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Pitch clock shaving 20 minutes off minors games

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Published in Baseball
Tuesday, 19 April 2022 15:18

The implementation of a strict pitch clock across Minor League Baseball has shaved 20 minutes off game times, dramatically speeding up the pace while not having a demonstrable effect on scoring, setting the stage for Major League Baseball to implement a clock in the 2023 season.

Over the first 132 minor league games that included a 14-second clock with the bases empty, 18-second clock with runners on and penalties for pitchers and hitters that run afoul of it, the average game time was 2 hours, 39 minutes. In a control set of 335 games run without the clock to begin the season, games lasted an average of 2 hours, 59 minutes -- around the same 3-hour, 3-minute average in 5,000-plus non-clock games during the 2021 season.

More than one-third of minor league games over the three-day sample with the clock ended in less than 2 hours, 30 minutes, including one game that finished in 1 hour, 59 minutes and another in 2 hours. Twenty-seven percent of games fell within the 2:30 to 2:40 range -- nearly three times the percentage in 2021. Only 15% of games exceeded three hours, compared to 52% of games last season with no timer in place.

Scoring was essentially flat, with the non-clock test set yielding 5.13 runs and 16.1 hits per game while the clock games featured 5.11 runs and 15.9 hits.

"It seemed like it accomplished exactly what MLB wants the game to look like in a few years," said Henry Davis, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 draft and a catcher with the Pittsburgh Pirates' high-A affiliate. "[Outside of] playing in the College World Series or unique games, it has been the most fun I've ever had playing."

For nearly a decade, MLB has tinkered with pitch clocks in an effort to find the secret sauce to speed up games, hasten pace of play and not dramatically alter the run-scoring environment. With a faster pitch timer, a limit on the number of times a pitcher can step off and ball-strike penalties for hitters and pitchers, MLB may have found the balance that will arrive in major league stadiums next season and address average game times that ballooned last season to 3 hours, 11 minutes. Thus far in 2022, MLB games are at 3 hours, 10 minutes, though that number is expected to increase as weather warms and scoring increases.

In the new collective bargaining agreement, MLB was given the ability to unilaterally implement new rules with a 45-day advance notice. Previously, the league needed to inform the MLB Players Association of on-field changes one year in advance. While there are no plans for a pitch clock in the big leagues in 2022, the shorter window will allow MLB to gather data throughout the minor league season and fashion major league rules according to what it finds.

"We're encouraged by the early results with the timer in place, both in terms of the pace and rhythm of games as well as the style of play," said Morgan Sword, the MLB executive vice president who is overseeing the rules changes.

The 14- and 18-second timers are the most aggressive since MLB first toyed with a pitch clock during the Arizona Fall League in 2014. In the first 132 games with it, umpires assessed 259 violations -- 73 automatic strikes for hitters who were not ready when the clock reached the 9-second mark and 186 automatic balls for pitchers who did not deliver pitches before the clock expired.

The combination of the clock and limitations of two pick-off throws or mound step-offs -- with a third prompting an automatic balk call -- has likewise prompted an 18% increase in stolen-base efforts, with nearly three attempts per game with the timer in place compared to 2.51 per game with no timer last season. Major league teams averaged 1.2 stolen-base attempts per game last season, the lowest number since 1964.

"At 2 seconds, it's either pitch or pick. Most guys want to pitch," said Tampa Bay Rays reliever Phoenix Sanders, who was recently called up from Triple-A to the major leagues. "Hitters that can run are starting to time that up. We're taught to hold the ball but now we only have a certain amount of time to hold it. Moving forward, hitters may figure it out."

While Triple-A and Double-A have had 20-second pitch clocks since 2018, the limitation of pickoffs and step-offs in the low-A California League last season led to the most dramatic decrease in game times. Over the winter, MLB expanded the rule across the minor leagues as part of a suite of changes that also include shift limitations (four infielders on the dirt, two on each side of the second-base bag) at all levels except Triple-A, 18-square-inch bases (up from the standard 15 inches) and the expanded use of the automated ball/strike system (robot umpires).

The combination of a pitch clock and step-off rules clearly is the most impactful of the rules changes thus far -- and the one that has caused the most consternation. Longtime major league pitcher Derek Holland, now with the Boston Red Sox's Triple-A affiliate, said in a Twitter thread "we are trying to do way too much to this game," calling the pitch clock "a disaster ... and it will only get worse."

Dr. Mike Sonne, a biomechanist with an expertise in muscle fatigue, wrote that he worries injuries to pitchers will increase due to a pitch clock. In the California League, where the pitch clock was used last season, pitching injuries were lower than at all other levels, though it's impossible to determine a pitch clock's effect on pitcher health strictly from raw injury data.

One thing from the early returns this year was clear: As batting averages and home run, strikeout and walk rates remained relatively stable, the game clearly moved quicker than the clock-free sample this season. The time between pitches during a plate appearance dipped from 21.5 seconds to 19.7. Umpires, mandated with speeding up pace, did so in other areas, too, with the time between batters dropping from 43 seconds to 39.7, inning breaks being shaved from 2 minutes, 39 seconds to 2 minutes, 27 seconds and pitching changes going from 3 minutes, 16 seconds to 3 minutes.

"It feels like that pace has increased significantly," said Josh Hejka, a reliever with the New York Mets' high-A affiliate Brooklyn. "There is less dilly-dallying and wasted time. There's more urgency from hitters and pitchers, getting right back in the box and right back on the mound and throw much quicker.

"There's definitely some annoyances. The pitch clock goes until you start your delivery and not when you come set because it limits their ability to vary their holds on the mound. There's some frustration with the lack of ability to pick off. There's some frustration with the intricacies, but we have to adapt to it or someone else will take our place who will."

ESPN's Jesse Rogers and Joon Lee contributed to this report.

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