Verlander-Bieber Duel Proves Baseball’s Played The Same In Faster Era
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The rule changes meant to hasten the pace of play appeared to be the big winner May 21, when the Mets edged the Guardians, 2-1, in just two hours and six minutes.

“It was a two-hour game, it was great,” Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor said with a grin. “It’s fun as a baseball player and as a baseball fan. This is as good as it gets.”

And it was, just not for the reasons anyone likely envisioned. In a battle of Cy Young winners, the Mets’ Justin Verlander earned the win with eight innings of three-hit ball against the Guardians and Shane Bieber, who took the hard-luck loss in an eight-inning complete game.

It was the first time this season two starting pitchers each lasted at least eight innings — and a reminder the rule changes have sped up the game without really changing what slowed it down in the first place.

The latter quirk is no surprise, since the most famous architect of the rule changes is Theo Epstein, the godfather of modern general managers who believe in constructing teams reliant on deep bullpens and the three true outcomes.

What slowed games down most? Not baserunners lingering near the bag because the bases 90 feet away were too undersized to even attempt a steal, but a dozen pitching changes per game and lengthy counts ending with the ball in the catcher’s mitt or in a fan’s hands in the outfield seats.

Anyway, Epstein, as skilled at redirecting the conversation as he is at building World Series winners, got to display his usual faux bashfulness while taking victory laps throughout the spring. But after almost two months, the only thing to change about how the game is played is the speed at which it is completed.

Starting pitchers are relied upon as minimally as ever. Through Tuesday night, the average start is lasting the tiniest bit longer (5.209 innings) than last season (5.205 innings). Both figures are up from 2019, when starters averaged 5.18 innings per start in the final season before the pandemic and the two-year experiment with doubleheaders consisting of seven-inning games.

The 2019-to-2022 increase marks the first increase over consecutive standard seasons since 2013-14, when the average start increased from 5.9 innings to 5.97 innings.

Through Tuesday night, a plate appearance ended with one of the three true outcomes — a homer, a walk or a strikeout — 34.5 percent of the time, up more than one percent from last season’s mark of 33.4 percent. In a bit of coincidental irony Alanis Morrissette would appreciate, last season’s TTO percentage was the lowest full-season figure since 2015 and marked the first full-season year-to-year decrease since 2012-13.

Batters are striking out in 25.4 percent of their at-bats, an increase after another even rarer dip last season, when the whiff rate slipped from 26 percent to 25 percent — the first decrease in back-to-back full seasons since way back in 2004-05, when the rate fell from 19 percent to 18.4 percent.

So the Mets’ taut victory over the Guardians was both the outcome Epstein and Co. intended when they went into the lab and an accidental one all at the same time — a game that went fast but because starting pitchers put the ball in play and provided their bullpens a break.

Even though eight of the 10 hits were singles, no stolen bases were attempted. Verlander and Bieber combined for nine strikeouts while facing 58 batters, a strikeout rate of 15.5 percent.

The unintended throwback isn’t likely to happen again anytime soon. This year’s first game in which both starting pitchers lasted at least eight innings happened almost three weeks earlier that last year’s first such game, a duel between Shane McClanahan and Miles Mikolas in which McClanahan and the Rays earned a 2-1 win over the Cardinals on June 9.

The second and last one didn’t happen until the final Friday of the season — Sept. 30, when reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes outdueled his successor, Sandy Alcantara, as the Brewers edged the Marlins 1-0.

“I mean, every guy in the league has an opportunity to go out and throw a shutout,” Verlander said last Sunday night.

He really doesn’t.

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