OMAHA — Trends in college baseball often trickle down from Major League Baseball. More college teams are turning to exaggerated defensive shifts, for instance. Analytics are finding a place. And high socks are back, too.
But there is another trend that perplexes college baseball officials as much as M.L.B.’s: Games that go on, and on, and on. At the College World Series, where the best-of-three final between Oregon State and Arkansas begins Monday night, the Greatest Show on Dirt can stretch as long as the dreariest Yankees-Red Sox marathon.
The 13 games leading up to the championship series averaged 3 hours 30 minutes, a 25-minute increase over where it was at just two years ago. If that average holds, it will be the second-longest in the event’s history, trailing only the record average of 3:38 set in 2009.
Things turned ponderous right from the opener, when North Carolina and Oregon State played the longest nine-inning game, by time, in the tournament’s 72-year history — 4:24. Neither starting pitcher completed the third inning in an eventual 8-6 victory by the Tar Heels which was played in steamy 93-degree heat.
“It’s going to be a long game when you walk people and make errors,” Oregon State Coach Pat Casey said after his team hit four batters, walked three, committed three errors and threw a numbing 187 pitches. Even so, he said, “Four and a half hours is too long to be on the field.”
The next day Arkansas took 3:55 to beat Texas, 11-5. Play screeched to a halt in Arkansas’ eight-run sixth, when Longhorns Coach David Pierce needed six pitchers throwing 62 pitches to record three outs. A nearly three-hour rain delay in the middle of the rally didn’t help.
Then Oregon State took part in another marathon, a 14-5 rout of Washington that lasted 3:53. The game began at 1 p.m. local time and, thanks to a four-and-a-half-hour delay for rain and lightning, ended in a nearly-empty TD Ameritrade Park at 9:30 p.m. Only two of the tournament’s first 13 games finished in less than three hours, and six took at least three and a half.
“If you’re on the field for four and a half hours and it’s 15 innings, sure, I can understand that length,” said Ben Brownlee, the N.C.A.A. assistant director who oversees championships and playing rules. “But when it’s almost four and a half hours for a regular nine-inning game that isn’t all that fluky, then there needs to be something to try to address those issues.”
The ideal length, Brownlee said, is about three hours. Regular-season games averaged 2:59 this season, according to the N.C.A.A. But once it turned to the postseason, many games dragged well beyond that.
N.C.A.A. Tournament Regional and Super Regional games averaged 3:18, continuing a four-year upward trend. And that’s with ESPN, the TV rights holder, shaving 10 seconds off the break times for each half-inning, down from two minutes to 1 minute 50 seconds.
Two years ago N.C.A.A. officials were encouraged when College World Series games averaged a manageable 3:05, the swiftest in four years, but it didn’t last. Last year’s tournament games took 3:15.
“I think that’s our trouble spot right now,” said Craig Keilitz, executive director of the American Baseball Coaches Association. “I think we need to improve in that area, and I think everyone understands that — student-athletes, coaches, and certainly our fans.”
Some of the issues are similar to M.L.B.’s: Pitchers who work too slowly; multiple pitching changes per inning; and too many meetings on the mound, with coaches walking out leisurely to conduct them. Strikeouts are increasing, too. Last season, teams averaged 7.54 strikeouts per nine innings, the highest since the N.C.A.A. began keeping track in 1970. The N.C.A.A. approved only limited video replay review in 2017 because it feared lengthening games, Brownlee said.
But there is another factor unique to college baseball that slows it down: coaches signaling in pitches from the bench. Princeton, coached by the former major-league catcher Scott Bradley, and Minnesota are among the few teams that permit catchers to call a game. With some teams, it’s a threefold process: The pitching coach in the dugout flashes signs to the catcher, who refers to a chart strapped to his wrist, then signals to the pitcher.
“I just think coaches are a little bit too involved,” said the former South Carolina coach Ray Tanner, who is now the school’s athletic director and chairman of the N.C.A.A. Division I Baseball Committee. “It’s probably unfair to the pitching side of it, but I think it slowed the game down a lot.”
Coaches are not interested in relinquishing that control, so solutions will have to come from elsewhere. Keilitz said the coaches’ association will survey Division I coaches this month for suggestions. Changes could come in time for the 2019 season.
The Big 12 Conference experimented with a 15-second countdown clock between pitches with no one on base this season and saw a 13-minute reduction in average game times, to 3:04 from 3:17, Brownlee said. Current N.C.A.A. rules allow 20 seconds between pitches with no one on; there is no time limit with runners on base.
Also this season the Southeastern and Atlantic Coast Conferences permitted pitching coaches to talk to catchers via earpieces, though Brownlee is not certain it sped up play; expanded video replay review in those conferences may have canceled out gains. Automatic intentional walks and limiting mound visits, changes already implemented by M.L.B., may also be considered.
“We don’t want to take out the purity of the game, a little cat-and-mouse that goes on between managers or the guy in the bullpen or the guy on deck,” Tanner said. “We’ve got to leave that part in the game. But we’ve got to keep playing. We’ve got to keep the game moving.”