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How I learned to stop worrying and love the pitch clock

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It may be an unpopular opinion, but a pitch clock is needed for a reason

Confess your unpopular opinion: I’m in favor of pitch clocks.

In taking this stance, I’m probably in the minority. Major League Baseball’s push to speed up the game has met with resistance from the Players’ union as well as commentators like Drew Creasman and Ryan Fazio, who predict dire consequences. They make good points when arguing against the implementation of a pitch clock. Here are the basics:

  • The games haven’t gotten that much longer (3 hours, 5 minutes, 45 seconds in 2017), and shaving 10 or 15 minutes off a game isn’t significant enough to risk altering the fundamentals of the game.
  • Implementation of a pitch clock without player consensus undercuts their authority in the process and reduces buy-in.
  • There’s no evidence that speeding up the game would draw more “casual” viewers.
  • This change has the potential to affect the “integrity of the game.”

Let’s call this the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” stance. I get where they’re coming from. Adding a pitch clock has the potential to be a high-risk, low-reward scenario.

That said, I tend to agree with Grant Brisbee who makes his case in “The pitch clock will bring more chaos to MLB than expected, and I’m here for it.” Grant has spent some serious time contemplating pace-of-play issues, and if you haven’t read his related piece “Why baseball games are so damned long,” you should.

His argument comes down to this:

A pitch clock qualifies as a radically different thing. The routines of pitchers and hitters will be altered. The years of embedded knowledge on how to hold runners will be altered. Hitters and pitchers will search for cracks in the foundations, ways to sneak around the new rules, or ways to bug the players who are too busy looking for ways to sneak around the new rules. There will be pitchers who discover that pitching at an aggressive pace suits them much better, and there will be pitchers who discover that they really, really need those extra few seconds of composure. This goes for the hitters, too, with some of them realizing they’re actually benefiting from a change in routine, with others struggling to adapt.

You know, chaos.

Grant, I’m with you. Actually, I’d like to build on your “chaos theory.”

I’d argue that baseball’s survival is tied to adopting a pitch clock because of demographic and cultural changes. Here’s the short version: Baseball fans are an aging group, and for the game to remain viable as a mainstream sport, it must attract younger, more diverse fans with new expectations. Research shows that baseball, as it’s currently played, isn’t drawing new fans. Mound visits don’t make enticing baseball, and something has to change along with the world.

Demographic and cultural changes

If you love watching baseball, you’re part of a declining older, whiter population. That’s a bad trend in a general population that is trending younger and more diverse. Consider these numbers:

Favorite sports to watch

  • Football: 38%
  • Baseball: 12%
  • Basketball: 10%
  • Soccer: 9%
  • Hockey: 5%
  • Auto racing: 5%

Football is easily the most popular with its total viewership roughly equaling that of the other sports combined.

Moreover, this trend is happening in the face of more children playing baseball and then abandoning the sport. Here’s how MarketWatch puts it:

Baseball has the oldest viewers of the top major sports, with 50% of its audience 55 or older (up from 41% a decade ago), according to Nielsen ratings. The average age of baseball viewers is 53, compared with 47 for the NFL and 37 for the NBA, according to the ratings. And fewer young people are playing the sport: The number of people between the ages of 7 and 17 playing baseball in the U.S. decreased by 41% from 9 million in 2002 to 5.3 million in 2013.

This isn’t promising for baseball’s future. Remember: Youth involvement in sports is a leading indicator of whether kids will become life-long fans. (As it turns out, tennis is grappling with similar issues.)

Consider this example to illustrate the data. In the Washington Post, Marc Fisher writes about a father who loves baseball and has tried very hard to get his 15-year-old son to love the game. It’s not working.

Austin recognizes that “hitting a 90-mile-an-hour ball is the hardest thing to do in sports.” He still admires baseball: “There’s nothing better than a sick double play on the Top 10” on ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” he says. But with Derek Jeter having retired, there’s not a single active baseball player on his list of sports favorites. Austin had had it with the imbalance in baseball between anticipation and action.

“Most of the time, I was in center field, wondering, ‘When is the ball going to get to me?’ ” he says. “Baseball players are thinking ahead all the time, always thinking of the possibilities — ‘If I can’t get it to second, do I throw to first?’ Baseball is a bunch of thinking, and I live a different lifestyle than baseball. In basketball and football, you live in the moment. You got to be quick. Everything I do, I do with urgency [emphasis added].”

That is, Austin respects the skill of baseball, but it doesn’t speak to him emotionally because it doesn’t engage his need for “urgency.” Given that he is one example of a significant decline in baseball interest, bringing Austin back is a pressing matter.

Commissioner Rob Manfred understands that a lot is riding on engaging young people and adds this key point: “But the pervasive impact of new technologies on how children play and the acceleration of the pace of modern life have conspired against sports in general and baseball in particular.” In other words, baseball as we’ve experienced it hasn’t kept up with the times. It’s not about new scoreboards or fancy ballparks. It’s about how the game works.

I suspect Grant Brisbee would argue that a bit of chaos would add to the missing sense of urgency. Frankly, I’m eager to see what happens with a faster pace of play.

This first struck me when watching pitching coach Steve Foster in the Rockies’ 2018 Caravan. He joked that he would have to start training to make timely mound visits, and everyone laughed, but after that, I thought, “Okay, I’m curious. I want to see how professionals handle this kind of change.”

It’s one of the reasons I relish Chris Rusin’s “quick pitches.” They’re a sign that something’s up, a bit of chaos if you will. Think about his pitching duels with Justin Turner. That’s exciting, and it brings more “urgency” to the game. I’m totally here for it.

And you know what? I think baseball can handle it because professional athletes don’t become professional athletes if they can’t manage challenges and adapt to change. Grant, I’m with you: Bring the chaos.

The Difference Between Clocks and Pacing

There’s also a narrative benefit to chaos. Ultimately, baseball tells the story of two teams who play a game to determine which team is the best on that day. The season is built on these mini-narratives, and it climaxes in the playoffs and the World Series. For me, speeding up the pace of place is less about a time clock and more about the perception of time.

Stories can be long—the Game of Thrones novels are ridiculously long—but the story moves and engages the reader, so length is less important. In fact, you want a good story to continue, not stop because the way in which you’re experiencing time is different.

That is, I would argue, what Manfred is getting at. Baseball fans love to measure, quantify, and argue variables. But the purpose of a pitch clock is not to quantify time; rather, it’s to speed up the story that the game is telling. Nothing interrupts a good narrative and guts tension like the catcher going to the mound after every pitch to map out strategy. That may interest long-time fans, but the 8-year-old staying up to watch the game after bedtime has different concerns, and baseball has to take those concerns seriously because that 8-year-old is the future of the sport.

Look, in the HBO series of Game of Thrones when Daenerys and her dragons show up to save Jon Snow and his crew from the Night King, they don’t interrupt the fight for brief strategy sessions. They just go because they don’t have time, and to do otherwise would be to stop the story. Besides, they know each other, so part of the tension emerges from seeing just how well each is able to predict what the other will do. (Like, say, a baseball team?) And when the action slows down, then it’s meaningful in terms of the story as opposed to another interruption that causes the viewer to ask, “Is this ever going to end?”

I adore a good story, and I love baseball. And you know what? I think baseball can handle a pitch clock. The best institutions evolve; otherwise, they either crumble or get left behind as the world around them changes. That isn’t what I want for baseball. I want a dynamic game that my niece can enjoy, and that means change because her SnapChat-driven world doesn’t have time.

Start the clock.

★ ★ ★

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly characterized Austin, the boy who doesn’t love baseball, as the son of Washington Post journalist Marc Fisher. Austin is in fact the son of the subject of the Post article cited, Rob Albericci.