Does Baseball Need a Shot Clock?

If you’re missing baseball then this was definitely the week for you. In addition to the great work by Steve Walters we’re presenting, our own Dave Berri has written a fantastic piece over at Freakonomics. *Possibly* in response to his Tigers’s loss in the World Series, Dave Asks “Does the Best Team Win the World Series?”

On our recent podcast with Loyola profesor Steve Walters, who consults with the Baltimore Orioles, we discussed the paper he wrote with John D. BurgerIs America’s National Pastime too time consuming? The end result was Steve wants to know ways to improve baseball as it has actually been in decline. Let’s do a quick recap.

The good news: Fans have more money

The one solid point going for baseball right now. In spite of recent economic downturns, the trend for baseball fans is their income has gone up. It turns out more income does correlate with increased popularity for baseball. However, there are more than a few factors fighting against this trend.

The fans aren’t watching

Despite more money in fans pockets the Nielsen ratings have been steadily declining for the World Series. Steve equated this to the frog in water that is slowly set to boil problem. If the decline had been swift, then Major League Baseball might be more worried. It turns out that last year’s NBA Finals actually drew a bigger national television audience than the World Series. There are a few good reasons for this.

The game is getting longer!

In the last sixty years the average time of a World Series game has increased from was from two hours and twenty one minutes in 1969 to three and a half hours by 2009 (a 50% increase)! And unsurprisingly this works against fans watching the game. In fact, this was the biggest factor in terms of turning fans away.

Competition has gotten stronger

It turns out that there is more entertainment now than there was sixty years ago. As a proxy Steve and John used number of available television channels to show an increase in possible entertainment. It turns out as more available ways to spend our leisure time has gone up, that it’s become harder for baseball to stay popular (as a fun point, Steve points out that the NBA finals actually outdrew the World Series in viewership this year) Let’s actually view a few things related to that.

Market doesn’t matter!

A story told in sports is that big markets have an edge over small markets. And when it comes to selling tickets to the game this is true. However, despite the World Series being played by teams in the 6th and 11th largest Nielsen markets, it still wasn’t as popular as the NBA Finals, which was played in the 16th and 45th largest Nielsen markets. This is a bit counter-intuitive but once you control for other influences on ratings, there’s no statistically significant effect of competitors’ market size on TV ratings.  The Yankees really don’t have to be in the Series every year to get people interested; rather, the Series has to be interesting in itself. This leads us to our next point.

Fans like close series

It turns out that the longer a series goes, the more likely fans are to turn in. In fact, fans love game sevens (unsurprising I know) So making series more competitive is a good idea. However, in our interview Steve points out that the idea that the World Series is actually a competition between the best two teams may be suspect (in fact, Dave says the data doesn’t really support that idea at all)

How to fix this?

Steve actually had a question for the viewers and we got some great responses. How can we make the game more enjoyable to watch?  Ryan Brubaker gave a great response on Quora:

I think something should soon be done about the amount of time between pitches. I understand that it takes a number of seconds to receive the return throw from the catcher, compose yourself, observe the signal(s) from the catcher, and proceed into the motion and delivery… but, when the time between pitches approaches half a minute, I think that that’s well past reasonable.

Take a look at the charts on this page for the longest and shortest amount of time between pitches.…

I realize this page is from 2010, but I doubt things have improved at all. I think the pace of the game could be dramatically improved by having some form of time limit between deliveries.

And it turns out this problem has actually been addressed in other sports. Steve points out that in football they allow the quarterback to hear plays via an ear piece. Could they replace the catcher signaling with this? In basketball there is a shot clock, could baseball adopt this as well? Steve has also pointed to technology that could help improve the game. Could wiring up coaches so we could hear the strategy improve the value of watching a game? Could making more video data available on Youtube increase popularity? There’s a lot of room for improvement in baseball and it seems like more than a few out there have good ideas. Here’s hoping that some of them are listened. After all, it would a shame if baseball continued to fade and stopped being America’s National Pastime.


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