The minor leagues will once again be a testing ground for a potential future Major League change, as Major League Baseball has decided to use pitch clocks in all Triple-A and Double-A parks during the upcoming season.
The decision, made by Commissioner Bud Selig before the office was turned over to Rob Manfred, came after a successful trial run for pitch clocks and other pace-of-play initiatives in the Arizona Fall League. With the clocks, pitchers in Arizona had 20 seconds to execute a pitch from when they received the ball. The specifics of this upcoming season’s pitch clocks have not yet been ironed out, though it is anticipated the timeframe will be the same. The placement of the clocks, said Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner, will likely be two clocks behind home plate and a third along the outfield wall.
Pitch clocks were only part of the pace of play experiment taking place during the Arizona Fall League. With increased concern that big league games are growing too lengthy, the minor leagues began testing operations that would speed up the game and hinder some of the more time-consuming aspects of the game. 20-second pitch clocks were joined by 2:05 minute breaks between innings and no more than three manager visits to the mound per inning.
The statement that baseball games are growing too long for the average fan is not a new complaint. The length of games has been an excuse as to why fans do not attend games in person; watching at home or at a bar with friends makes it easier to cease watching when needed without feeling guilty for having spent money on a ticket. For fans who work during the week, weeknight games are often difficult to attend in person because there is no guarantee how long the game will last. The same can be said for fans with young children or, truly, anyone who needs to be up early the day after a game.
Additionally, the argument has been made that baseball is a “boring” sport because the game can be played for hours and hours without any sign of stopping. Extra innings only add to the never-ending feeling that accompanies games and can make fans restless or even resentful of the team on the field who simply won’t just end the game so those in the stands can go home.
There’s something to be said for games seemingly never ending, but that ability to watch a game without time constraints is what makes the sport what it is. Baseball is a game that was made to be played without a clock, and that’s part of it’s beauty. It isn’t a race against time, but rather a challenge between two teams, a battle to see which is the superior performer that day. To add time limits or change the rules on the amount of times that a manager can visit his pitcher is to change much of the game itself. Much of the appeal of attending a baseball game is knowing that, for an afternoon or an evening, you are not governed by a clock.
Furthermore, batters and pitchers both have their own routines in the batter’s box and on the mound. By using pitch clocks, those routines are effectively limited. To force a player to change the way he plays, whether the way he winds up before a pitch or stretches before he bats, could alter more of his performance than it would initially seem.
Further, a pitch clock can affect players in a much more mental way, as well. It is stressful enough to be pitching in front of a large crowd, but the pitch clock adds an extra level of stress not there before. Should a pitcher be on the mound, look at the clock, and realize he only has five seconds left to pitch, he may throw an awful pitch in a moment of desperation and tear something in his elbow. He may lob one over the plate and give up a grand slam.
Improving the pace of play is a good notion to have, though doing so in a way that forces change in the way players have excelled in performing seems to be a misguided first step. The time limit between innings is a bit easier to understand, as it does not drastically alter the way a player performs.
A definitive verdict on pitch clocks cannot be reached until they are put into action throughout the season, though skepticism will be high until (or if) they are really shown to make a positive difference in the game.
Should pitch clocks find their way to the big leagues, fans should remain positive that it was not the worst pace-of-play change that could have happened due to a minor league experiment: In 1957, the Florida State League attempted to change counts and voted to give batters a walk after three balls and a strikeout after two strikes. The plan was in place to be used in 1958, until Major League Baseball overruled the change.
Photo: USA Today Sports