Toolshed: Pitch clocks do their job in debut

Triple-A, Double-A game durations drop dramatically with new rules

Pitch clocks loomed large over the start of the season but made a seamless transition to play. (Justin Welsh/Iowa Cubs)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | October 9, 2015 10:00 AM

After months of anticipation, the day of Lucas Giolito's Double-A debut with Harrisburg came July 28, and in 2015, that meant something a little different. 

This season marked the first in which pitch clocks were being used at Triple-A and Double-A parks in what many thought would be one of the big stories of the year. After a succesful trial in the 2014 Arizona Fall League, pitchers at the Minors' highest levels now had 20 seconds after receiving the ball to either begin their windup or come to the set position. After May 1, the umpires were under instructions to call a ball if a pitcher failed to comply. (April was considered a grace period.) Clocks positioned around the ballpark -- near homeplate, by dugouts, in the vicinty of home -- allowed players, coaches, umpires and fans to see the countdown; same for newly introduced limits on inning breaks and pitching changes. 

Time had come to the timeless game.

At first, Giolito, the top National prospect who was fresh from Class A Advanced Potomac, was hyper-aware of his surroundings and what could have been a new problem. That is until, like many others before him, he realized it wouldn't be much of an issue at all.

"I noticed it in the first game," he said. "There were clocks on the right and left side and behind the outfield wall. I took notice of it in the first couple innings and during warmup pitches. Then I realized I could pitch my normal pace and it doesn't make any difference. You can see it in my peripherals, but I didn't even pay any attention. It gives you a good amount of time to pitch."

The result? The right-hander tossed five innings in the Senators' 5-0 loss to New Hampshire. Time of game: 2 hours, 36 minutes, thanks to a Fisher Cats two-hitter. Still, that was nearly in line with the length of an average nine-inning game (2:38) in the Eastern League this season -- down 12 minutes from the average game in the same circuit in 2014. 

In fact, average game times for nine-inning contests were down across the board for the five Triple-A and Double-A circuits, thanks largely to pitch clocks and other pace-of-game rules put in place by Minor League Baseball. Looking across the Minors, game times dropped six minutes to 2:43, the shortest average since 2007. (Changes at levels below Double-A did not include pitch clocks, and those circuits did not see their games shorten significantly or, in many cases, at all.)

2015, 2014 gAME TIMES IN Minor Leagues
LEAGUE 2015 TOG 2014 TOG DIFF
Minor League Baseball 2:43 2:49 -:06
Triple-A, Double-A leagues 2:42 2:54 -:12
Other leagues 2:43 2:44 -:01
International 2:40 2:56 -:16
Pacific Coast 2:45 2:58 -:13
Eastern 2:38 2:50 -:12
Southern 2:42 2:52 -:10
Texas 2:45 2:51 -:06
California 2:47 2:52 -:05
Carolina 2:40 2:44 -:04
Florida State 2:41 2:40 :01
Midwest 2:40 2:44 -:04
South Atlantic 2:44 2:43 :01
New York-Penn 2:43 2:43 :00
Northwest 2:48 2:47 :01
Appalachian 2:39 2:39 :00
Pioneer 2:47 2:44 :03

Though one would expect pushback from players and coaches to use of a clock within a game measured in innings and not minutes, MiLB.com's discussions with players back before the season resulted in the verbal equivalent of a shrug, for the most part. By the end of May, more players seemed to have bought in since the clocks didn't appear to change the game much and they saw game times decrease.

By the time Giolito joined Double-A, it was a non-issue.

"It wasn't a problem for anyone by the time I was there," he said. "I mean, I was only there for little over a month. But I only saw one guy get called in that month, and he got called for not being in the box. Talking to the other guys who had been there a little longer, they said there had been only two or three guys called for pace-of-game stuff all year."

Part of that was organizations had worked in Spring Training to help their farmhands get used to the coming changes. Once they had that down, the pitch clocks became teaching tools as clubs tried to get their hurlers to stop fussing on the mound.

"We used the clock in Spring Training, played the upper levels in the stadium, just to give them that reference point that maybe couldn't happen on the backfields," said Red Sox director of player development Ben Crockett. "Working quickly and efficiently is something we believe in anyway. It's something we taught before this season. It's nothing any different than what we're already doing."

"We've always been teaching guys to work quicker," said Richmond manager Jose Alguacil in May. "We don't like guys doing a whole bunch of different things when they're out on the mound. Just focus and pitch. This rule is helping out with that as guys are working faster. Really, we don't have so many issues. I don't know how other teams see it, but this has been an opportunity for us."

The positive effects of the pitch-clock experiment rose all the way to the top of baseball's hierarchy. In a discussion with MiLB.com, baseball commissioner Rob Manfred expressed his pleasure with the way times had been cut at Triple-A and Double-A.

"We're encouraged by the results we saw," Manfred said. "We liked the initial returns from the Fall League and wanted to try it on a bit of a broader scale. We feel that the results in the Minors were encouraging. Obviously, where it goes from here is going to be a product of negotiations with the [Major League Baseball Players Association]."

Does that mean pitch clocks are on the way to the Majors next season, or would they have to wait until the next collective bargaining agreement negotiations ahead of the 2017 season?

"I'm not going to speculate on timing," Manfred said. "On-field issues don't always have to wait for a bargaining cycle."

How that would happen is hazy. According to the latest CBA, MLB can negotiate with the MLBPA on "playing rule" changes if MLB wants a rule to be implemented immediately. (Or in the case of this offseason when such topics would arise, the rule would be implemented the following season.)

However, MLB does not require MLBPA's specific approval to make such changes. According to Article XVIII on rule changes, "If the Clubs and the Association fail to reach agreement on a proposed change which is subject to negotiation, the proposed change shall not be put into effect until the completion of the next complete succeeding season (including the Wild Card Game, Division Series, League Championship Series and World Series) following the date the change was proposed." Or more simply put, MLB would have to wait a full season to implement a non-approved rule, thus giving the players one year to prepare.

Asked if that's a viable route for pitch clocks, Manfred reiterated his positive feelings toward their implementation in the Minors, saying, "Look, I think the experiment has been successful. Whether or not it's viable will be a product of negotiations."

Before speaking to MiLB.com, the commissioner told a group at the Sports Diversity & Inclusion Symposium that more rule changes in terms of pace of play could be put in place in the future and might specifically address cutting down on mound visits and pitching changes. Such changes may start again in the Fall League, as Manfred said, "I think it's conceivable -- that's been a pretty successful avenue for us thus far."

It's important to note that not all rules tried out in the Fall League get implemented in the Minors or Majors. For instance, the no-pitch intentional walk has yet to be used outside of Arizona after it was tried last year. But will pitch clocks go the way of the one-foot-in-the-batter's-box rule -- from experiment to Major League reality? The game's top pitching prospect seemed to give his approval.

"Um, maybe," Giolito said. "I'm not really sure. I don't really know how current big leaguers would feel. For me, I thought it was fine. I wouldn't mind to see it at higher levels."

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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