MLB’s short season is approaching its midpoint. The play is sloppy, the injuries are manifold, and the teams won’t play enough games to determine a true champion.
On the other hand, there’s a good chance that, against what seemed to be the odds, baseball will complete its season. In doing so, it will entertain fans (albeit remotely) and demonstrate the “can do” spirit of which Americans have always been proud.
My only grievance at this point is with the pace of play. The grievance is a shared one. I’ve even heard announcers, as upbeat and grateful as they are to be calling games at all, complain about it.
In an effort to shorten the length of games, MLB now requires that pitchers face a minimum of three batters unless they pitch until the end of an inning. By decreasing the number of pitching changes, this rule change does save time.
However, it doesn’t speed up the general pace of play. To accomplish this, baseball needs a pitch clock of 20 seconds or less.
Most pitchers I’ve clocked this year are getting the ball out within 20 seconds when there are no runners on base. But there are exceptions. Today, Max Scherzer was taking longer.
With runners on, the pace slows to a crawl. Pitchers often take 25 seconds or more to deliver. That’s just too long.
In 2017, I reported on a minor league game during which I timed two pitching prospects — Thomas Hatch and Keegan Akin — counting from the moment they received the ball from the catcher or umpire until the moment they released the pitch. For both, the time it took was usually 10 to 12 seconds. When Hatch got into a jam, he took about 15 seconds.
This year, both pitchers have appeared in big league games. In Akin’s one game, he took only about 15 seconds to deliver.
Hatch, who is pitching relief regularly for Toronto, is a different story. In his appearances that I’ve seen, he takes 18 to 20 seconds with no runners on. But he takes at least 25 seconds, and sometimes 30, when there are base runners.
I don’t blame Hatch. He’s touching 97 mph on his fastball now, and can use the extra seconds to replenish.
However, one can pitch very effectively in the major leagues without taking so long. In April, I watched lots of games from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. In that era, pitchers almost never used 20 seconds, no matter how tight a spot they were in. Mark Fidrych in his hey-day needed no more than ten seconds.
Instead of permitting pitchers like Hatch to develop habits that are bad for the game, MLB should impose a clock. Ideally, it would be set at 18 seconds, but I’m fine with 20 seconds so the change isn’t too jarring for veteran pitchers.
By how much time would a 20 second clock reduce the length of games? When used experimentally in the minors, such a clock saved an average of 12 minutes.
But this isn’t just about cutting time, it’s also about setting a tempo that fans won’t find tedious and that befits an athletic contest. Baseball needs to do it.