The Major League Baseball season started on March 30, and the newly implemented pitch clock rule wasted no time causing controversy.
According to the MLB, players have 30 seconds to resume play between each batter. Between pitches, a 15-second timer will be set when the bases are empty and a 20-second timer will be set with runners on base. The clock starts when the pitcher receives the ball from the catcher. The pitcher must begin his delivery before the clock expires.
As for the batter, they must step in the box and be ready to hit with at least eight seconds left on the clock. A batter can call one timeout per plate appearance.
A violation by the pitcher results in an automatic ball. A violation by the batter results in an automatic strike.
The pitch clock also limits pitcher disengagements. A disengagement is stepping off the mound or a baserunner pick-off attempt. A pitcher is allowed two disengagements per batter — a third disengagement results in a balk. The disengagement count restarts when a runner advances through a stolen base, balk, passed ball, or wild pitch.
The main goal of the clock is to speed up the overall time of the game.
During the Chicago Cubs season opener against the Milwaukee Brewers, Cubs starting pitcher Marcus Stroman committed the first pitch clock violation ever. With no outs and the Brewers’ Christian Yelich at the plate, Stroman turned around to look at the Brewers’ Brice Turang on second base. At the one-second mark, Stroman focused back on Yelich when plate umpire Ron Kulpa pointed to his wrist and called the violation. Yelich received an automatic ball, making it a 2-2 count.
Later, Stroman acknowledged that learning the new clock is challenging.
“I do feel super rushed at times,” Stroman told The New York Times. “Even between innings, I’m running out there very early to warm up in between. Sometimes I’m not able to catch my breath and find my proper breathing that I do before pre-pitch.”
MLB’s executive vice president of baseball operations, Morgan Sword, said at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference that games have been 24 minutes shorter during the first 95 games of spring training since introducing the pitch clock rule, relative to a similar stretch of spring games in 2022.
According to ESPN, the average time of a nine-inning game dropped for the first time since 2018, as games this spring lasted an average time of 2 hours, 35 minutes. The 2022 regular season games averaged 3:03:44 while 2018 lasted 3:00:44, which was still well above MLB’s average of 2:33 in 1981 and 2:46 in 2005.
The idea to implement the pitch clock began at the start of the 2022 season.
In an interview with ESPN’s SportsCenter, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred stressed the importance of “delivering the most entertaining product for our fans” while stating rule changes such as the pitch clock remains a high priority and wants to “get complete input from the players on rules changes.”
“We’ve experimented extensively with the pitch clock in the minor leagues. It does help in terms of the pace of the game. It does help also in terms of the way the game is played, so it is something that remains high on the priority list of ownership,” Manfred said. “We have a great game, but historically I think the game was a little crisper the way it moved along, it had a little more action in it, more frequent balls in play, and getting back to that form of baseball would be an improvement for us, for the players and for the fans.”
In September 2022, MLB’s 11-person Competition Committee — made up of six members of the Commissioner’s office, four MLB Player Association (MLBPA) representatives, and one umpire — voted to enforce a pitch clock, restrict defensive shifts, and increase the size of the bases, despite all four players voting unanimously against the pitch clock and shift changes.
“These steps are designed to improve pace of play, increase action and reduce injuries, all of which are goals that have overwhelming support among our fans,” Manfred said in the NY Times. “Throughout the extensive testing of recent years, minor league personnel and a wide range of fans — from the most loyal to casual observers — have recognized the collective impact of these changes in making the game even better and more enjoyable.”
However, Manfred and the committee’s reasons for wanting to implement the pitch clock have raised concerns about whether the game is becoming more tailored to increase fan engagement at the expense of the players and the game’s traditions.
After announcing the pitch clock rule changes in a press conference back in February, Manfred said, “We’ve tried to address the concerns expressed in a thoughtful way, respectful of the history and traditions of the game, and of player concerns…. Number 1, fans want games with better pace. Two, fans want more action, and more balls in play. And three, fans want to see more of the athleticism of our great players.”
Although the pitch clock has the capability to increase excitement and fan engagement, the new rules have also drawn criticism as players, coaches, agents, and other baseball personnel are worried about issues that may arise.
“I am a little skeptical of it with respect to how it’ll affect players and potential injuries for pitchers,” MLBPA agent Rachel Luba responded when asked to comment on how the pitch clock will affect the game.
In an interview with the Oakland Athletics Cactus League radio engineer and Loyola Marymount University journalism professor Kevin Curran, he addressed how the pitch clock would affect play-by-play announcers.
“From a play-by-play perspective, the timing changes can affect how a game is called,” Curran said. “The play-by-play announcer has less time to read advertising and promotion announcements, the analyst has less time to critique a play, and we have to watch the length of audio inserts.”
Curran also commented on other concerns MLB hasn’t considered during the pitch clock timing.
“The home plate umpire needs to be aware of the entire field,” he said. “Players wear protective equipment when at-bat that they remove when they get on base [which takes time]. If a player hits a double, a bat boy has to go out to second and collect that gear.”
There are many different stances regarding the pitch clock. Fans want an exciting game, players don’t want to change their routines, and baseball executives want to increase action. Yet, the reality is that the game is changing, and new plays will inevitably happen because of the pitch clock.
For instance, in the eighth inning of the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles opening day game, Red Sox’s Rafael Devers became the first player in MLB history to strike out on a pitch clock violation. Orioles’ pitcher Bryan Baker came to set with a 1-2 count, but Devers did not get set up by the eight-second mark. Umpire Lance Barksdale made the call, and Baker was credited with a strikeout despite never throwing the final pitch.
These new changes may seem counterintuitive to baseball’s tradition. However, those who support the pitch clock argue that the half-hour reduction of dead time during games will revive the sport and create a concise viewing experience. Players and coaches will learn to adjust, and the growing pains of adapting to the pitch clock will soon fade.
Although change is a foreign concept to MLB, many are unaware that this was not the first time the pitch timer was introduced.
Conversations about a pitch timer began in 1901 when the game’s timing became a concern. The 1901 season was the first time a 20-second rule went into effect, but with no means of enforcement, it was never used.
It wasn’t until the 2015 season that MLB tested out the pitch timer rule in the minors in Double-A and Triple-A games. According to MLB, over the next few years, it improved the pace of Minor League Baseball games by an average of 26 minutes.
“It’s probably the biggest change that’s been made in baseball in most of our lifetimes,” Sword told ESPN.
The pitch clock is likely to become the new norm in MLB. If baseball wants to dominate in this new digital age, the sport must adapt to shifting demographics and continue creating an exciting game. But, like with most changes, it will take some much-needed adjustment.
“I think that we’ll make the adjustments, and I do think it’ll be a good game,” said Cleveland Guardians Manager Terry Francona to The New York Times during spring training. “I just think there’s going to be growing pains, because these are bigger changes than we’ve ever had before and you’re asking people to do something they’ve never done. So, it’s going to take a minute to do that.”