Nearly two months into baseball’s pitch-clock era, you sometimes wonder how the sport got so slow. Why did we endure stationary traffic on a route that could have been much smoother?
“It was the Red Sox/Yankees – a lot of people in those areas, they sure know that,” Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais said with a smile last week before a game at Fenway Park in Boston. “I mean, it was four o’clock every night. Just a regular 4-2 game was 3 hours and 40 minutes. It sped things up a lot.
The match played by the Servais team that evening would not evoke the prose of Angell or Updike. Mariners pitchers allowed 12 runs and 16 hits, while Red Sox pitchers walked eight. There remained two batters hits, three errors, 10 pitchers and 19 runners on base. Yet it only took 2 hours 57 minutes, faster than the major league game average in each of the last seven seasons.
“The first five innings of a game go by quickly,” 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’re not even an hour away. It’s going to slow down a bit from there, but there are nights where I’m like, ‘We’re going to do this in an hour and 50 minutes.’ »
Indeed, a few days later, on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” – the scene of so many of those notorious marathons between the Red Sox and Yankees – the Mets and Cleveland Guardians finished in 2 hours 6 minutes, the most fast “Sunday Night Baseball Game” in eight years.
For veteran players, the pitch clock — the most significant of several Major League Baseball rule changes this season — required a recalibration of the sport’s familiar rhythms. But the results are impossible to ignore: Through Monday, the average time for a nine-inning game was 2 hours 37 minutes, which would be the fastest pace in MLB since 1984. Last season’s average , over the same number of days, was 3 hours. 5 minutes.
The average time for a nine-inning game had never been higher than three hours until 2014. After a slight dip in 2015, it had been at least three hours since. Think of MLB as the lenient parent who suddenly got strict. The kids were going out too late, so now there’s a curfew: 15 seconds with empty bases, 20 seconds with runners on base.
“If there was a way to set the pace without a stopwatch, we would have done it 20 years ago,” said Morgan Sword, executive vice president of baseball operations for MLB.
“We started Day 1 of Spring Training with strict enforcement of all these new rules, and we felt that was the best way to help players through this adjustment period and move from the other side,” Sword continued. “And like we’ve seen in the minor leagues, once you’re on the other side, violations happen in less than half the games and aren’t a big part of the competition – but you feel the clock perks every throw all night.”
The rule changes, Sword said, worked as MLB intended. With larger bases and a limit on out attempts per plate appearance, stolen base attempts are up to 1.8 per game, the most since 2012, and the 78.7% completion rate is the most high in history. With a ban on defensive changes that positioned more than two infielders on one side of the diamond, the batting average on balls in play is .298, a six-point increase from last year – and the terrain is back in fashion.
“You can’t hide second baseman on the shift anymore,” Red Sox shortstop Kiké Hernández said. “I feel like there were a lot of really offensive second basemen who didn’t necessarily fill their position well, but they could get away with playing second base because they were hiding during the shift. Now you need to be a bit more athletic again.
In some ways, the change felt like a cheat code. The data showed where a batter would most likely hit a ball, so defenders lined up accordingly. Without the change, intuitive infielders with a passion for preparation have an advantage.
“I like the spacing the way the defense is now; it’s so pure,” said Kolten Wong of Seattle, a two-time Golden Glove winner at second base. “You really have to pay attention to pitch calls, batting tendencies, what guys are trying to do in certain situations. It just makes the game more intriguing.
Wong, a left-handed hitter, didn’t see an advantage on offense; it beats less than .200. Overall, however, lefties hit 37 points more on ground balls fired and 28 points more on line drives fired. Future generations of lefties may never experience the angst of their predecessors.
“It was a nightmare,” said Matt Joyce, a former outfielder who hit .242 during a 14-year career through 2021. “It drove me crazy. The argument for me was that , if it affected right-handers the same, OK. But you were just killing left-handed hitters, which obviously wasn’t fair. They’re definitely rewarded for good contact now, because there’s a lot more holes .
Joyce is now a television analyst for the Tampa Bay Rays, who have thrived on the bases. Rays had 53 stolen bases through Monday, tied with Pittsburgh Pirates for most in MLB
Tellingly, 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 better chance of success on stolen base attempts, low-paying teams have another weapon.
“Tarrik Brock looks after our grassroots running, and he started texting me as soon as we thought these rules were going to be in place,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said, referring to the incident. first base coach of the team. “It was toying with your staff, because we have young athletic players who played by those rules a bit, so they knew what was going on with them. The message from the start of spring training was this: We’re going to run the bases aggressively. »
The Pirates struggled in May but were still tied with Milwaukee at the top of National League Central through Monday. The Rays, meanwhile, were the best team in the majors, although they lost two of their starting pitchers, left-hander Jeffrey Springs and right-hander Drew Rasmussen, to arm injuries.
The question remains whether the faster pace affects player health.
Generally speaking of the pitching clock — and before Rasmussen’s injury — Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder said the accelerated pace clashed with the modern approach to pitching.
“That’s lifting power every 15 seconds,” Snyder said. “That’s all they have. No one is holding anything back in 2023. It’s a lot more power and less art than before, and now they have less time to recover in between.
Pitchers can reset the clock by disengaging from the rubber twice per plate appearance, but only with a runner on base. They have a few other tricks to buy a few seconds here and there, but nothing to significantly alter their mental or physical pace.
“It’s important to slow down the game when you’re in trouble, and you don’t really have that opportunity,” Boston reliever Richard Bleier said. “You can only throw so many balls into the dugout before they just say no to you.”
Chicago White Sox reliever Joe Kelly, a former starter, predicted during spring training that starters’ injuries would “skyrocket” because their muscles needed more time to recover between pitches than time permits. It didn’t quite happen, but maybe that’s a matter of perspective.
From spring training through day 55 of the regular season (Monday), pitchers have been placed on the disabled list 232 times, compared to 204 last year. Again, spring training has been shorter in 2022 due to the lockdown – from Day 2 of this regular season to Day 55, IL pitching placements have dropped slightly from 111 to 109.
“The best predictor of injury is a previous injury, and we have more pitchers on our rosters today who have significant injury histories than we’ve ever had in baseball history, so there’s a kind of a snowball effect,” Sword said.
He added: “But also, the throwing style that has emerged over the past two decades, which is maximum effort, high speed and high spin, is also correlated with injury. And so put that together, we’re definitely seeing a slight long-term increase. I don’t think there is strong evidence to support a significant change this year compared to the past two years.
It will take years to assess the true impact of the new rules. Since the power throw is more difficult to execute, will the fine throw become more popular? With less time on the pitch, will positional players feel stronger as the season progresses? With a more attractive product, will footfall – up 6% from the same time last year – continue to grow?
What we already know: a lot of dead time has passed and no one wants to get it back. Remove the weeds from the garden and the good things have more room to flourish.
“Apart from the beat, the product is just cleaner,” said Howie Rose, the Mets’ radio voice. “Guys are still hitting too much, pitchers are still walking too much, guys are still trying to get the ball out of the park. But because the ball is always delivered whether it’s in play or not, it heightens your senses. And for me, that’s really a welcome thing.