Experiment confirms that baseball needs a pitch clock

For years, I’ve argued that major league baseball desperately needs a pitch clock. Everyone seems to agree that baseball’s painfully slow pace of play is a huge problem. Yet, MLB hasn’t implemented the one measure that would speed play up — a limit on how long pitchers can hold the ball without putting it in play.

Watching dozens of old games on MLB-TV during the pandemic, I noticed that pitchers in the 1970s and 1980s normally took around 12 seconds between pitches — sometimes less than 10 seconds. In tight spots with men on base, they normally took about 15.

A fair percentage of the minor league pitchers I’ve timed in the past few years deliver the ball in less than 15 seconds. That was the case a few years ago when two prospects — Keegan Akin and Thomas Hatch — matched up in Advanced A-League game in Frederick, Maryland.

The same two dueled again earlier this month — this time in the majors. Akin was still delivering in well less then 15 seconds, perhaps because he was in terrific groove that night. Hatch, though, was up to around 20 seconds even with no runners on base — still under the major league average but considerably longer than when he was in the low minors.

Even though minor league pitchers don’t hold the ball as long as their major league counterparts, many still take too long. This is clear from the results of an experiment in the Low-A West League (basically the old California League).

In June, it instituted a 15-second clock. The result? The league cut its average game time by 21 minutes.

Not only that, scoring is up. Why? Because pitchers don’t get as much rest between pitches, which affects the velocity of their pitches. As I’ve noted before, as the time between pitches has inched up year-by-year, so has the average velocity of fastballs.

Former major leaguer Raul Ibanez is helping oversee the experiment out west. He says of the games:

It really is an incredible experience. It feels like the baseball games that I grew up watching in the ’80s.

Veteran baseball writer Jayson Starks also noticed a big difference:

The first time I watched a Low-A West League game, the first word that popped into my head was “rhythm.” These games have it. And once that becomes clear, you can’t stop yourself from being obsessed with it.

I watched a Sept. 7 game between the Stockton Ports and San Jose Giants. It started a little after 6:30 p.m. It was over at 8:47. Do you know how many nine-inning major-league games have been over in 2 hours and 13 minutes this year? That would be two — out of more than 2,000!

On this day in baseball in 1971, two games took less than 2 hours and 13 minutes, including one that lasted only 1 hour and 59 minutes. Four other games that day took less and 2 hours and 30 minutes. Another was over in 2 hours and 31.

So what happens next? Stark predicts that next year, every minor league will have a pitch clock. If the results are similar to what’s occurred in California during the past three months, MLB will push for an agreement with the union to institute a clock.

How the union responds is anyone’s guess. Mine is that the union won’t accept a 15-second clock. However, in exchange for concessions it might well accept, say, a 20-second clock with the possibility of bringing the number down once players are acclimated.

An 20-second clock wouldn’t cut big league games by 21 minutes. But if I’m right that big league pitchers take considerably longer between pitchers than minor leaguers, that clock would reduce game length by a more than a minimal amount.

And an 18-second clock might save 21 minutes. It would certainly pick up the pace of play, something the game urgently needs.

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