Just a Matter of Time: Can the answer to MLB's pace-of-game problem be found in the Minor Leagues?

By Kirsten Karbach / Clearwater Threshers | May 25, 2017 12:31 PM ET

On a Friday evening in early May, the Clearwater Threshers and the Florida Fire Frogs of the Advanced Class-A Florida State League combined for 28 runs on 32 hits. A total of 10 pitchers were used, including four mid-inning calls to the bullpen. A whopping 370 pitches were thrown in the game.

The final game time?

Just three hours and two minutes.

Meanwhile across Major League Baseball, the average game that night lasted three hours and 21 minutes. Only four of the 15 contests came in under the three-hour mark.

In the opening month of the 2017 season, nine-inning games throughout all of Minor League Baseball averaged 2:49. In the Florida State League, the only league which employs a 15-second pitch clock, the average was just 2:37 - nearly half an hour shorter than a nine-inning Major League Baseball game, which stood at 3:03 in the month of April.

Since 2015, MiLB has limited the time a pitcher can take in between offerings. Following experimentation in the Arizona Fall League, Double-A and Triple-A leagues implemented a 20-second pitch clock.

The clock begins ticking down as soon as the pitcher has the ball in the dirt circle. The pitcher must begin his motion or come set before the clock hits zero, or the umpire may call an automatic ball.

Exceptions apply, such as when time is granted by the home plate umpire, or following a foul ball. The first pitch after any dead ball is untimed.

The clock has consequences for hitters as well. A batter must be in the batter's box, facing the pitcher, before the clock winds down past five. With less than five seconds left, a strike may be called if the batter is not in the box and alert to the pitcher.

The Florida State League is the only league which uses an even shorter time limit, as the FSL began to employ a 15-second pitch clock during the 2016 season.

"MLB just said, based on research at the Arizona Fall League, most pitches were thrown in 12 seconds, let's try 15 seconds." Andy Shultz, Assistant Director of Baseball and Business Operations for MiLB, explains.

Shultz, a former MiLB umpire who serves as the administrator for the MiLB Umpire Training Academy, has been pleased with the results, noting that the clock has bettered the pace of minor league contests without serving as too much of a distraction. He recognized that the outcome baseball is looking for is not simply about game time. It's about the flow of the action.

"Here we are, and we don't look at the clock, and we don't just sit here and think, 'What is taking this game so long?" Shultz says. "(The pitcher) is getting the ball, he's pitching, he's not stepping off…

"You still might have a three-hour game, but at least stuff is happening for three hours. I can live with that."

The improved rhythm is palpable.

The statistics appear to back it up.

In 2014, the year before pitch clocks, the two Triple-A leagues, International and Pacific Coast, averaged 2:56 and 2:58, respectively. In Double-A, the Eastern League ran 2:50, the Southern League 2:52, and the Texas League 2:51.

Flash forward to 2016, the second season of the 20-second pitch clock. The IL and PCL were down to 2:42 and 2:48 - a full 10 minutes quicker - while the Eastern, Southern, and Texas Leagues all averaged in the low-2:40 range, also about 10 minutes off their pre-pitch clocks pace.

In the FSL, the first year of 15-second clocks yielded an average of a speedy 2:35.  

The batter's box rule has gone hand-in-hand with the pitch clocks, serving as a reminder, or enforcer, for the batter to avoid unnecessary delays.

The rule, intended to limit batters from taking too much time in between pitches, hit the books in 2006.

"Any time a batter stepped out and didn't get back in on his warning, he was getting dinged with a strike right then, " Shultz says. "And that was kind of the start of just, 'let's stop messing around, guys.' Get in the batter's box, or just keep your one foot in and take a look at the signs."

The MLB rule book reads, "The batter shall keep one foot in the batter's box throughout the batter's time at bat" unless an exception applies, such as when the batter swings at a pitch, a check swing is appealed, or either side is granted "time."

In the minors, an umpire may call a strike on the batter. In MLB, the penalty for stepping out of the box unwarranted is a monetary fine.

Major League Baseball briefly placed a bigger emphasis on this rule at the start of the 2015 season. Many have argued that, when enforced, it worked.

According to the Associated Press, the new measures lowered the average game time by six minutes, down to 2:56 in 2015.

Jayson Stark, in a 2016 article for ESPN, pointed out that one month into the 2015 season, games were averaging 2:53. This was at the height of the new pace-of-play rules.

Yet a year later, it was back up to three hours, with players gradually falling back into their old habits.

Keep in mind, there is no in-game penalty for violation of these rules in the Major Leagues.

Some point to the addition of replay reviews as a hindrance to MLB's progress at shortening game times. Stark argued that the installment of replay reviews does not make up for the difference, as baseball averages less than one replay per game.

Instead, it may just be the pitching. Pitches per game were up in 2016, as well as walks per game ("up 12 percent to 3.26 per nine innings, the highest rate in seven years"), and pitches per plate appearance (which "jumped from 3.83 to 3.88, the highest in history.")

In the mid-level minor leagues, where hitters are often more aggressive and more balls are put in play after just one or two pitches, one reason game times are shorter may actually be due to the fact that the game itself is different. Simply put, a young hitter may get himself out on a pitch that a Major Leaguer would take, resulting in a quicker at-bat.

There is also the matter of TV timeouts to consider - even though inning break allotment in MLB and MiLB works out to about a two minute, 25-second limit at both levels, minor league pitchers do not have to wait for networks to return from commercial breaks before starting the inning.

A quick worker could complete his warmup tosses and begin the inning with 30 seconds left in the inning break. If that pitcher works six innings, that alone shaves three minutes off the game time.

Thus, it may not be reasonable to assume that since Florida State League games speed by at a two-and-a-half hour rate, MLB games can too.

However, even in the upper echelons of affiliated ball where players are more seasoned and many have big league experience, games are averaging more than 10 minutes less than MLB's current pace.

Back to pitch clocks.

A 2014 USA Today article by Ted Berg states that, "In 2010, pitchers averaged 21.5 seconds between pitches. The number has increased every season since, and in 2014 pitchers averaged 23 seconds between pitches."

Consider this: If even two seconds were shaved off between pitches, and there are 300 pitches thrown in a game, this would take a full 10 minutes off the game time.

Pitchers in the FSL do not have the luxury of taking 23 seconds between pitches. Nor must they wait while a batter takes a pitch, steps out, and adjusts his equipment before digging back in.

Do pitchers feel rushed having only 15 seconds with which to work?

Not so much.

"I actually really like the pitch clock," Threshers pitcher Jeff Singer says. "I always move fast, I always try to work fast during the game, so it's never affected me."

If anything, pitch clocks may actually benefit the pitcher, limiting the time a hitter has to reset mentally between offerings, and allowing a pitcher to get into a better rhythm.

"I feel like it has more effect on hitters because it maybe gives them a little less time to get ready for the next pitch," Singer says. "After seeing a high inside fastball it's hard for them to forget that pitch and move on to the next one."

"On defense I love it," infielder Drew Stankiewicz says, "And on offense, it doesn't really bother me."

"I don't really do a whole bunch of routine stuff," infielder Damek Tomscha explains. "I mean every now and then I'll step out, just if I have something in my eye or anything like that, but usually I like getting things going as it is, so it's not a big deal.

"My personality is not very superstitious as far as like, I need to adjust things every time. I think what they're doing with the pitch clock is good, you know people don't want to wait around for three hours, they don't want to watch a three and a half hour baseball game. And to get the pitchers on the mound and the batters in the batter's box, I think it's good for the game."

"For me, the most important thing is that the players are aware of it," Threshers manager Shawn Williams says. "It makes them work quicker, makes them get in the box quicker. Little things just to create a good tempo to the game."

Williams believes that even without clocks at the Major League level, their presence in the minor leagues will instill a quicker work ethic amongst prospects rising through the system, simply through repetition.

"When we're teaching guys ground balls and all that, this is the same kind of thing, where now the pitchers have a good tempo, which I think in turn makes them better, and they're working quicker. The hitters get into a routine. So that's why I think it will translate eventually," Williams says.

"Maybe a couple years down the road, once you start to get more guys that have been used to the clock getting to the big leagues, now all the sudden, they don't even have the clock, but that's what they're used to. So that becomes their routine."

Shultz echoes these sentiments.

"Are we ever going to get pitch clocks (in MLB)? Maybe. They could do it two years from now, they could do it 10 years from now, I really don't know. Ideally, these guys get into the habit of just get the ball and go.

"I'm eager to see, let's just say five years from now, when we've had seven years of clocks in the minor leagues - what's it like with those 27-year-old and younger pitchers who have come up through the minor leagues and don't have a clock (in the Majors)?" Schultz wonders. "Are they now going to think 'ok the handcuffs are off'…or is it just so ingrained in them, 'Just give me the ball, there's the sign, boom.'

"We'll just have to wait and see."

 

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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