Around The Office: How Much Difference Do Pitch Clocks Make?

As we started discussing the pitch clock proposal on our Slack channel, we quickly realized that it made more sense to share this discussion with our readers. We have seen a lot of games with pitch clocks over the past few years, so we all have a pretty good understanding of how pitch clocks have impacted the game at the minor league level. Expect to see us discuss a variety of topics in this way over the upcoming months. Next up, we’ll look at the various cases for who could be the No. 1 prospect in baseball.

It appears that whether the players’ union agrees or not, Major League Baseball will have pitch clocks in 2018 (as noted by the Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal and Yahoo’s Jeff Passan). Which leads to a very simple question. We all attend a lot of minor league baseball games. Pitch clocks have become a way of life in Double-A and Triple-A baseball for several years. What do you all think about pitch clocks coming to the major leagues?

Josh Norris: As with most changes in Major League Baseball, the early reaction to the potential arrival of pitch clocks seems outsized at best, apoplectic at worst. The same happened last year with the implementation of the international tiebreaker rule in the Gulf Coast League. Ditto for the automatic intentional walk, which wound up being as ineffectual as can be imagined.

Pitch clocks have been around in the minor leagues since 2014, when they debuted in the Arizona Fall League, and afterward in the upper minor leagues and the Florida State League. At first, it’s a little weird seeing a giant ticking clock in center field.

After a while, though, they blend into the background and become one with ads across the outfield walls. In Durham, just minutes from the BA office, the pitch clock lights blend in nearly seamlessly with the rotating ads on the ribbon board in center and right field.

In four seasons with pitch clocks, I can only remember one incident that was even close to controversial. In this past year’s AFL, a batter struck out on two pitches. The third strike was a pitch clock violation. Weird, yes, but once in four years.

Additionally, there are ways around the pitch clock. If you’re a catcher, you can rub up the ball a little bit. Or maybe ask the umpire for a new baseball. Because the pitch clock doesn’t start until the pitcher receives the ball, catchers can be extra deliberate in getting the ball back to the mound.

Plus, umpires in the minor leagues are dealing with a host of other issues—not to mention continuing to try to improve all the other aspects of their profession—and sometimes will flat out miss a violation. It’s an adjustment for them, too.

Pitch clocks may seem like a sweeping change implemented autocratically during a painfully slow offseason, but all in all, it’s a few ticks on the wall.

JJ Cooper: I agree Josh that pitch clocks are one of those things that very quickly slips completely out of mind. Yes, I see the ticking number on a board at a Triple-A game and I don’t when I’m at a Class A game, but it’s something that very rarely becomes an issue in an actual game.

And actually, that might be a problem if Major League Baseball expects the pitch clock to have a lasting effect. I talked to multiple Triple-A announcers and a few players who said that enforcement of the pitch clock was very sporadic.

When the pitch clock (and the speed-up rules on between inning promotions) were implemented, it absolutely made a difference. Games got faster. If the pitch clock makes the same impact at the big league level as it did in the minors, we can expect that with a pitch clock games will be on average more than 10 minutes faster in 2018 than they were in 2017–the five pitch clock league saw their average nine-inning game completed in more than 11 minutes less time in 2015 when pitch clocks were implemented. That would get the American League back under three hours a game (it was 3:07 for a nine-inning game in 2017) and would get the National League back to the low 2:50s per game (it was 3:03 in 2017).

But if Major League Baseball really wants to speed up the pace of the game, it will be a continuing effort. As enforcement has waned somewhat, many of those gains in game pace at the minor league level have been given back. In all five Double-A and Triple-A leagues with pitch clocks, the average nine-inning game time dipped dramatically in 2015 when pitch clocks were instituted, but every league has seen its game time go back up since then. The Pacific Coast League cut 13 minutes from the average game time in 2015. It’s given back eight minutes of those gain since. The International League cut 16 minutes and has seen half of those improvements given back in the past two years.

Kyle Glaser: I was open-minded to a pitch clock at the start of the year and after a year of covering games with it at Triple-A and Double-A (and without it in the majors and at the A-ball levels and lower), I am definitely in favor of it. While the actual minutes shaved off the game is minimal, the pace—especially in the early innings before the pitching changes get going—is much better, making the game a much more positive, enjoyable and free-flowing experience. Umpires’ enforcement of it isn’t always great, but when they did the pitch clock absolutely helped.

At the same time, it’s not a cure all. The single-most detrimental thing to the game and it’s pace, at both the major and minor league levels, is excessive mound meetings. If baseball is serious about getting games under three hours consistently, and even into the 2:30, 2:45 range they used to be, limiting mound visits will do more than anything else. The rumored proposal limits it to six non-change visits a game. They need to go further and cut it to three. That’s pitching coaches visiting the mound, catchers calling time and coming out, infielders running over to the pitcher after he steps on the rubber—all of it needs to count as a mound visit, and it needs to be limited to three per game, not including pitching changes. Cut those out, and the pace will become infinitely more pleasurable for fans in the ballpark, the viewing audiences on television, and will ultimately help keep casual and younger fans more engaged.

The commercial and between inning breaks can also be limited to 2 minutes (none of this 2:20 and 2:40 for postseason), two minutes is enough for eight warmup pitches and a throw down to second, and batters need to stay in the box.

Of course, all of this comes down to enforcement, and baseball will need to come down hard on umpires who don’t enforce it. If enforced, the pitch clock will help the pace and is a good place to start. But if baseball truly wants to get games consistently under the three-hour mark, limiting mound meetings beyond what’s been proposed will make a much more significant difference.

Ben Badler: A pitch clock in baseball sounds like a TERRIBLE idea. I am in favor of speeding up the pace of games, but, really? Putting a clock on pitchers? I’m open minded, but I was absolutely a pitch clock skeptic when they came to the minor leagues.

Until I went to games that had pitch clocks.

You do notice the clock—for about five minutes. After that, it fades into the background. It doesn’t distract from the game or detract from the viewing experience. And I’ve talked to people who go to a lot of minor league games—scouts, broadcasters, players, fans—and, anecdotally, the consensus I’ve found has been similar.

If you’re just looking at raw game time data, it doesn’t seem like much, but I have noticed a subtle difference in the pace of the game that makes it more enjoyable. Time of game is a factor, but I think it’s more about keeping the audience’s attention than just game time. People will binge watch a full season of Stranger Things the day it comes out on Netflix but will zone out of reading a Tweet half way through if it doesn’t hold their attention. I think any of us who love baseball know the difference between a four hour game where we are jacked to watch until 2 a.m. because it’s packed with action and excitement and the game that takes the same time but just drags along. The pitch clocks help eliminate some of that drag to maintain the audience’s attention and create a better flow to the game.

A lot of what you guys said rings true with what I’ve seen and what I think a lot of people have seen. And that’s the thing—it’s not theoretical. This is based on real data, real games, real experiences. I wasn’t on board with the pitch clocks at first, but I wouldn’t have any problem seeing them in MLB this year.

Teddy Cahill: Pitch clocks aren’t just for pro ball—the Southeastern Conference has used one since 2010 and the Big 12 Conference will adopt one this spring on an experimental basis. And, much like in the minor leagues, its effectiveness is questionable from a pure minutes and seconds standpoint. Coaches in the SEC have told me they don’t think it makes any difference because violations are so rarely called.

Admittedly, I’ve seen maybe one pitch clock violation in the conference. But when I go to an SEC game after a couple weeks of watching baseball in other conferences, especially the Atlantic Coast Conference, the game feels faster. Pitchers get on the rubber faster. Batters stay in the box. Coaches walk to the mound faster.

I think that feeling is what’s really important. We’ve all see baseball games that feel like they’re dragging, but still end in 2 hours, 35 minutes. And every October, we see four-hour games that have people on the edge of their seats all night.

The pitch clock also is much less obtrusive than many fans seem to expect. At the one Triple-A game I attended last year, my friend didn’t even notice there was pitch clock until the eighth inning. It’s not like a play clock in football that you’re always peeking at, or a shot clock in basketball that obnoxiously buzzes when it expires. The pitch clock is just there, off to the side of the scoreboard, quietly ticking down and rarely getting much near zero.  

The pitch clock, as it’s currently designed, is no panacea. Baseball will have to use other measures to really cut into the time of games (and it reportedly will do so), but it seems like what fans really want is to eliminate the dead time. I believe a pitch clock helps do just that, even if it’s just a placebo.

Matt Eddy: The style of play in the major leagues has evolved through time. An emphasis on power ushered the game to its often slow-paced state today. Quick-strike offenses—where strikeouts are an acceptable byproduct of home runs—tend to be anything but quick. Batters work deeper counts, looking for a “perfect” pitch to murder, unfazed when they swing big and miss bigger. Pitchers try to outmaneuver batters by executing “perfect” pitches to generate swinging strikes. After all, the strikeout is the ultimate defense—and it doesn’t take an analytically-inclined front office to see the efficacy of the strategy. Allowing the ball to be put in play only introduces the chance that opposing baserunners will advance 90 feet closer to home plate.

These trends have tended to increase the time between pitches and slow the pace of play. Batters constantly step out of the box to adjust batting gloves and visualize success on the next pitch. (Think Nomar Garciaparra.) Pitchers step off the mound to take a deep breath and charge their batteries for the next pitch thrown at or near maximum effort. (Think Pedro Baez.)

But baseball wasn’t designed to be played this way, which is to say tilted so heavily toward the so-called Three True Outcomes of home runs, walks and strikeouts. A balance should be struck—and eventually will be, because the game evolves through time—between TTO and a more vibrant style of play featuring a higher number of balls in play and thus more decision points for baserunners and defenders.

A pitch clock can help achieve more in-play action and encourage a more exhilarating pace of play by disincentivizing batters from stepping out of the box and pitchers stepping off the mound for extended stretches. If that comes to pass, then “perfect” would no longer be the enemy of good.

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