Sawchik: Foul balls are the pace of play problem nobody is talking about

From Travis Sawchik at FiveThirtyEight on February 21, 2019:

Major League Baseball is eager to speed up our national pastime. In the past few offseasons, MLB has tried to combat the slowing pace of play by targeting pitching changes, intentional walks and mound visits. But another significant culprit behind the sport’s sluggish pace of play may be something that no pitch clock or simple rule change can fix: the foul ball.

The number of foul balls has increased by 11.98 percent from 1998, when baseball expanded to 30 teams, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis of data. There were almost 14,000 more foul balls last season than there were 20 seasons earlier. In 1998, 26.5 percent of all strikes were foul balls. That share increased to a record 27.9 percent of strikes in 2017 and 27.8 percent last season, the top rates since pitch-level data was first recorded in 1988.

Overall, there were 26,313 more pitches in baseball in 2018 (724,447) than in 1998 (698,134). That’s the equivalent of adding 88 games, or roughly a week, to the schedule. A record 3.9 pitches were thrown per plate appearance in the 2017 and 2018 seasons, according to, up from 3.73 pitches per plate appearance in 2002 and 3.58 in 1988. And about half of the growth in total pitches can be attributed to foul balls.

For the first time since pitch-level data has been recorded, there were more foul balls than balls put in play in 2017 — and that trend continued in 2018.

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Originally published: February 21, 2019. Last Updated: February 21, 2019.