Baseball is a bit different from other sports in the sense that baseball doesn’t use a clock to dictate the length of games. Sure, baseball has innings but they’re not a predetermined length of time such as football or basketball quarters. Because of this, there are a ton of things that factor into the length of baseball games.
So, how long are baseball games?
Major League Baseball games tend to be around 3 hours long, with some games falling closer to 2 hours and others surpassing the 4-hour mark. College games are about as long as professional games, but high school and youth games generally last 2 hours or less due to fewer innings and mercy rules.
Because of the unique structure of baseball, many things factor into how long or short a game is. We will dive into all these factors later on, but first, we’ll pin down a more definitive answer on how long baseball games are.
How Long Are Professional Baseball Games?
Out of all levels of baseball, professional baseball games usually tend to be the longest, with Major League Baseball (MLB) being the longest of the bunch. There are a variety of reasons why this is the case, but again, we’ll cover that in a little bit.
In 2019, the average MLB game lasted 3 hours and 10 minutes, with the Boston Red Sox averaging an MLB-high 3 hours and 25 minutes, while the Detroit Tigers played the fastest over the course of the season, averaging 3 hours and 2 minutes.
Over the course of 162 games, game times seem to settle a little bit north of the three-hour mark, with Red Sox games lasting an average of 12.6% longer than Tigers games over the 2019 season. However, both teams had a wide variance in game times.
The Red Sox, for example, had four games that spanned more than twelve innings, with a 15-inning contest on Sept. 17, 2019, lasting 5 hours and 54 minutes.
For games that only went the regulation nine innings, Boston still had six of them last at least four hours, with a seventh going 3 hours and 59 minutes.
That includes a 4-hour and 42-minute marathon against the New York Yankees on June 29 that was just three minutes shy of the longest 9-inning game in MLB history, a Yankees-Red Sox tilt in 2006.
On the flip side, the 2019 Boston Red Sox played a game on August 8 that lasted just 2 hours and 16 minutes, less than half the length of their longest nine-inning affair.
Overall, the Red Sox played a game in under 2 hours and 45 minutes on 16 occasions that season, the same number of times they played more than four hours.
On the other end of the spectrum, the 2019 Detroit Tigers played just four games that lasted over four hours, while they managed to finish 11 games in less than 2 hours and 30 minutes.
The Tigers also had a game against the Houston Astros lasting just 2 hours and 12 minutes, the seventh-shortest game of 2019, with the shortest game being a 1 hour and 59-minute matchup between the Miami Marlins and New York Mets on May 19.
At the minor league level, game times tend to be a little bit shorter.
In 2018, Minor League Baseball as a whole had an average game time of 2 hours and 48 minutes, with Double-A and Triple-A average times ranging from 2 hours and 41 minutes in the Eastern League to 2 hours and 52 minutes in the Pacific Coast League.
How Long Are College Baseball Games?
Oftentimes, college baseball can mirror the professional game in many ways (aluminum bats not being one of them, obviously) and their game times tend to be right in line with those at higher levels of baseball.
In 2018, the average Division I college baseball game lasted 2 hours and 59 minutes, five minutes shorter than the 2018 MLB average. The average time for postseason Regional and Super Regionals that year was 3 hours and 16 minutes, and the 2018 College World Series games averaged 3 hours and 30 minutes.
At the lower levels of college baseball, game times are not readily available, so the average time of these games is not known. However, it may be reasonable to guess that regular-season game times are somewhat comparable to those at the Division I levels.
It should be noted that some lower levels of college baseball, most notably the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics and National Junior College Athletic Association, will regularly play seven-inning games if they are a part of a doubleheader.
At the upper levels of National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) baseball, this tends to be rarer.
The NCAA rulebook is rather vague on the subject, stating that doubleheaders may consist of two nine-inning games, two seven-inning games, or one game of each length, though the NCAA encourages nine-inning games.
However, many conferences have a mercy rule allowing the final game of a series to end after seven innings if one team is up by 10 or more runs.
How Long Are High School Baseball Games?
Below the college level, game times for baseball tend to be considerably shorter for one key reason—fewer innings to play. Indeed, with two fewer innings (7 vs. 9), high school games (in most cases) will be shorter than professional contests.
At the high school level, games typically average around 2 hours in length, though game times can wildly fluctuate due to mercy rules and the competition level. It’s common for high school games to be called after a predetermined time (usually 2 hours) as well.
High school game lengths can be tricky because of the various rules for ending games. Nationwide, regulation games last seven innings, but mercy rules can end games after five innings, or even three innings in some states.
However, because a five-inning mercy rule requires a team to win by ten runs (and a three-inning game requires a 15-run margin of victory), considerably shorter games will often take at least 90 minutes to play.
One long-time amateur baseball umpire we talked to said that in his personal experience, most high school varsity games take roughly 2 hours and 15 minutes to complete if played through seven innings, and anywhere from 1 hour and 15 minutes to 2 hours if a game is ended via the mercy rule.
How Long Are Youth Baseball Games?
At the lowest level of the baseball pyramid, game lengths are the most ambiguous because of the wide range in the quality of play that exists as the people playing it get younger.
At the youth level, nearly all games are scheduled for either 6 or 7 innings, but many organizations have time limits that usually fall somewhere between 1 hour and 30 minutes to 2 hours, allowing the schedule to keep moving, especially on days with multiple games scheduled on the same field.
Like most other amateur levels of play, correctly pinning down an approximate range can be rather tricky, especially due to different rules among various youth baseball organizations. However, our veteran youth baseball umpire was able to provide some insight.
He said that in his experience, he’s seen 9-year-olds play seven innings in 1 hour and 15 minutes. He’s also seen them play three innings in 2 hours.
He’s seen 12-year-olds finish a six-inning game in barely over an hour, but also seen kids that same age need over 2 hours just to finish four innings.
What Factors Affect Game Length?
As we stated earlier, in most sports, the speed of the game is for the most part controlled by a clock. However, because baseball does not have that clock (youth baseball time limits notwithstanding), many factors go into how fast a game is played.
A baseball game’s length can most notably be impacted by how many baserunners there are, the number of pitching changes, the pace a pitcher works, and the skill level of the players. Other factors such as dead time and length of inning breaks can affect game times as well.
When it comes to why games are either long or short, it’s a combination of several different factors, some of which are obvious, and others which are subtle.
In 2016, FanGraphs tackled the issue of rising game times and try to pin down the exact reasons games were becoming longer.
In that piece, they noted that average MLB game times rose by over 14 minutes from 2006 to 2014, dropped by six minutes in 2015, then almost immediately rose again by six minutes.
The main factors they cited were more time between pitches, the number of batters per game, and the number of pitches per plate appearance, which appeared to explain the one-year boost.
However, other factors that the article does not address include the number of pitching changes per game, which has steadily grown in previous decades, or the amount of time between innings.
In between innings, for most MLB games there are 2 minutes and 5 seconds scheduled for each inning break.
In theory, the first batter of the subsequent inning should be in the batter’s box and ready to hit 2 minutes and 5 seconds following the final out of the previous half-inning.
For nationally-televised regular-season games, 2 minutes and 25 seconds are scheduled in-between innings and postseason games feature inning breaks lasting 2 minutes and 55 seconds.
All of these inning break parameters also apply for mid-inning pitching changes, which is a notable way that games can grow longer.
What’s notable is that there appears to be a correlation between the number of pitchers used and the pace of play, in addition to the number of plate appearances per game (and with it, scoring). In 2019, MLB teams used an average of 4.41 pitchers per game, an all-time high.
Likewise, the average game time of 3 hours and 10 minutes was also an all-time high, as was the 3 hour and 5-minute mark per nine-inning game.
Consistent time-of-game averages are available going back to 1936 (except for 1944-45). From 1936-43, pitcher usage and game times had virtually zero change, with a slight dip in both figures occurring as factors related to World War II suppressed scoring.
In 1943, MLB teams used 1.88 pitchers per game and games averaged 2 hours and 3 minutes, with nine-inning affairs averaging just 1 hour and 51 minutes.
Post-WWII, scoring rose, which led to more plate appearances per game, more pitchers—and more time. In 1946, MLB games averaged 2 hours and 7 minutes, 2.09 pitchers per team, 76.6 total plate appearances, and 8.01 runs.
These figures began rising through the 1950s. By 1961, MLB games were up to 2 hours and 38 minutes on average, with an average of 9.05 runs and 2.44 pitchers (used per team).
Interestingly, each game averaged 76.6 plate appearances, the same figure as 1946, indicating that increased scoring and pitching changes were having a major impact on game time.
One other factor that was beginning to make an impact as well, perhaps, may have been strikeouts. In 1946, MLB teams averaged 3.89 strikeouts per game, which rose to 5.23 by 1961.
This is notable because strikeouts often take more pitches and with it more time than non-strikeouts.
Indeed, in 2014, FiveThirtyEight noted that each at-bat ending in a strikeout averaged 4.5 pitches, while those ending with an out on balls put in play averaged just three pitches.
Considering each MLB team struck out 8.81 times per game in 2019, the increase of strikeouts alone accounts for at least 15 additional pitches per game, adding several minutes.
In addition to making pitchers throw more pitches, just the pace at which a pitcher works can have a massive impact on the time of the game. For example, in 2019, Wade Miley of the Houston Astros led Major League Baseball by averaging 19.6 seconds between pitches.
On the other end of the spectrum, David Price averaged exactly ten seconds more per pitch (29.6).
In other words, if David Price and Wade Miley each were to throw 100 pitches in a game, Price would spend nearly 17 more minutes on the mound than Miley in just one game.
While pacing helps, key ways to ensure faster games are to have fewer runs, fewer strikeouts, fewer pitchers, and fewer pitches. Since 2008, 21 MLB games have finished in less than two hours.
In those games, no game featured more than six runs, only one team struck out more than ten times, and only two games did not feature at least one starting pitcher throwing a complete game.
Of course, these games are the extreme outliers, hence why there are only 21 of them out of over 29,000 games played in 12 years.
While these factors apply to all games, other factors go into play at lower levels. In amateur baseball, in particular, there are wider disparities in talent, which can result in both extremely fast and extreme slow games.
For example, two strong pitchers opposing each other in a game of 12-year-olds can make a game finish quickly, while two different teams with kids the same age could drag on if both teams feature pitchers that struggle to put the ball over the plate, and/or a defense that struggles to turn the rare balls put into play into outs.
These concerns aren’t as profound as the competition gets better at higher levels.
Pace of Play in Baseball
Most close observers of baseball are fully aware of the problem the sport is grappling to fix: the pace of play. Namely, baseball games are longer than ever while featuring fewer balls in play (i.e. action) – a trend that most in baseball see as concerning.
To combat longer games, MLB has passed pace-of-play initiatives that include shortening inning breaks, limiting both the time and the number of mound visits, making intentional walks automatic, and forcing all pitchers to face at least three batters.
Most of these changes were implemented over the 2018 and 2019 seasons, with the three-batter rule instituted for the 2020 season.
It has also been rumored for several years that MLB may institute a 20-second pitch clock after instituting it in spring training in 2019.
A 20-second pitch clock has been in use in Double-A and Triple-A since 2015, with a ball assessed against any pitcher who fails to deliver his pitch in that time frame.
Likewise, a strike is assessed to any batter who is not in the box and “alert to the pitcher” with seven seconds left on the clock.
Also notably, to cut down on the length of extra-inning games, Minor League Baseball began starting all extra innings with runners on second base in 2018, a rule that Major League Baseball borrowed for the abbreviated 2020 season, with permanent implementation unclear.
Whether or not these changes will be seen in MLB remains to be seen.
It has been believed by many writers that MLB’s goal of these changes is for game times to decrease below the three-hour threshold, but little progress has been made, with 2019 featuring the longest game times yet.
In the meantime, the answer to the question of “how long is a baseball game” is this: getting longer.
Odds and Ends
- The longest game in MLB history occurred on May 8, 1984, when the Chicago White Sox outlasted the Milwaukee Brewers, winning 8-7 in an 8-hour, 6-minute marathon that elapsed 25 innings. The longest nine-inning game was on Aug. 18, 2006, when the New York Yankees needed 4 hours and 45 minutes to outlast the Boston Red Sox, 14-11.
- The longest game in professional baseball history occurred in the Triple-A International League on Apr. 18, 1981, when Pawtucket beat Rochester 2-1 in 33 innings, lasting 8 hours and 25 minutes. The game was suspended after 32 innings at 4:09 A.M. on April 19 and then finished on June 23.
- The longest game in NCAA baseball history occurred in an NCAA Regional matchup between Texas and Boston College on May 30, 2009, which lasted 7 hours and 3 minutes and was won 3-2 in 25 innings by Texas.
- Perhaps the longest game in baseball history was a high school matchup between Chukyo High School and Sotoku High School in Japan, beginning on Aug. 28, 2014. No official length of the game was given but the contest proceeded for a staggering 49 scoreless innings over four days before Chukyo scored three times in the 50th inning to earn a 3-0 win. Just as mindboggling, both starting pitchers threw complete games, combining to throw nearly 1,400 pitches.
- The shortest game in MLB history took place on Sept. 28, 1919, when the New York Giants needed just 51 minutes to dispatch the Philadelphia Phillies 6-1 in the first game of a doubleheader.
- The shortest game in professional baseball history was a contest in the Class-D North Carolina State League on Aug. 30, 1916. The Asheville Tourists were scheduled to play the Winston-Salem Twins, who had to catch a train out of town, so the teams deliberately played a rapidly quick game, one that took just 31 minutes to finish. Winston-Salem won 2-1 and did so in time to catch their train.