Pitch clocks, pace-of-game initiatives doing their job in early season
May 29, 2015
Cole Figueroa thought something was off.
He had just completed a game that featured 15 combined runs (Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre's 9-6 win over Pawtucket), 27 combined hits -- five of which were his -- seven different pitchers, and it had lasted all of three hours and six minutes. That's long, but it wasn't uncommon for games to zoom past three hours last season even when it wasn't a slugfest.
The answer: like the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland or Flavor Flav, it all came down to the presence of a clock. More specifically, the presence of clocks put in by Minor League Baseball's new pace-of-game initiatives implemented at Double- and Triple-A this season.
"It's funny. At first, I didn't think it had much of an effect," Figueroa said. "I just thought it was more of a fans' thing -- something they were doing to keep fans interested. But now as I go on, today's game kind of felt drawn out. I mean, it was a 9-6 ballgame, lots of offense, and it was three hours long. Every game used to be this long, and it felt drawn out to me. I really do think it's making a pretty good difference."
Before we get how much a difference the initiatives are making, here's a reminder of what's changed at the Triple-A and Double-A levels this season:
Clocks have been installed at every Triple-A and Double-A stadium in highly visible spots for players, umpires and fans. Typically, this has meant in center field, behind the plate and near the dugouts.
Inning breaks and pitching changes only last two minutes, 25 seconds. The batter must be in the batter's box, and the pitcher must begin his wind-up or be in a set position within 20 seconds of that clock ticking down to zero. After May 1, penalties are an 0-1 count for a batter infraction and a 1-0 count for a pitcher infraction.
Pitchers must begin their windup or come to the set position 20 seconds after their previous pitch, starting when he has possession of the ball. The timer resets if the pitcher steps off the mound or attempts a pickoff with runners on base, or if the umpire order a reset.
And now the results. (Note: samples include full nine-inning games only. Extra-innings contests and games that went shorter than nine weren't included.)
2015, 2014 gAME TIMES IN Triple-A, Double-A LEAGUES
2014 TIME OF GAME
GAMES IN SAMPLE
2015 TIME OF GAME
GAMES IN SAMPLE
2014 vs. 2015 DIFFERENCE
On its face, it's hard to ignore those results. The International League has managed to chop a quarter of an hour off its average gametime in one year. That's not insignificant. Put another way, most IL teams had played 47 games entering Thursday. If a fan were to attend each of those 47 games, he or she would have 705 extra minutes (11 hours and 45 minutes) in their pocket. That'd be enough time to watch the Back to the Future trilogy twice over and still have half an hour left.
The IL is at one end of the spectrum. (More on the other extreme in the Texas League later.) But seeing average gametimes dip below 2:45, which hasn't happened in either Triple-A circuit since 2009, must be exactly what Major League Baseball was looking for when it announced that Triple-A and Double-A would serve as testing cases for the clocks this season.
What's more, gametimes are also down since penalties went into effect on May 1. Back in mid-April, Baseball America's J.J. Cooper wrote about how times were down in the very early stages. Since that time, the average gametime is down from 2:47 in both Triple-A circuits to 2:41 in the IL and 2:45 in the PCL. Some of that fluctuation may be noise, but what has to be considered is the change from "That's a warning," to "Ball one!"
"I don't know if it's better or worse for the game aspect," Figueroa said. "If they're trying to speed up the game, though, it's definitely been good for that. I don't know if it's placebo effect -- like it should feel quicker so it does feel quicker -- but we definitely had longer games last year. I've been around pro ball long enough to know that three hours is the standard, and it's rare that we get there now."
The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre utilityman touched on the biggest counterpoint to the implementation of pitch clocks -- it affects the sport itself. One of baseball's perceived beauties is that it normally doesn't involve a clock but is instead measured by 27 outs. A race against a clock feels unnatural in the national pastime.
"Could you just put the letters 'L-O-L' over and over and over again?" said Padres prospect Cody Decker back in April before the season began. "I don't think it's necessary. I don't think it's going to do much. Maybe it does affect the pace of play, I don't know, but I don't think we need a shot clock."
For what it's worth, though, it appears most players and clubs haven't had much trouble transitioning to the clock, especially now after two months of getting used to it. Even those who have seen their players penalized aren't complaining too much.
"I think it's still a process, but it's been a lot better than I thought," said Richmond manager Jose Alguacil, who saw outfielder Devin Harris given a strike for being late into the box Wednesday. "Guys have been generally very good with it. We tell them, 'Don't let it bother you. Just make adjustments for next time,' if anything does happen, and none of my players have really complained. You still have to take care of your business."
In fact, the pitch clocks, in particular, have become a teaching tool for organizations trying to eliminate laborious routines and time for overthinking from their hurlers.
"We've always been teaching guys to work quicker," Alguacil said. "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."
Whether it's simply helping the fans or providing a benefit to fans and players alike, the new initiatives are certainly doing the one thing they set out to do: speeding up the pace of play, which includes encouraging more game action regardless of how long the game is, but is mostly about shortening the length of games.
"Baseball doesn't need to go any faster than it's going right now with these rules," Alguacil said. "I think anything under three hours like this is perfect though. Three-and-a-half, four hours -- that's the problem. Nobody wants to see those games, and if this helps do away with those, that's good."
• You might look at the Texas League numbers above and think, based on game time alone, that the pace-of-game initiatives aren't having much effect. One minute of difference, after all, isn't more than statistical noise. So, what's the story?
Simply put, there's been more offense in the Texas League this season than in 2014. Runs per team per game are up from 4.18 to 4.47. Not a massive difference, but not an insignificant one either. More offense generally means longer games, and in a league that is or was home to top prospects Carlos Correa, Joey Gallo, Jorge Alfaro, Matt Olson, Trea Turner and others, it's no surprise to see offense spike.
So with offense adding time and the pace-of-game rules taking it away, that's likely how one ends up with just one minute of difference.