Nearly two months into baseball’s clock era, you sometimes wonder how the sport got so slow. Why do we put up with stopped traffic on a ride that could have been so much smoother?
“It was the Red Sox/Yankees — a lot of people around here, they certainly know that,” Scott Servais, manager of the Seattle Mariners, said with a smile last week before a game at Boston’s Fenway Park. “I mean, it was four o’clock every night. Just one regular 4-2 game lasted 3 hours and 40 minutes. It speeded things up a lot.”
The game the Servais team played that night would not evoke the prose of Angell or Updike. Mariners pitchers allowed 12 runs and 16 hits, while Red Sox pitchers threw eight walks. There were two batters, three errors, 10 pitchers and 19 runners left on base. However, it only took 2 hours and 57 minutes – faster than the average for major league games in each of the past seven seasons.
“The first five innings of a game fly by,” Servais said. “We have two or three hits, they have two or three hits and you look up and it’s the fifth inning and we haven’t reached an hour yet. It goes down a little bit from there, but there are some nights where I’m like, ‘Let’s finish this in an hour and 50 minutes.’”
In fact, a few days later on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” – the setting for so many of those notorious Red Sox-Yankees marathons – the Mets and Cleveland Guardians finished in 2 hours and 6 minutes, the fastest “Sunday Night Baseball” in eight years.
For veteran players, the pitch clock — the most important of several rule changes in Major League Baseball this season — required a recalibration of the sport’s familiar rhythms. But the results are impossible to ignore: As of Monday, the average time for a nine-inning game was 2 hours and 37 minutes, which would be the fastest MLB pace since 1984. number of days was 3 hours 5 minutes.
The average length of a nine-inning game never reached three hours until 2014. After a slight drop in 2015, it has been at least three hours since then. Think of the MLB as the indulgent parent who suddenly became strict. The kids were out late, so now there’s a curfew: 15 seconds with empty bases, 20 seconds with runners on base.
“If there was a way to deliver pace without the clock, we would have done it 20 years ago,” said Morgan Sword, MLB executive vice president of baseball operations.
“We started the first day of spring training with strict enforcement of all these new rules, and we felt this was the best way to help players through this adjustment period and get to the other side,” continued Sword. “And as we’ve seen in the minor leagues, once you’re on the other end, violations occur in less than half the games and aren’t a huge part of the competition – but you feel the benefit of the clock on every pitch all night long. .”
The rule changes, Sword said, worked as MLB intended. With larger bases and a limit on pickoff attempts per plate appearance, stolen base attempts are up to 1.8 per game, the most since 2012, and the 78.7% success rate is the highest in history . With the ban on defensive shifts that fielded more than two insiders on one side of the diamond, the batting average on balls in play is up . 298, up six points from last year – and the field is back in fashion.
“You can’t hide the second baseman in the innings anymore,” said Kiké Hernández, a Red Sox shortstop. “I feel like there were a lot of really offensive second basemen who didn’t necessarily play well at their positions, but they could get away with playing second base because they hid in the innings. Now you need to be a little more athletic again.
In a way, the change was like a cheat code. The data showed where a hitter was likely to hit the ball, so fielders positioned accordingly. Without the change, intuitive infielders with a passion for prep have an advantage.
“I like the spacing of where the defense is now; it’s so pure,” said Kolten Wong of Seattle, a two-time Gold Glove winner at second base. “You have to pay close attention to the pitch call, the hitter tendencies, what guys are trying to do in certain situations. It makes the game more intriguing.”
Wong, a left-handed hitter, saw no advantage on offense; he is batting under .200. Overall, though, lefties are hitting 37 points higher on drawn ground balls and 28 points higher on pulled line shots. Future generations of left-handers may never know the anguish of their predecessors.
“It was a nightmare,” said Matt Joyce, a former outfielder who hit . 242 in a 14-year career through 2021. “It drove me crazy. The takeaway for me was that if it affected right-handers the same way, then fine. But you were basically killing left-handed hitters, which obviously wasn’t fair. They are definitely getting rewarded for good contact now because there are a lot more holes.”
Joyce is now a television analyst for the Tampa Bay Rays, who thrived at the grassroots. The Rays had 53 stolen bases as of Monday, tying the Pittsburgh Pirates for most in MLB
Surprisingly, the five teams with the lowest payrolls this season – Oakland, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Cleveland – are also the five teams with the most steals. Cheaper players tend to be younger and younger players tend to be faster. With a higher chance of success on stolen base attempts, low-payroll teams have another weapon.
“Tarrik Brock runs our base, and he started texting me as soon as we thought these rules would go into effect,” said Pirates manager Derek Shelton, referring to the team’s first base coach. “It was playing for his people, because we have young, athletic players who played within those rules a little bit, so they knew what was happening to them. The message from the beginning of spring training was: let’s aggressively run the grassroots.”
The Pirates struggled in May, but were still tied with Milwaukee at the top of the National League Central as of Monday. The Rays, meanwhile, have been the best team in the majors, even though they’ve lost two of their starting pitchers, left-handed Jeffrey Springs and right-handed Drew Rasmussen, to arm injuries.
The question remains whether the faster pace is affecting the player’s health.
Speaking generally about the pitch clock — and before Rasmussen’s injury — Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder said the fast pace clashed with the modern approach to pitching.
“It’s power lifting every 15 seconds,” Snyder said. “It’s all they have. Nobody is holding anything back in 2023. It’s a lot more power and less art than it used to be, and now they have less time to catch up in the middle.
Pitchers can reset the clock by disengaging the rubber twice per plate appearance, albeit with only one runner on base. They have a few other tricks to buy a few seconds here and there, but nothing that will markedly change your pace mentally or physically.
“It’s important to slow the game down when you get into trouble, and you really don’t have that opportunity,” said Boston reliever Richard Bleier. “You can only throw so many balls into the bank before they just say no.”
Chicago White Sox reliever Joe Kelly, a former starter, predicted in spring training that starters’ injuries would “shoot” because their muscles need more time to recover between pitches than the clock allows. That hasn’t happened yet, but it could be a matter of perspective.
From spring training through day 55 of the regular season (Monday), pitchers were placed on the injured list 232 times, up from 204 last year. On the other hand, spring training was shorter in 2022 because of the lockout – from Day 2 of this regular season through Day 55, IL pitcher placements dropped slightly, from 111 to 109.
“The best predictor of injury is a prior injury, and today we have more pitchers on our roster with significant injury histories than we’ve ever had in baseball history, so there’s kind of a snowball effect,” Sword said.
He added: “But also, the throwing style that has emerged over the last two decades, which is maximum effort, high velocity and high spin, is also related to injuries. And putting that together, we’re definitely experiencing a long-term uptick. I don’t think there’s strong evidence to support a material change this year compared to the last two years.”
The true impact of the new rules will take years to assess. With power throwing more difficult to execute, will fine throwing become more popular? With less time on the field, will position players feel stronger as the season goes on? With a more attractive product, will attendance – up 6% from last year at the same point – continue to increase?
This we already know: a lot of dead time is gone and nobody wants it back. Clear the garden of weeds and the good things will have more room to flourish.
“Aside from the rhythm, the product is just cleaner,” said Howie Rose, the Mets’ radio voice. “Guys are still hitting too hard, pitchers are still walking too much, guys are still trying to knock the ball out of the field. But because the ball is always being thrown, whether it’s in play or not, it just heightens your senses. And for me, that’s a very welcome thing.”