Pitch clocks are coming to the minor leagues this season. Encouraged by the impact of the 20-second pitch clocks used in the Arizona Fall League in October, Major League Baseball is looking to extend the experiment in Double and Triple A this season. Baseball's ongoing attempts to reduce the length of the average game, which swelled to a record three hours and eight minutes in 2014, will also include implementing time limits on pitching changes and breaks between innings, as well as requiring hitters to keep one foot in the batter's box between pitches. None of these changes are expected at the major league level this year, but if they prove to have an impact in the upper minors, they very well could reach the majors as soon as 2016.
While I fully understand the desire for games to move more swiftly, the presence of an ever-present digital countdown clock strikes me as about as antithetical to the spirit and aesthetic of baseball as possible. Baseball is famously, and I thought proudly, the only major North American team sport to be played without a clock. While a pitch clock would not impact a team's scoring opportunities — as do the game clocks in football, basketball, hockey and soccer — the deleterious impact of a clock on the feel of the game, its natural ebb and flow, the rise and fall in tension and suspense, would seem to me to be far greater than the positive impact on the length of the average game.
Consider for a moment exactly what purpose a pitch clock serves. It's not a strategic one like the shot clock in basketball or the play clock in football. Yes, a pitcher would be penalized with a ball for failing to deliver a pitch before the clock expires, but there would be no strategic advantage to delivering a pitch in the clock's final second as opposed to its first. Ultimately it's just there to be a nag. A big, bright, blinking, ticking nag.
The clock is also merely a half measure. Assuming the minor leagues will use the same rules governing the clock that were implemented in the AFL, the clock won't start ticking until a pitcher has the ball in his possession and will stop when the pitcher comes to a set position. That doesn't mean a pitcher has 20 seconds between pitches. It means he has 20 seconds to settle on a pitch with his catcher and come set. The pitcher can still hold the set as long as he likes, and time can still be granted to the hitter if the pitcher holds it too long. Calling time would re-set the clock, as would throwing to a base. Also, in between batters, the clock won't start until the new batter steps into the box and "is alert to the pitcher," so the long delays caused by a hitter's slow amble to the plate, often timed to his at-bat music, and elaborate setup in the box won't be curbed by the pitch clock.
Installing a physical pitch clock would be like using a sledgehammer to squash a fly. Let's do a bit of math here. The average major league game in 2014 saw 290 pitches thrown. Subtracting the first pitch of each half inning of a game that goes a full nine frames, that gives us 272 pitches. Multiplying those 272 pitches by 20 seconds each and adding two-minute-and-five-second breaks between half innings gives us two hours and six minutes per game from the count-down clocks alone. To that you can add the extra time between batters, the impact of the running game, time outs, mound conferences, two-minute-and-thirty-second mid-inning pitching changes (per the AFL maximum), replays, and all of the actual game action in which the ball is in play, the last of which was estimated at around 18 minutes by the Wall Street Journal in 2013.
What that all comes down to is that MLB is considering a radical change that runs completely contrary to the spirit of the game to shave less than a half-hour off of the average game length. Indeed, in September, MLB vice president Joe Torre said, "We'd like to be able to cut the game 10-15 minutes and get it around the 2:50 mark to get it a little more reasonable for people coming to the ballpark." I can understand wanting to get the average back below three hours. That gives fans and broadcasters an easily-estimated window that they know will be long enough to get in a full game more often than not. I just think MLB can accomplish that without having to resort to physical pitch clocks in every stadium.
For starters, MLB should try placing time limits without a clock on pitching changes and inning breaks, as well as keeping hitters in the box. MLB already has rules on the books governing batters leaving the batter's box (6.02) and the time between a pitcher receiving the ball and delivering it (8.04). Both are rarely enforced, and the latter is a bit unrealistic (it gives pitchers a mere 12 seconds from receiving the ball to releasing it). But instructing the umpires to be more strict about batters leaving the box and pitchers delivering pitches in a timely manner, in conjunction with the rules designed to speed up players coming on and off the field, could do the trick without having to resort to an electronic nanny.
The next step after that could be limiting mound conferences, another step taken in the AFL. I will admit, however, that I'm also against no-pitch intentional walks, both because intentional walks are so infrequent (there was only one every two-and-a-half games in 2014) and because of moments like this and this.
Ultimately, MLB has to consider how willing it is to alienate its core fan base in order to appeal to the fringe viewer for whom that extra 10 or 15 minutes would matter. Consider football, the only sport more popular than baseball in the U.S., according to the most recent Harris Poll. In 2013, the average NFL game lasted three hours and 12 minutes and contained a mere 11 minutes in which the ball was in play, while the average college football game lasted three hours and 20 minutes. That's a longer game with less action than MLB and with more of the elapsed time spent on commercials (nearly 50 minutes, compared to 41 for a national baseball broadcast and 34 for a local broadcast). Whatever advantages football may have over baseball in the marketplace, shorter games with more action are not among them. It thus seems absurd to consider such a fundamental betrayal of the character of the game in pursuit of such a marginal and potentially insignificant a goal as shaving a few minutes off the average game.
To be fair, the minor league clocks are not a done deal yet. Because of the cost involved in installing the clocks and MLB's plan to have the money come out of MLB Advanced Media's budget, the decision to install the clocks will have to be approved by the owners, though that could happen at their meeting in Phoenix on Thursday. Still, I'm hoping MLB comes to its senses under incoming commissioner Rob Manfred and keeps the clocks off the field.