Miami, FL, USA; Miami Marlins starting pitcher Mark Buehrle (56) during the sixth inning against the Washington Nationals at Marlins Park. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE
Mark Buehrle is the fastest-working pitcher in baseball. Jonathan Papelbon is the slowest-working pitcher in baseball. The difference is staggering.
Baseball is a fairly slow-moving game, relative to the other major sports, and that's something that all baseball fans accept. Baseball fans know that non-baseball fans find the game boring, and even baseball fans know that the game can indeed be boring sometimes. Without a clock, it can drag, sometimes seemingly forever. It's baseball's blessing and burden.
I don't think fans mind a long game so much as they mind a long game that could've been shorter. There's a difference between a long game involving a lot of pitches, and a long game involving a lot of inactivity. Pick-offs, mound conferences, pitching changes, assorted delays, those sorts of things. On occasion, they can add to the drama, ramp up the intensity. On more occasions, they suck to watch.
Long story short, FanGraphs tracks a neat little pitching statistic called "Pace". Generated by the PITCHf/x system, Pace tracks the average number of seconds in between a pitcher's pitches. Every pitch recorded by PITCHf/x has a time stamp, allowing for measurement. An average pace is somewhere around 22 seconds, with variation on either end.
What I'm doing here is looking at Pace between 2009 and the present day. Maybe you've toyed around with this statistic, and maybe you haven't. There have been 253 different pitchers who've thrown at least 200 innings over the past three and a half years. It probably won't surprise you to learn that the pitcher with the fastest pace has been Mark Buehrle. By kind of a lot. And the pitcher with the slowest pace has been Jonathan Papelbon. Buehrle's a guy who gets the ball and throws it; Papelbon's a guy who gets the ball, leans over, opens his mouth, stares for a while, remembers that he's supposed to throw the baseball, and throws the baseball.
It might be enough to just leave it at raw Pace. But I decided to take it to the next level, and then the next level after that. More meaningful, to me, than time between pitches is average plate-appearance duration. And then more meaningful than that, to me, is average innings duration. Using Pace, we can approximate these measurements.
Since 2009, not only has Buehrle been the fastest worker -- he's averaged just under 3.7 pitches per plate appearance. Papelbon, meanwhile, has averaged more than four pitches per plate appearance. Using Pace, we get a plate-appearance duration of 59.9 seconds for Buehrle, and 127.1 seconds for Papelbon. Put another way, the average Mark Buehrle plate appearance has lasted less than half as long as the average Jonathan Papelbon plate appearance. The difference is more than a full minute.
We continue. Buehrle has averaged about 4.2 plate appearances per inning, while Papelbon has averaged about 4.1 plate appearances per inning. Simple multiplication yields an average inning duration of 248.8 seconds for Buehrle, and 525.7 seconds for Papelbon. Those are the respective league leaders -- Buehrle by about 31 seconds over Tim Wakefield, and Papelbon by about 38 seconds over Jose Valverde.
Obviously, that isn't a perfect, accurate measure -- there are delays in between plate appearances, there are balls put in play, and there are various other delays, all of which are more or less out of the pitcher's control. Based just on active pitching time, since 2009 Mark Buehrle has been roughly 4.6 minutes per inning faster than Jonathan Papelbon. Papelbon has been twice as slow as Buehrle, and then some.
Relievers tend to have longer Paces than starters, because their situations tend to be higher in intensity, and they tend to get into deeper counts. Papelbon's been slower than Buehrle in part due to respective roles alone. But a lot of the difference has to do with just Jonathan Papelbon and Mark Buehrle, and the difference is enormous. When Buehrle's cruising, you hardly notice the innings going by. Meanwhile, even when Papelbon goes 1-2-3, he makes damn sure everybody knows that he pitched.
Without running any numbers, I can't imagine there's too strong of a relationship between Pace and effectiveness. There are good pitchers who are fast, good pitchers who are slow, bad pitchers who are fast, and bad pitchers who are slow. But there is a relationship between Pace and watchability, and while it isn't the only factor, Mark Buehrle's managed to score himself some points. Papelbon, less so.