Sports

How to Solve the Baseball Playoffs’ Biggest Momentum Killer

The “slow” sport is robbing viewers of its tensest moments. It doesn’t have to.

Clayton Kershaw takes the mound.
L.A. Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw takes the mound during the seventh inning in Game 5 of the National League Division Series against the Washington Nationals, at Dodger Stadium.
Robert Hanashiro/USA Today Sports

It’s Game 5 of the Dodgers-Nationals best-of-5 division series. The winner of this game moves on to the National League Championship Series, and the loser is eliminated from the playoffs. Los Angeles had scored first that night and was leading 3–1, but now the Nationals are rallying in the seventh inning.

Nationals outfielder Adam Eaton steps to the plate with runners on first and second and two outs. The Nats have one of their fastest players, Trea Turner, on first base, and a hit in the gap will likely tie the game. This at-bat could be the fork in the road between a deep playoff run and the end of the season. Dodgers ace Walker Buehler had carried them to this point, but with the season on the line, manager Dave Roberts decides it’s time to make a move. He steps out of the dugout to replace Buehler with one of the best pitchers of his generation, Clayton Kershaw.

But what millions of fans had to sit through next was … a T-Mobile commercial. Then an Exxon Mobil commercial. Then a Taco Bell commercial. Then Xbox. Then Geico. Three minutes later, we finally return to the game—and Kershaw is still throwing his warmup pitches. His warmup pitches! He’s entitled to eight of those. Those ads did not last long enough for him to jog in from the bullpen and throw eight times. Once the broadcast returned, it would be nearly another minute before Kershaw actually threw a pitch to Eaton.

This is an elimination playoff game! It’s the seventh inning and the tying run is on base! There are two outs!

If you are a casual fan who enjoys having a game on but doesn’t necessarily know all the players, which inning it is, or Clayton Kershaw’s 2019 ERA (3.03), after a three-minute-and-20-second break, do you even remember that the game has been frozen in time and that the same tense situation is about to resume? Do you still care? If you got up to make a sandwich and go to the bathroom—a perfectly rational decision given the length of the commercial breaks—and you happened to miss Eaton strike out to end the inning, you would return to see another 2½-minute block of commercials. Do you sit through those until play resumes? Or do you figure that you have accidentally slipped onto a channel that only shows ads, and flip to something else?

This wasn’t an isolated event. In the four games played on Oct. 7, there were 18 mid-inning pitching changes. Fourteen of those happened with at least one runner on base. The St. Louis Cardinals–Atlanta Braves game that day had pitching changes that lasted about 2½ minutes each, with around one minute and 45 seconds of that used for commercials. That meant that the top of the sixth inning alone—featuring two pitching changes—had nearly four minutes of ads. (Each of the previous two half-innings had one pitching change.) These ad breaks aren’t isolated either; they’re aired in addition to the standard commercials lasting just under three minutes between every half-inning. Major League Baseball has known for years that it faces the challenge of a slow pace, compared with football and basketball, that can bore casual fans. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has promoted tweaks to the rules that would speed the pace of play, including a proposal that would limit pitching changes by requiring each pitcher to face at least three batters. But even during the most dramatic and stakes-laden portion of the sport’s calendar, the league seems more interested in cashing in on its devoted fans than trying to grow its aging audience.

MLB only gets to enjoy so many games in a row with a national audience during the postseason, and it’s only in October that the league benefits from the high price per ad that comes with them. And granted, mid-inning pitching changes have to happen, especially at the tensest moments when managers will make drastic moves to get the matchups they want. But this is madness. If MLB is interested in having casual and bandwagon fans level up to the sort who follow during the regular season and might even buy an MLB.tv subscription, it can’t bury one of the meatiest, most thrilling parts of the game in a six-minute commercial sandwich—and it doesn’t need to.

Imagine an alternate version in which the pitching change happens as quickly as possible. Viewers need Kershaw to jog in from the bullpen (10–20 seconds) and throw his warmup pitches (which take a total of 40 seconds to a minute). We can add another 20 seconds in case the manager or catcher want a quick chat. That’s 100 seconds at the upper end, or about two minutes less than the actual time it took for the game to continue.

But there’s more: We don’t actually need that minute and 40 seconds to execute a pitching change. For starters, Kershaw did not need those eight warmup pitches. He had been warming up in the bullpen for the past several minutes. It’s reasonable to offer him a few throws to get acquainted with the mound and the catcher, but four ought to do it. So would zero. Football kickers don’t get a practice kick at the uprights before attempting a field goal. A substitute quarterback doesn’t get to hit each receiver before play resumes. A hockey goalie swapping in doesn’t get any practice saves. Baseball managers are not made to wrestle the bat away from the scheduled hitter when they want to pinch-hit. Relief pitchers are already plenty warm when they come in, and the warmup throws are performed as ritual as much as preparation.

Speaking of ritual, it’s a charming tradition that the manager comes to physically take the ball from the previous pitcher, but the interaction doesn’t serve any functional purpose. Those conversations amount to dead time, because the decision has already been made, and the incoming pitcher is already en route to the mound. We might find the pitching change happens a bit quicker if we stop requiring the outgoing pitcher to wait on his hill to be manually disarmed by his superior.

It would be simple to mandate that teams be allotted just 80 seconds for a pitching change, and that they can use that time for chatting on the mound, throwing warmup pitches, performing an intimidating dance, or doing whatever else they want to do.

The manager is trying to win the game, not produce entertaining content, and when a strategic move makes the product worse, MLB should seek to mitigate this issue, not exacerbate it. Basketball has this problem too: Close games can become nearly unwatchable in the final minutes as the losing team continually fouls and calls timeout to stop the clock. (Bring on the Elam Ending!) Some NBA broadcasts mitigate the constant breaks by using a picture in a picture, so that fans can still see the game in a small square on the screen while a commercial plays. That allows fans to stay engaged while the league collects ad revenue. MLB broadcasts ought to do the same during mid-inning breaks.

The fans in the stadium are trapped, but the fans at home wield remote controls, which can access thousands of channels. Just within the sports world, football beckons at least twice a week, hockey has started, and the NBA advertised its opening night during the Cardinals-Braves division series. The baseball playoffs are tense and exciting when they are happening. As the only major professional American sport with no clock, tension can linger and build. The playoffs, however, are being programmed to remind fans that the rest of the world does have a clock, and its inhabitants might have something to do other than watch commercials that occasionally get interrupted by a baseball game.