The Spectator Attention Test Redux
On 4 Billion More Pitches Seen.
It’s often said that the real purpose of the pitch clock isn’t to merely make games shorter, but to make games more engaging. It’s easy to measure the first thing, though. (So far this year, 27 minutes shorter than last year.) It’s harder to measure the other. You’d have to, like, stare at fans behind home plate and count how many of them are actually watching the game on every pitch.
Fortunately, 10 years ago, I did that! For a 2013 piece at Baseball Prospectus, I close-watched 15 fans sitting behind home plate in the third inning of a Friday night game, to see how long any fan could pay attention without getting distracted. I found that:
Eleven of the 15 fans never watched more than four pitches in a row. I deduced that to be the median tolerability of baseball: Three or four pitches, then take a cleansing trip to your phone.
The most pitches in a row that anybody watched (in a span of 19 pitches observed) was eight. That was the maximum tolerability of baseball: Eight pitches, then call your therapist.
About 46.5 percent of fans were watching each pitch, on average.
Last week, I tried it again. It was, again, the third inning of a Friday night game in Arizona. The game was close and, as in 2013, the Diamondbacks are roughly a .500 team that’s kind of in playoff contention. There are some differences: In 2013 I measured in July, a more blah month. But in 2023 I’m measuring a more blah pitcher—Madison Bumgarner, instead of the D-Backs’ then-phenom Patrick Corbin, who at that point was 11-1 in his first full season. None of that should affect things too much.
Here’s our cast, watching (or not watching) the first pitch of the third inning on April 7:
Not watching: Fan 4, Fan 11
Have yet to miss a pitch: Fans 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17
(The man sitting in the front row, next to Fan 15, will be ignored, because he can’t be seen when the batter is right-handed.)
Last time, I tried to be very liberal with what counted as “watching.” If the person is facing the action, I generally count it. I’m looking for heads down, backs turned, bodies gone. That said, it can be hard to know what to do with a person staring out in the distance, like Fan 4 up above. He’s probably reading the scoreboard. He’s probably looking at the batter’s .130/.259/.261 slash line and wondering whether anybody in history has ever had an OBP that was double his batting average. (Yes, but never in more than 200 plate appearances. Eddie Lake hit .105/.252/.132 in 1941!) We should probably call Fan 4 engaged. But I’m counting that as a disengagement, mostly to move the story forward.
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