Friday, March 3, 2023

The Pitch Clock Is Working

I was skeptical of the pitch clock when it was first proposed, but it's undoubtedly improving MLB games.

I'm 64 years old and have been a Major League Baseball fan my whole life. Like most folks my age, I'm already quite set in my ways. The only thing keeping me from going full-on miserable curmudgeon is that I've also learned not to take myself too seriously. When I heard about all the rule changes coming to MLB this season, I wasn't entirely on board with what they were proposing. In particular, the idea of a clock on a baseball field seemed antithetical to a sport that has operated without one for over 150 years.

While the idea of a pitch clock admittedly made some sense, given the tediousness of watching batters step out and readjust their batting gloves after... every... single... pitch, the idea of the thing really went against the grain. If you ask a true baseball fan what separates this game from every other major team sport, most would tell you it's the only one not ruled by a clock. But now you have one right behind home plate, relentlessly ticking away. 30 seconds between batters. 15 seconds between pitches to the same batter. 20 seconds when anyone is on base. The catcher has to be in the catcher's box at least 9 seconds before the clock strikes zero. The batter has to be in the batter's box with his eyes on the pitcher with 8 seconds left. Batters can only call time out once in an at bat.

Essentially, this new pitch clock controls everything that happens in a ball game. In many ways, it feels very wrong to me. But, as game times crept longer and longer every year, it became clear that something absolutely had to be done. In the Wildcard series against the Mets last October, the Padres hitters made a point of slowing the Mets pitchers down. It was legal and probably a smart move for San Diego, but anyone watching the game who wasn't a fan of either team likely found the strategy and the resulting slowdown in action uncompelling. The biggest problem in baseball in recent seasons hasn't really been the length of the game. Rather, the length of time without any action on the field poses the greatest challenge in attracting new fans and even keeping the ones baseball already has.

The glacial pace of baseball games we've seen in the last few years is a relatively recent development. If you check out this page on the Baseball Reference site, you can see how the average length of a 9-inning game has crept steadily higher year by year. In 1969, my first year as a Mets fan, the average 9-inning game was 2:28 long. 10 years later, in 1979, 9-inning games averaged 2:31. This started changing more noticeably by the mid-1980s. In 1986, when the Mets last won a championship, the average 9-inning game time jumped to 2:48. In 2000, when the Mets next appeared in the World Series, 9-inning games averaged 3:01 — more than 1/2 hour longer than in 1969. Last year the average was 3:06.

At least in my case, it wasn't the extra 1/2 hour or so of game time that was the problem. It was the time between pitches with all of the gamesmanship going on. Except in moments when the game was on the line, some of this stuff was just plain boring. For people who didn't already love baseball, this was a huge turnoff. You could see why kids weren't embracing the sport as most of us did when we were young.

If baseball had addressed all of this in the 1990s, it's possible games could have been sped up without resorting to the tyranny of that clock ticking off the seconds. I always thought umpires should have been given strict instructions to limit the timeouts they granted to batters — not allowing them to step out and readjust between every pitch. But this would have required consistency and leadership from the men in blue. The chances that the game could have ever been sped back up without a clock were, in reality, quite slim. Any system dependent on the judgment of umpires would have produced inconsistent results based on what individual umps were willing to tolerate.

Fans of the game seem to be greatly in favor of the faster pace produced by the presence of these pitch clocks. I don't mean to imply that everyone is happy with the thing. It's simply impossible to please everyone when you significantly change a sport like baseball that has been around so long. But the faster-paced games are markedly more watchable for most of us. I don't miss watching hitters adjust those gloves after every pitch. Once I got used to the presence of the clock, I stopped paying much attention to the thing. I just appreciated the lack of so much dead time. The pitch clock proved not to be as big of a deal as I thought it would. There have been some hiccups this spring, as happens with anything new, but as players, coaches, and fans get used to the thing, it will fade into the background more and more.

One last point about the shortening of average game time thanks to the pitch clock. Fans have commented that they like the shorter games when they're watching them on tv but are worried that the faster pace would be less welcome when they go to see a game in person. Specifically, they worry that the faster pace will cause them to miss more of the action while waiting in long lines for food and drink. This seems a valid concern that teams must devise strategies to address. Having HD screens around the concessions with the game playing is all well and good, but most real fans want to spend as much of the actual game time as possible in their seats watching the live action.

Personally, I think it would encourage me to get to a game earlier. I've always liked watching batting practice and enjoying the feeling of being in a ballpark before the action begins. If I plan on eating at the park (rather than just incessantly snacking), I will get my food in that time before the game starts. But it's crucial for the folks who operate the ballparks to figure out how to more quickly and efficiently service their customers.

Another change we've seen this spring that looks to be a winner is MLB banning the dramatic defensive shifts that have been taking over the game. I admit that I didn't like this idea much at first. Besides never having a clock, Major League Baseball never previously tried to legislate where a team could place their fielders. Shifting against the big power hitters — especially left-handed batters — has been a part of the game since long before I began watching it. The main differences in recent history to traditional baseball were in the routine positioning of the second baseman in the outfield and the reality that most teams employed shifts against almost every opposing hitter.

I wrote something about the subject in February 2022. I wasn't entirely against the idea; I just wished that teams could combat these shifts by developing more well-balanced hitters like Jeff McNeil, who could make them pay for the tactic by hitting the ball through the gaping holes created, as opposed to lineups full of pull-happy sluggers who couldn't:

Does baseball become appreciably more watchable if Joey Gallo hits .215 rather than .190? Because it seems to me that one perhaps unintended consequence of restricting shifts would be to make it a bit easier for one-dimensional hitters like Gallo to continue to dominate the MLB ranks. There is less incentive for clubs to develop more complete hitters. There may be a few more singles, but it won't lead to more balls in play. We'll still be forced to watch hitters like Gallo strike out in over a third of his at-bats.

It seems inevitable that rule changes to limit shifting will be enacted. It's not that I will miss them any more than I will miss the vast majority of pitchers' at-bats. Still, I can only hope that baseball continues to work to find a way to incentivize more well-rounded hitters to make a comeback in the game. Baseball is at its best when there is a balance between power and more subtle skills like situational hitting and bat control. It will require more creativity than just legislating where fielders can be placed by defensive clubs.
It remains to be seen whether baseball will attempt to incorporate at least a few better all-around hitters into MLB lineups in the coming years. Perhaps the other rule changes meant to encourage more stolen bases will encourage teams to look for more speed and athleticism from their prospects. After all, a player needs to get on base before he can steal. Given the tools teams have to develop pitchers these days, I don't foresee a dramatic reduction in strikeouts in MLB. But at least a step or two away from the "all or nothing" mentality would be welcome.

For now, I have to admit that it's an aesthetic improvement to the game without that second baseman stationed in short right field. So, remarkably, these two dramatic rule changes introduced by MLB this spring seem to be very successful in accomplishing what they were designed to do. I'll keep an open mind about the restriction in pitcher "disengagements" and the larger bases. It remains to be seen what impact they will have on baseball other than increasing the number of stolen bases.

I can be very critical of Rob Manfred and the MLB brain trust at times, and I make no apology for that. But, in fairness, it's also important to give them some props when they get something right — as rare as those moments truly are. But they took their time coming up with solutions to the pace of play problem, then tested them in the minor leagues to iron out some of the wrinkles. The result is well-thought-out changes that feel like a win for the teams, players, and fans. Take your win, Rob. Just don't get too cocky. History shows that you'll probably screw up the next thing you try to do.

Be well and take care. Let's go Mets!

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  1. Great points as always Mike - one thing that made the jump in the 80's was Peter Ueberroth allowing longer commercial breaks on MLB games. They jumped from 1 minute between innings to 2 - an extra 18 minutes each game to account for the time of game increase from 2:30 to 2:48.

  2. Good point, John. I didn't remember that


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