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The Pitch Clock Era in MLB: Why early criticism could be misguided

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The new MLB pitch clock
The new pitch clock is seen at Salt River Field Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, in Scottsdale, Ariz. Opening day will feature three of the biggest changes in baseball since 1969: Two infielders will be required to be on either side of second base, base size will increase to 18-inch squares from 15 and a pitch clock will be used. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

The Pitch Clock has arrived in Major League Baseball and the immediate reaction has been conflicted. 

While some fans and players are in favor of eliminating some of the time wasted between pitches, there has been a lot of criticism on social media and in the broadcast booths from those who believe the purity of the game is being ruined. The fear is that shorter games will lead to hurried play and a worse experience that doesn’t resemble the baseball that fans have come to know and love.

However, while the uproar has been loud early on, we have a full year of data from 2022 when the pitch clock was used in the high minor leagues, which allows us to look at what early criticism is valid or not. Since there has been tons of research already done on this topic, I’ve gone through a lot of additional sources to address the major worries. 

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What are the new pitch clock and pickoff rules?

Let’s start with the basics. The MLB website describes the new rule, “In an effort to create a quicker pace of play, a 30-second timer between batters will be implemented in 2023. Between pitches, a 15-second timer will be in place with the bases empty and a 20-second timer with runners on base. The pitcher must begin his motion to deliver the pitch before the expiration of the pitch timer. Batters must be in the box and alert to the pitcher by the 8-second mark.” 

“Pitchers who violate the timer are charged with an automatic ball. Batters who violate the timer are charged with an automatic strike.” 

With runners on base, the pitch clock resets if the pitcher attempts a pickoff or steps off the rubber; however, there are new rules for that as well. 

“Pitchers are limited to two disengagements (pickoff attempts or step-offs) per plate appearance. However, this limit is reset if a runner or runners advance during the plate appearance. If a third pickoff attempt is made, the runner automatically advances one base if the pickoff attempt is not successful.”

Does the pitch clock actually shorten games?

Yes. Emphatically. 

The implementation of a pitch clock in the minor leagues “cut down the average time of games by 25 minutes…The average length of a minor-league game in 2022 came in at two hours and 38 minutes, compared to 3:03 during the 2021 season.” 

Per The Washington Post: “The average time of the first 19 spring training games was 2:36. The average time of spring training games in 2022 was 3:01 — or 25 minutes slower.”

So games will likely be around half an hour faster, which is a noticeable difference. 

So now that we know what the new rules are and know that they have worked to reduce game time, let’s address the current criticism that the rules will have a negative impact on the game experience. 

Criticism #1: The pitch clock limits the strategy for pitchers/catchers

There has been talk that the pitch clock makes pitchers and catchers feel rushed, which impacts the strategy of deciding which pitch to throw and also ruins some of the gamesmanship that goes on between pitchers and hitters. 

While this is a subjective criticism, I decided to go to an expert source and asked Stephen Vogt, a two-time All-Star catcher and 10-year MLB veteran, if he felt the pitch clock would impact the strategy between pitchers and catchers. 

“A lot of the strategies we used went away with pitch com quite a bit too,” admitted Vogt. “Some of the shaking and gamesmanship things are still able to happen, but it will change.” 

While Vogt admitted that gamesmanship strategies would need to change, he didn’t believe the pitch clock would impact strategy at all or that catchers would feel rushed in what pitch they wanted to call. 

“More so now than ever, catchers are prepared for what the game plan is and how they will respond after each pitch. It will be a quicker process than before which will just make good preparation that much more important.” 

Even notoriously curmudgeonly Mets pitcher Max Scherzer is a fan of the new pitch clock rules. 

“I can work extremely quick. And I can work extremely slow,” Scherzer said in a SportsNet article. “There’s another layer here to be able to mess with the hitter’s timing. I can come set even before the hitter’s in the box. I can’t pitch until eight (seconds left on the clock). But as soon as his eyes are up, I can go. If his eyes are up with 12 seconds to go, I can fire. I can totally dictate pace…Yeah, I love it.”

If multiple 10-year MLB veterans say the pitch clock won’t impact the strategy of a game, then who are we to argue?

Max Scherzer is a fan of the new pitch clock
New York Mets starting pitcher Max Scherzer throws during the first inning of a spring training baseball game against the Washington Nationals Sunday, Feb. 26, 2023, in Port St. Lucie, Fla. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Criticism #2: Violations will negatively impact the outcome of games

This has been a major criticism as a few spring training games were ended by pitch clock violations. In total, there have been 1.97 violations per game during the first weekend of Spring Training, which is up slightly from the 1.73 violations per game registered in the first week of the minor leagues last year. 

However, the idea that this will continue into the regular season was proven false in the minor leagues last year as players were able to adapt to the new rule. 

The Associated Press reported that “In the minors, violations decreased from an average of 1.73 per game in the second week to 0.41 in week 24.”

If you don’t want to wait 24 weeks, you won’t have to. How about by the end of Spring Training? 

“There were 1.54 pitch-timer violations per game the first week the rules were in effect, 1.19 the second, 0.93 the third, and 0.68 the fourth,” as reported by MLB.com. That means that by the last week of March, we should have around one-half a violation per game. That’s nothing to get overly worked up about. 

 

Criticism #3: It could negatively impact players’ health

This was also contradicted by a few minor league players who spoke to MLB.com. 

Jonny DeLuca, an outfield prospect for the Dodgers was promoted mid-season and went from a league that used a timer to one that did not, and he disliked the change. 

“I came from Rancho playing like two-and-a-half- or three-hour games to getting called up and playing three-and-a-half- or four-hour games,” DeLuca said. “No one wants to be out there for that. Having it be a pretty good pace is important for just overall focus.”

Nick Nastrini, another Dodgers prospect, also mentioned how the pitch clock, and the subsequent shorter games, is actually better for pitchers. 

“Just from a recovery standpoint, getting back in at a reasonable hour and getting a good night’s sleep is a game-changer,” he said. “It could be the difference between being able to play for five years and being able to play for 12. Because there’s the accumulation of getting back at 11:30 [p.m.] and 12:30 [a.m.] and getting into bed by 1 [a.m.] and having to do it all again the next day for 132 games in our season or 162 games in a big league season. It takes a big toll on your body. This is a grind.” 

 

Criticism #4: It will take away the amount of offense in games

This was also flatly proven false. If you look at the chart below, you can see the minor league offensive numbers in 2021 with no pitch clock didn’t suffer at all when the pitch clock was implemented in 2022. Offense has also not been down in the three days of spring training games either. 

  2021 2022
Runs per game 5.13 5.11
Batting Average .249 .247
Home run rate 2.7% 2.8%
Strikeout rate 24.4% 25.4%

 

Criticism #5: It will make games less fun

This is admittedly the weakest criticism I’ve heard, but I wanted to use it to highlight that the pitch clock has actually brought back the most exciting play in baseball: the stolen base. 

As Baseball America noted, “The reduction in pickoff throws as well as the advantages baserunners can glean from a clock ticking down (some runners will get an extra head start as the clock ticks to zero) have seen stolen bases skyrocket.”

Bradley Libros put together a detailed breakdown of how the pitch clock and new larger bases impacted stolen bases in the minor leagues, but the quick synthesis is that the rule changes “resulted in a 15-33% gain in stolen base attempts” and that the “Pickoff limits seem to have the biggest impact by far.”

Larger bases and the pitch clock are new MLB rules
The new, larger base sits next to the older, smaller base at TD Ballpark Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, in Dunedin, Fla. Opening day will feature three of the biggest changes in baseball since 1969: Two infielders will be required to be on either side of second base, base size will increase to 18-inch squares from 15 and a pitch clock will be used. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Across the minors, teams averaged 1.4 stolen base attempts per game and 1.1 successful steals per game in 2022. Last year, the Texas Rangers led the majors with just 1.04 stolen base attempts per game, and they were the only team to average over 1.0. In 2021, Kansas City led the majors with 0.97 stolen base attempts per game, and in 2019 the Texas Rangers led again with 1.04 attempts per game. 

We’re already seeing 1.07 stolen bases attempted per game in spring training, and data from recent years suggests that we could see a 25% increase in stolen base attempts in MLB this year. That’s fun for everyone. 

At the end of the day, the pitch clock is here to stay and it won’t negatively impact baseball as much as some expect. There won’t be as many violations as we’ve seen early in Spring Training. There will still be offense, and there will be even more steals than before. Plus, we’ll still get all the strategy and gamesmanship that we love from the game, but players will just find new avenues for it.

“These are the best baseball players and some of the best athletes in the world,” explained Vogt. “They will adapt to the new rules.” 

And so will fans. 

For more MLB content, like this pitch clock article, visit amNY Sports

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