Behind the pitch clock: Tricks of the timer

Jacksonville PA announcer Mitchell balances duties with new rules

Suns PA announcer Wes Mitchell also runs the pitch clock, which is displayed behind home plate. (Ben Hill, Lianna Holub)

By Benjamin Hill / MiLB.com | May 1, 2015 10:00 AM

"Baseball is a game without clocks, a game that possesses the unique ability to escape temporality itself," wrote Dr. Nicholas James Mount in the Encyclopedia of Time. "Thus, more than any other sport, the game admits of infinity."

Baseball's relationship with the infinite remains in good standing -- after all, a game could theoretically last forever -- but temporality has caught up to it in the form of the pitch clock. The implementation of the pitch clock within all Double-A and Triple-A leagues this season, at the behest of Major League Baseball, has been and will remain a compelling story. Baseball, the eternal game, is finally attempting to pick up the pace a little bit. The clocks, which have been installed both behind the plate and in the outfield at all 60 Double-A and Triple-A ballparks, count down 20 seconds between pitches as well as two minutes and 25 seconds between innings.

This all takes some getting used to, and not just for the individuals on the field. It starts with the man (or woman) who's got to operate the thing, and at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville -- the home of the Suns -- that man is public address announcer Wes Mitchell. I caught up with Wes prior to April 18's Southern League game, which was the ninth contest of an eventual 20-game, season-opening homestand.

Mitchell, now in his fourth season as the Suns' PA announcer, sits on the far left side of the Suns press box. Directly in front of him is his microphone, which is surrounded by a small, unruly stack of papers listing the starting lineups, roster information and the evening's game script. Beyond these, but still at arm's length, sits a black tablet computer from which Mitchell controls the game clock. It's entirely touchscreen; numbers can be entered manually or selected from commonly used pre-sets, with the all-important "start," "stop," and "reset" buttons located vertically along the right side of the screen.

"I've been doing [public address announcing] for quite some time now, and we just figured it was best to have a person who's gonna pay attention to the game and have a good view to do the pitch clock," said Mitchell. "It's not bad. At first I was a bit nervous about it because there's a lot going on."

Mitchell says that his only "breaks" during the game come after he has announced the first batter of the inning, as the pitch clock does not begin until after the first pitch has been thrown and the ball has been returned to the pitcher. The 20-second countdown begins once the pitcher is within the circle of the mound, ball in hand.

"You really can't watch the game and enjoy it like you used to," he said. "[Between innings], you have the 2:25 clock. That's pre-set one [on the console]. You just hit 'start' and it comes up. Then I go back to my regular reads. So it's kind of hard. The official scorer [Jason Eliopulos] helps me out with fielding or pitching changes. In the past I used to help him out with those, because four eyes are better than two."

On the night I was in attendance, touring inflatable mascot act Zooperstars! were performing at the ballpark. Mitchell said that the between-inning clock would be set at 2:45 for those inning breaks, so that Zooperstars! would have more time to perform their skits (including, but not limited to, Tim Tebull 'Teabulling' on the field after a head-banging dance routine).

"But it will only be a 2:45 break if they're not ready to play baseball," Mitchell cautioned. "We've already had a couple times [during a 2:25 break] where the opposing team or even the Suns batter has come up and is in the box and the umpire is staring down the field staff, like 'Get 'em off the field and get the game going.' It's tough when that happens. I feel like, if you give us 2:25 then we should be able to use 2:25, but sometimes the batters are kind of speeding things up. That's definitely something I want to ask -- 'Are we going to be able to use that 2:25, or do we have to cut it off and start the inning as soon as [the batter is in the box]?"

The pitch clock, in other words, is a work in progress. Mitchell -- like batters, pitchers, coaches and everyone else involved with this experiment -- is learning as he goes.

"Like, if there's a foul ball, we don't necessarily need to restart the clock right away. Give them some time, and it's kind of on me when I want to start the clock," said Mitchell. "If the umps need you to reset the clock, because time has been called or they need to make a decision, they'll just do the home run signal [toward the press box]. And [Major League Baseball] gives you contact numbers to call if there are any problems."

Mitchell then shuffled through his stack of papers until he found what he was looking for.

"I mean, there's a complete booklet here. You have to read it. 'The timer shall start in the following circumstances…' There are literally rules and rules about this."

Mitchell is doing his best to learn and incorporate these rules, even if, at the end of the day, he thinks that they're something that baseball can do without.

"A lot of people have their opinions about baseball and how slow it is, but if you're a true baseball fan, you know the game is perfect the way it is."

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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