it.
“It’s about an effort to support our players and our fans knowing that early in the season, Cleveland weather can be unpredictable and not the best,” Indians Senior Director of Communications Curtis Danburg said. Danburg added that “it also recognizes that families are dealing with school nights.
“We thought it was a good chance to test it out, so we selected five nights to test out how it impacts attendance and how it impacts the game play.”
In other words, every reliever warms up in an environment that’s one hour warmer; every hitter takes a swing in air that’s one hour friendlier to the bats. And for the thousands that don’t have the opportunity for exertion and pay to be there anyway, it’s one hour more comfortable.
It’s no coincidence that this experiment found a home in midweek games in April and May. It was an easy target for the Indians, who finished last in all of baseball in home attendance last year. The closest analogs of the selected five games* drew 10,789, 8,848, 9,311, 12,709 and 13,924—an average of 11,116, or 37 percent below even their low season average. They are the natural targets for experimentation.
But what if, in doing this, they discovered something? What if this is a great solution to the fact that games are too slow?
First we have to isolate what we mean by too slow. If most of the issue is literal, that the pace of the game is too slow, then forget it. The changes either introduced or just emphasized by Park Avenue this offseason are the way to get at that.
If those don’t really do much, though, or if the problem isn’t really pace but the fact that the games end in the middle of the night and we’re losing kids and also people who just can’t be out that late on a work night, then there might be something here beyond just a few games in the spring.
As a rule, start times for night games are pretty close to uniform across baseball. They all start somewhere between 7:05 and 7:10 p.m. with a few exceptions, which no longer include the White Sox now that their 7:11 sponsored gimmick has lapsed.
The earliest regular start times are the Diamondbacks and Rockies at 6:40 p.m. local time, while the night owls** are the Giants and Cardinals, who don’t start until 7:15 p.m. Arizona and Colorado, both located in the capital cities of their namesake states, which one would figure for more people getting out of work at carefully regulated times (read: in time to get to an early game), have been doing the before-7 thing for years.
This means that they’re ending their games at approximately the time that a 7:10-type team would have ended its games in 1980, with the red line on this graph indicating a half hour shorter than 2014 game times at 2:38.
The third of baseball’s four*** state capital teams—not to imply any sort of causation from this sample size—is dabbling as well. The Red Sox putting all four of their Monday-Wednesday night games on the April schedule at 6:10 p.m. in a repeat of previous years. This is also a stated effort to do just what the Indians are doing with school nights and cold weather.
With their extremely long games and non-extremely cold nights, the Red Sox crowds definitely suffer from attrition as games go along. And this leads to the question—were a team to consider making the 6-something starts—of when you’d want your seats to be empty. (No Dodgers jokes please)
Start them before 6:30 or so and you’d definitely lose the crowd that has a 6 p.m. escape from work. But you might get more people seeing the end of a game, which is in theory, the good part. The question then is if people can’t make first pitch, whether they’d avoid buying tickets. It doesn’t seem at all weird to show up to a game at the time of the event, and if it’s going long, leave early. While it’s really the same hours at the ballpark, though if you were to stay innings 3-9 at a 6:30 game vs. innings 1-7 at a 7:10 game is in a lot of ways better, it doesn’t seem to translate as well to buying a ticket for a time that I can’t be somewhere.
The bigger issue is television, though. Danburg said that in order to move the games to 6:10 p.m., they needed buy-in from both SportsTimeOhio (now a Fox station rather than internal) and flagship radio broadcaster iHeartMedia and got that support.
A 6:40 start would take another half hour out of the top viewership period of the day, which for the 14 teams in the Eastern Time Zone is 8-11 p.m. Now part of that is self-fulfilling, as networks tend to put the best content on in those hours, but there is still a sacrifice. The visitors, if they come from a time zone west and are starting their broadcasts at 5 something, would probably take an even harder hit.
That’s the big obstacle—that even as your live national news is an easier target to go up against, it’s not a great television time. For the in-stadium crowd, it’s a reasonable tradeoff and one that would help with children, whom sources say are the future.
If baseball can’t get its pace of game to a point where people aren’t leaving in the seventh inning, this might be the next step to try beyond a five-game experiment.
*Closest analogous games were Monday-Wednesday, April 21-23 and Monday-Tuesday, May 19-20.