Foul Balls Are The Pace-Of-Play Problem Nobody’s Talking About

So why are there more foul balls?

Source: Foul Balls Are The Pace-Of-Play Problem Nobody’s Talking About | FiveThirtyEight

This is one of those fun with numbers articles throwing around a bunch of rate gains in an attempt to make a point using numbers to support a narrative.  This data model has a historical dataset of game events from around 1960 to present from retrosheet.org.  That dataset has pitch by pitch data from 1988 to present.

The premise of the above article is that there are more foul balls now than 20 years ago.

tl;dr: Article is correct.  There are more foul balls now.

There can be many reasons why that is.   Using Occam’s Razor which dictates the simplest answer is probably the correct answer.  The simplest reason would be there is less foul ball territory for fielders to catch foul balls.  The article mentions this as one of several possible reasons.  It mentions foul territory surface decreased around 20% and our data shows foul balls have increased 20%.  Reduced foul territory seems like a pretty solid reason.

The next question which is the premise of this article: Are foul balls a cause for increase game times in baseball?  That is unclear.  Let’s look at the output of this data model.  We use tables here instead of graphs.

MLB Pitch Counts from 1998 to 2018

Year Total Foul In Play
Strike Ball
1998 650813 16.0 20.2 25.8 38.0
1999 694856 16.0 20.0 25.4 38.7
2000 714344 16.3 19.7 25.4 38.6
2001 695287 16.7 20.0 26.2 37.1
2002 696317 16.6 20.0 26.1 37.3
2003 697785 16.5 20.2 26.1 37.2
2004 705505 16.7 19.9 26.0 37.4
2005 691180 16.8 20.3 26.0 36.9
2006 702107 16.9 20.0 25.9 37.2
2007 706552 16.8 19.9 26.1 37.2
2008 708078 16.9 19.5 26.2 37.4
2009 710781 16.7 19.3 26.5 37.5
2010 704222 16.6 19.2 27.0 37.2
2011 701083 16.9 19.4 27.0 36.8
2012 698670 16.8 19.0 27.6 36.5
2013 703321 17.0 19.0 27.5 36.5
2014 697839 17.2 19.0 27.8 36.1
2015 695003 17.5 19.0 27.4 36.1
2016 708762 17.5 18.4 27.6 36.5
2017 714188 17.6 18.1 27.8 36.5
2018 713881 17.6 18.0 28.2 36.3

Another table with a lot of numbers so let’s digest the above.  Total column shows total pitch count for the 30 x 162 = 2430 games in a season.  Numbers in the next 4 columns are percentages of that total which should add to 100%.

The length of a game is determined by pitch count, not by the type of pitch.  Colored in tan are total pitch counts under 700K and in blue the top two highest, which happens to be the last two years.   It is deceptive, however, to call this a trend because 2014 and 2015 had under 700K pitch counts and 2000 had the highest pitch count in this entire table.

It could be a trend based upon the last two seasons but not based upon the last 20 just by eyeballing that table.

As a percentage of the total foul balls have clearly increased over the past 20 years.  The last 20 years have seen many new ball parks.  Even Wrigley Field reduced foul territory.  The above data makes sense.  What can MLB do about it?  Probably nothing.   Teams want to place seats closer to the field in order to increase revenue which pay the ever increasing player contracts.

The above also confirms the article’s observation of the reduction of In Play contacts which had its highest percentage of total 20 years ago and the lowest last season.  What the article didn’t mention however was that Strikes increased while Balls decreased meaning Total has been relatively constant.

Stats can be deceptive and manipulated to “prove” some narrative.  The time between pitches is probably very similar between a foul ball and a called strike, thus, the Total pitch count is all that matters.  If the last two years are indicators of what the next two years will bring then maybe there is a problem.

The problem, however, isn’t foul balls, it’s the increase in strikes.  In 1998 there were 168K pitches as strikes.  By 2018 that number rose to 201K, an almost 20% increase.  IMHO this is due to Strikeouts being a overvalued in Sabermetric stats like WAR and FIP and even pitch count type ratios.  A ground out or a fly out counts just as much as a strikeout but not to a Draft Kings or other kind of fantasy teams.  Pitchers have learned the value of their contracts depend on keeping Draft Kings stats high.  So even though they might get a guy to ground out on 1 or two pitches, they go for strikeout which requires a minimum of three pitches.  This keeps their K/9 and K/BB and whatever other nonsense ratios I’m missing high.

I’m tired now but perhaps in a follow up we’ll do a comparison of pitch counts between the various types of outs made.  That is all for now.  Until then ….