LESS IS MORE

How Astros are somehow operating more efficiently than expected

How Astros are somehow operating more efficiently than expected
The new rules are having an impact on offense. Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images.

Went to my first Astros game this season on Sunday. The game started at 6:10 p.m. The final out of the Astros’ 4-3 win was at 8:56 p.m. Downtown traffic was light, the Southwest Freeway was smooth sailing. I was home by 9:30 p.m. The post-game TV show was still on.

I like MLB’s new rules: no infield shifts, a pitch clock, bigger bases, fewer pickoff attempts, all leading to shorter, faster-paced games with fewer hitters stepping out of the box to scratch themselves. You know, they have ointment for that now.

Sunday’s game took 2 hours and 46 minutes, which actually is longer than most baseball games this season. After years of MLB inventing rules to shorten the time of games that didn’t work, they finally got it right this time. The average time of a game so far this season in 2 hours and 36 minutes. Last year, the average game dragged on for 3 hours and 3 minutes.

Back to the Astros post-game show for a moment. Two questions: why do hosts Kevin Eschenfelder and Mike Stanton keep swapping chairs, and that baseball that Stanton is always holding like a security blanket – is that the same baseball every night, or does he get a new ball each show?

Minute Maid Park was packed with 41,669 fans Sunday. It was the conclusion of a very successful weekend series against the Phils, at least for owner Jim Crane’s bottom line.

Saturday afternoon the Astros lost 6-1. The game took 2 hours and 51 minutes to play in front of 41,240 fans. Friday night’s game, a 3-1 defeat, took only 2 hours and 26 minutes with 40,719 fans.

Shorter games, bigger attendance. So far this season, including Monday night’s victory over the Giants, the Astros have played 17 games at home, drawing 638,941 fans for an average crowd of 37,530. That’s 4,000 fans more than they averaged last year, a 15 percent bump.

That’s a lot of numbers but they all add up to one thing – baseball is back big time. Attendance is up 4 percent across the league. Cleveland’s attendance is up 57 percent.

Tonight should be another big crowd for the Astros-Giants game. It’s Dollar Dog night, always a fan favorite. And attendance should get a booster shot in a couple of weeks when school lets out for summer.

If MLB’s new rules were intended to increase offense and spur more exciting play, that’s exactly what’s happened. League-wide, hitters batted .242 in April. Last year, they batted .231. This year teams attempted 759 stolen bases, the most in any April this century.

Of course every silver lining has a cloud behind it. The Astros used to cut off alcohol sales after the seventh inning. The policy was to allow fans who may have had too much to drink time to sober up before driving home. This year, because the games are about 30 minutes shorter and fans are staying the whole game, the Astros have extended beer sales to the entire game. Longer beer hours are available at about half of the concession stands. The other half will continue to cut off sales after the seventh inning. Fine print: the Astros will stop selling alcohol if a game exceeds four hours.

We’re talking about a lot of beer. Fans spent $28 million on alcohol at Minute Maid Park last year, according to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts. In fact, the Astros ballpark trailed only AT&T Stadium in Arlington for alcohol receipts at sports venues in Texas.

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With a new season on the horizon, the Astros have high hopes for 2024 after coming just one game shy of being in the World Series for three consecutive seasons.

If Houston wants to get back to the Fall Classic in 2024, they're going to have to rely on their pitching. Owner Jim Crane believes the club has 8 starting pitchers when Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers Jr. return mid-season.

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Check out the video above as ESPN Houston's Jeremy Branham goes through the entire staff and makes his case for the Astros having the best pitching staff in baseball.

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