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Baseball’s pitch clock experiment is turning skeptics into believers

NEW YORK — Three digital timers stand at the home of the high Class A Brooklyn Cyclones, one next to the batter’s eye in center field and one behind each on-deck circle. They count down from 2 minutes 15 seconds between each inning — plenty of time for the hot dog race in front of devoted fans.

They show 19 seconds when the pitcher toes the rubber, enough time for the first batter of the inning to enjoy a few seconds of his walk-up song, step in the box and take a breath before the timers hit single digits. The clocks rarely seem to rush anyone anymore. After a few stressful spring weeks, they now operate more like metronomes. If they continue to achieve their goal — sucking downtime out of games — those clocks may be keeping pace in Major League Baseball in 2023.

The timers are part of an MLB experiment playing out at its four highest minor league levels, one less about determining whether a time limit on pitchers would shorten games but rather about determining any unintended issues before the rule moves to the majors.

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To people familiar with the myriad rule changes MLB officials tested in recent years, the pitch clock has long felt like the most foolproof way to rejuvenate the sport. In its first year in use across the minor leagues, it has reduced the average game time from 3 hours 4 minutes in 2021 to 2:36 in 2022, according to MLB data through Sunday. MLB matchups have not averaged a game time that brief since the early 1980s.

Any rule that can turn back baseball’s clock so far and so fast is an appealing one for MLB. For four decades, two inconvenient trends have pushed the sport deeper into the realm of something that must be endured to be enjoyed: lengthening games and shortening attention spans.

Its evangelists believe the clock offers consistent and constant pace. And what becomes clear watching it in action is that the seconds it takes away are not missed at all.

As implemented in Class AAA, pitchers have 14 seconds to deliver a pitch with nobody on base and 19 seconds with runners on. If the pitcher does not deliver the ball in that time, he is penalized with a ball. If a batter is not in the box by the time the clock hits nine seconds, he is penalized with a strike. Pitchers can step off the rubber no more than twice per at-bat. Hitters can call time just once per at-bat. The clock keeps moving, and the game follows.

Kelsie at the bat

“Initially, I hated it. I grew into liking it a lot — to the point where I would fully endorse it in the major league game,” said New York Yankees infielder Matt Carpenter, who played 21 Class AAA games this spring as he tried to make his way back to the majors.

“The big selling point is that the pace of the game is way better. It just is. Pitchers will eventually dislike it more than hitters, just because when you’re out on the mound and you’re going through a long period of throwing — especially the style of pitching today, max effort, hard as you can — they’re going to run out of gas real fast.”

But a little added stress on pitchers, MLB officials posit, might help solve another problem: a lack of scoring in an age of pitching dominance. Pitchers working faster may mean pitchers working less effectively, a positive byproduct at a time when offense, at least as measured by batting average, is at its lowest point this century. Minor league batters hit .241 through June 26 of last season. This year, they were hitting .247. Strikeout percentage dropped by nearly two percentage points.

In other ways, the pitch clock has hardly altered offensive outcomes at all. Walk rates, home run rates and hit-by-pitch frequency are nearly identical. Runs per game have moved from 5.09 through June 26 of last year to 5.08 in 2022. Perhaps the rule would have a greater effect on offense in a league filled with more veteran pitchers who have spent years developing plodding routines, a hypothesis that could be tested sooner than later.

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MLB cannot unilaterally implement the pitch clock. But as part of the negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement, owners and players agreed to the creation of an 11-person competition committee that will consider and vote on rule changes. Six of those members are MLB officials, four are active players, and one is an umpire.

After a proposal is made to that committee, which can happen at any time, those 11 members vote on whether it should be considered. If the majority votes yes, then a 45-day consideration period begins.

After that period, the members vote again. If the MLB decides to begin that process, it would almost certainly do so in time to implement the rule before the start of spring training so players can adjust. Minor leaguers managed to adjust over the first three months of this season; MLB data shows the number of clock violations fell by more than half.

“I’ll be honest: At the beginning of spring training, when we started studying the rules for this year, I wasn’t happy. I had a sour taste in my mouth about that,” Cyclones Manager Luis Rivera said. “But right now, I like it. I love it, honestly. It cuts out all the downtime. The game moves faster. Pitchers have to get right to business — same with the hitter.”

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In testing previous pitch clock iterations in the past half-decade, MLB officials noticed players taking advantage of two loopholes: With runners on, pitchers would step off the rubber repeatedly to reset the timer, and hitters would call time instead of stepping out of the box. So MLB put in place a limit on both habits before implementing the rule across the minors: Pitchers can disengage from the pitching rubber only twice per plate appearance. If they step off a third time, they must record an out, presumably with an effective pickoff attempt. And hitters can call time only once per at-bat.

Rivera admitted that neither his hitters nor his pitchers were happy about the rule when they heard about it. But two months into the season, he said his team is rarely penalized. The minor league numbers show teams combined for an average of half a violation per game thus far in June.

Carpenter and others speculate that if the pitch clock remains in the minor leagues, habits will change enough to affect major league pace of play whether the clock arrives there or not. Indeed, pitchers who have come up from the minors to pitch in major league games this year seem conditioned to a quicker pace already. Of the 25 quickest workers in baseball this year with no one on base, 14 spent time in the minors this season.

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But Carpenter’s lingering concern is what happens in the game’s biggest moments. Even in the minors, he said, he watched more than one pitcher get penalized after shaking off the catcher a few extra times in a big spot.

“How can you justify, at the major league level, if the Yankees are playing the Red Sox in a playoff game or a game with playoff implications, and in a big spot in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth, the Yankees and/or Red Sox win because a pitcher couldn’t get the sign?” Carpenter wondered. “How could you possibly make that happen? I can’t see them enforcing it that way, but if you don’t enforce it, who holds people accountable?”

MLB officials believe PitchCom, the electronic system by which catchers and pitchers can communicate without signs, should alleviate time pressure in big situations. But they are also well aware that major leaguers, who know a few rushed pitches or hurried swings can mean the difference between millions in salary payouts, are likely to push back. They wouldn’t necessarily be the only ones.

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Cyclones General Manager Kevin Mahoney said he and some of his colleagues worried that shorter games would limit concession sales, a crucial source of revenue in the minors — and a relevant one for major league teams, too. But Mahoney said the numbers don’t show a “huge impact.” What he has noticed, he said, is more fans staying for the duration of the game.

“Our history was you could set your watch to when we got to the end of the seventh inning — pockets of eight or 10 people would leave, no matter what the score was,” Mahoney said. “What I have realized is it was really like 9:30. It wasn’t the inning but the time of day.”

To pitch clock advocates, fans staying longer means the clock is working perfectly. MLB has long talked about the need to expand its fan base into demographics that don’t devour four-hour games with abandon. Those fans probably would stay interested even if the games are shorter. The goal is to draw people more likely to watch games when they are faster, are more action-packed and end earlier.

Baseball and its purists treasure its place as the only sport without a timer, gush about letting the game run its course without the need to count the seconds. But fans have always had timers of their own, ones set by an increasingly wide variety of pressures, including bed times and traffic concerns, early mornings and in-game doldrums. MLB may have found a pacemaker to help resuscitate the sport’s place as the national pastime, to help the game fit better into the lives of those who might struggle to find the space or patience for it now.

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