It seems that every postseason, we’re talking about the lengths of games just as much as the games themselves. And for good reason: with the end of October nearly at hand, anyone who watches baseball as obsessively as us are fairly bleary-eyed as four-hour game after four-hour game saps our energy.
We’re not all Beyond the Box Score readers and writers, of course, and I think the bigger question people ask themselves is that if the World Series is the presentation of the sport to a mainstream, national crowd, then what’s the point if no one can watch a full game?
I’m not so much interested in the “what about the kids?” or the “killing the game” narrative, mostly because, as I’ve said on many occasions, I’m not an executive. Baseball is still going to be here if it loses money, and I’m still going to watch and enjoy it. My concern is more that it aspires to being a collective event that for people who want to enjoy it... they can.
There’s no better way to dig into the changes in playoff game length than the Baseball Reference Play Index. Just to trim down the data set I made sure to focus on 1988 to the present, so only modern baseball and the wild card era. If you look at the distribution of that earlier era, when this was pre-wild card and early into the wild card era...
...the plurality of games were between 170 and 184 minutes, so between two hours and 50 minutes and three hours and four minutes. In the following era, 1999 to 2010, so a bit more modern...
...you can see that the plurality of games were between two hours and 52 minutes and three hours and five minutes, so not too much of a change, other than the fact that you can see that the upper bound of games are much, much longer, which we’ll get to later. In this decade...
...you can see the first spike in the change in the plurality: now, it’s between three hours and 24 minutes and three hours and 38 minutes. Instead of ending at around 10:50-11:05 PM EST, games are ending around 11:30 PM EST. Right there is the difference that is concerning for working people and kids.
So, the overall trend in game length is what one would expect...
...and the trendline implies that in ~100 more playoff games’ time, the average playoff game would be three hours and 40 minutes, meaning that a good third of games would end after midnight on the east coast.
What’s funny, though, is that there are still some speedy games, despite conventional wisdom:
Even with all of the #bullpenning there’s good evidence that it isn’t going to exponentially increase playoff game times, so it’s possible that the growth of playoff game length won’t be linear, but logarithmic. The lower bound of games are about the same as they were in 1988, and the upper bound in 2016-2018 is about the same as a decade ago. You’re staying up twenty minutes later, but games aren’t going to start routinely going five hours anytime soon.
Here’s the crux, really: there’s just more baseball. That makes a lot more sense when you really think about it. Think about modern life in general. In 1988, there were just a handful of TV channels, and there was a very limited amount of viewing content around, just in general.
It only makes sense that with the rise of mass media and the Golden Age of TV or whatever you want to call it, there is going to be more sports content to keep up with that. I’m using projected numbers until 2020, but if you look in five-year blocks, there is now about 70,000+ minutes of playoff baseball every half decade, as opposed to about half that from 1991 to 1995, in the pre-wild card era.
So, the issue isn’t game length, because you can think intuitively about any form of entertainment that takes up a lot of time. If there was no wild card or even LCS, then even if those games went four-to-five hours, you would tune into every single game for a week without a thought.
But when games are increasing by about a half hour, and there are now more playoff games than ever, it gets harder to maintain such a late sleep schedule for an entire month. The problem isn’t game length (although it shouldn’t increase exponentially, despite the fact it probably won’t). The problem is modern life, and the ever-present issue of diminishing free time, but more and more content.