Will A Pitch Clock Actually Shorten MLB Games? It Depends.
The average length of a nine-inning game in the majors was 3 hours, 10 minutes last season, an all-time high. It marked the third straight season the average time of a nine-inning game increased and represented a jump of 20 minutes from 2010, when the average game time was 2:50.
After years of increasingly longer games, momentum is building among both league officials and team front offices for a pitch clock to be implemented in MLB. A pitch clock is reportedly among the rules changes the league is seeking to implement as soon as 2023 as part of the ongoing Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations.
A pitch clock certainly has the potential to shorten the average length of games. However, whether it will depends on which pitch clock gets implemented.
In 2015, Minor League Baseball introduced a 20-second pitch clock at Double-A and Triple-A. In 2018, it reduced the clock to 15 seconds with no one on base and 20 seconds with runners on. One key loophole, though, was pitchers could reset the clock with no penalty by stepping off the mound. As a result, pitchers frequently stepped off to give themselves more time and games continued to get longer over the long term, even with the pitch clock in place.
Average Nine-Inning Game Times
*20-second pitch clock implemented
**15-second pitch clock implemented.
Source: MLB Research
The average time of a nine-inning game was 2:51 at Double-A and 2:59 at Triple-A in 2014, the year before the pitch clock was introduced. After an initial decrease in game times after the clock was implemented, they slowly crawled back up.
The average time of a nine-inning game was 2:58 at Double-A and 3:04 in Triple-A in 2021, increases of 7 and 5 minutes, respectively. Without a penalty for pitchers stepping off the mound and resetting the timer, the pitch clock failed to shorten the length of games in the long run.
In 2021, MLB implemented a pitch clock in the Low-A West five weeks into the season, giving pitchers 15 seconds with no one on base and 17 seconds with runners on. The average time of a nine-inning game dropped from 3:02 to 2:41 after the pitch clock was introduced, with offense jumping across the board.
w/o pitch clock
w/ pitch clock
Note: Pitch clocks implemented June 8
Source: MLB Research
The reduced length of time with runners on base was one difference between the Low-A West pitch clock and the Double-A and Triple-A clocks. The key difference, and the primary reason the Low-A West pitch clock reduced game times more successfully than the Double-A and Triple-A pitch clocks, is there was a penalty for pitchers who stepped off the mound.
The pitch clock was implemented in Low-A West in conjunction with rules that limited how many pickoffs a pitcher could attempt. Pitchers were limited to two pickoff attempts per plate appearance, and if a third attempt failed, a balk was called. If a pitcher stepped off the mound, that counted as one of his pickoff attempts. Not only did that limit how many times a pitcher could step off—compared to the unlimited number of times a pitcher could step off in Double-A and Triple-A and reset the clock—but it deterred them from stepping off even when they had pickoff throws left.
“We removed a lot of the quote-unquote loopholes that existed in the Triple-A and Double-A pitch clock,” MLB executive vice president of baseball operations Morgan Sword told Baseball America in September. “I think that’s why we saw such a better result in Low-A West compared to some other levels.”
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As with most things, the details matter. If MLB implements a pitch clock with no restriction on how many times a pitcher can step off the mound, the precedent set in Double-A and Triple-A indicates the clock is unlikely to shorten the length of games in the long term.
In order for the pitch clock to achieve its desired goal and shorten games in MLB, it will likely have to be paired with a restriction on the number of pickoff attempts or times a pitcher can step off the mound, as happened in the Low-A West.
By all appearances, a pitch clock is coming to MLB in the near future. Whether it will reverse MLB’s length of game trends will be determined by which version of the pitch clock, and the rules surrounding it, are put in place.