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On pitch clocks, baseball, and pace

Colorado Rockies news and links for Wednesday, January 19th, 2022

I don’t know about you, but this layoff allows for a lot of different baseball stuff to pop up in my head, so let’s talk about something I’ve been thinking about for a while. It’s something I have a strong opinion on. Let’s talk about the concept of a pitch clock.

Pitch clocks are nothing new, of course. The Minor Leagues have been using them, college baseball uses them, and they seem to be relatively popular among executives and people within the game; they are hailed as the definitive method for shaving dead time and shortening games. Pitch clocks are effective in that regard, too: they saved an average of roughly 20 minutes per game according to the data. Games taking too long is one of the major complaints from people regarding the product Major League Baseball puts out there these days (the average 9-inning game took 3:11 to end in 2021, an all-time record), so the pitch clock seems like an ideal solution. Force pitchers to operate at the pace the clock dictates, success, profit. At least, that’s the plan, and pitch clocks seem inevitable at the Major League level. But I’m here to argue against the pitch clock, to argue why baseball should never have a clock. Let’s get started.

The length of games

Now, baseball games do take a long time, probably a bit longer than they should. This is undeniable, based on the raw data. Below you have a chart that shows the ever-rising length of MLB games, starting from 1950 and ending this past season:

As you’ll notice, however, this isn’t a linear rise. The tendency is clear, but there are some valleys here. The first one happens between 1965-1975, and it isn’t hard to see why: that period is one of the lowest run-scoring environments in big league history. The ascent that takes place after that is significant, and it speeds up in the 90s, peaking at 2:57 in 2000. What was happening across Major League Baseball around the turn of the millenium, a trend that started in the late 80s and sped up in the mid-90s? Oh, right, the peak of the steroid era (aka incredibly high amounts of runs being scored) and the increasing size and importance of the bullpen. More pitchers per game, more runs per game -kinda hard not to have games that take longer, right? The time of game dipped ever so slightly in the late 2000s (as run scoring starts to come back to earth) before skyrocketing again in the mid-2010s, this time to unprecedented levels and with no end in sight. What happened in the mid-2010s? Oh, right, the death of the starting pitcher as baseball knew it, reliever usage going through the roof and getting higher by the year, and plate appearances taking longer (closing in on 4 pitches per PA in recent years) as hitters are taught to either swing hard or not swing at all.

What I’m saying is this: it’s not a coincidence whatsoever that baseball games have gotten slower every time the importance of the bullpen has risen. Implementing a pitch clock to “solve” this is like putting a small, dirty bandage over a shotgun wound; it’s not tackling the root cause of the issue and it’ll probably only make things worse. Reduce the number of pitchers per game (shrink bullpens, control the shuffling of relievers between AAA and MLB, deaden the ball, etc) and watch the game times start to go back down under 3 hours again. Also, MLB, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. You clearly want more runs to be scored (otherwise, why juice the ball?), but you also want shorter games. Those things generally don’t go together, so pick a street.

The pace of the game

One of the most beautiful and unique things about baseball is the fact that it’s naturally designed to have no clock and work at a slower pace, even more so in today’s world, when every form of entertainment seems to be intent on offering the “entertained” as much stimulation as possible. The game of baseball operates at the pace the human beings playing it want it to operate, and that makes it a totally different sport than almost anything else out there. The relaxed, slow pace of the game allows you to have a conversation with people while watching, to do something else while watching, to breathe and cut out all the tension around you for a bit, as your focus doesn’t have to be constant in the fear of missing something vital if you don’t want to.

Baseball operates in a brilliant way, really. The time between pitches builds tension, and the pitcher’s windup, the crack of the bat, the sound of a baseball hitting the leather glove, the players running the bases and maneuvering around the diamond, all of that releases said tension. It truly is a representation of breathing, of the human heartbeat itself: you inhale slowly but surely, and then exhale with ease. The concept of a pitch clock ruins all that by putting a hard timer on an activity that simply doesn’t need it. Sometimes in baseball, the phase of tension building naturally takes a bit longer (with runners on base, in the late innings, etc), and that’s normal, human, and perfectly fine. The problem here isn’t truly the time in between pitches (some pitchers, especially relievers and Yu Darvish, do take way too long to get rid of the ball, though, but it is what it is), but rather the time in between action.

Strikeouts do matter

“Strikeouts don’t matter” is a sure way to identify a sabermetrically inclined baseball fan. And while yes, strikeouts don’t matter that much when talking about or analyzing a player’s productivity, they do matter when it comes to the product on the field. Remember what I said earlier about the crack of the bat and the ensuing series of actions resembling an exhale? That’s what’s missing in the game right now. A strikeout is static, and while it is very interesting to think about pitch sequencing, location and tunneling, that’s going in depth, and the die-hards (like you and me) probably already do that. The average fan who simply wants to relax, enjoy a ballgame and move on with his day won’t do that quite as much, and that person (of which there are millions upon millions) is getting less things to enjoy with the rising strikeout rates.

We are living in (on average) the most athletically gifted generation of ballplayers ever, yet stolen base attempts are the lowest they’ve been in about 60 years and assists and double plays are at all-time lows. Range Factor per 9 innings (RF/9) is a stat that measures how many plays a defense is involved in on average over the course of 9 innings. In 2021, the league average RF/9 was 18.1, tied for the all-time (not counting 2020) low with 2019. In 2010, it was 19.9. In 1990, it was 21.3. In 1950, it was 23.3. We have a ton of exciting athletes in the field and they don’t even get a chance to move a lot of the time. Wouldn’t you like to see Francisco Lindor get a few more chances to field a ground ball per game? Wouldn’t you like to see Luis Robert get a few more line drives and fly balls to snag every day? I sure would.

Don’t make baseball pragmatic, please

This is really the main point I’m trying to make here. A big part of baseball’s appeal is how much it lends itself to accepting the goofiness and imperfection of human nature: human umpires and their mistakes, the ever-changing strike zone, the many different ways to get on base, the unique windups pitchers can have, even something as seemingly irrelevant as the many different ways players can wear their uniforms. Baseball naturally allows for human personality and charm to flash through (despite a lot of people’s attempts to negate it from a young age), and the lack of a clock is one of the main examples of this.

The great George Carlin illustrated it best in this classic bit, where he compares baseball and football. Carlin describes baseball as a “19th century pastoral game” and football as a “20th century technological struggle”. He makes note of how baseball closely resembles a kid’s game: it’s played in a park, it has no clock or time limit, it’s not played when the weather is poor, it begins in the spring, the vibe in the stands is very much relaxed and without a lot of unpleasantness, the goal is to be safe at home, etc. He juxtaposes that with football: played in a gridiron, rigidly timed, played in any sort of weather, beginning in the fall, lots of aggressive emotions in the crowd, and with its goals and verbiage closely resembling war itself (endzone, enemy territory, field general, shotgun, blitz, defensive line, ground attack, etc).

The picture he painted, and the one I’m trying to paint here, is simple: baseball is a wonderful, child-like, and very human sport that lacks pragmatism, and we should keep it that way. Adding a pitch clock would only be the first step towards making baseball just like most other sports and forms of entertainment: a rigid, inhumane, robotic experience. Hopefully it never actually happens. The issue isn’t the game itself, it’s a) how the game has been altered as a result of MLB teams’ endless and ruthless pursuit of maximum efficiency, and b) how the game has been taken away from kids in many different communities and almost turned into a bourgeoisie form of entertainment. But that’s a topic for another time.

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JAWS and the 2022 Hall of Fame Ballot: Tim Lincecum | Fangraphs

Putting this here so I can ask you guys who’ve been Rockies fans for a lot longer than me what your memories of Lincecum are like. Was he one of those guys who made you go “oh, no..” when he had a start scheduled against the Rox?

Playing with the Playoffs | Baseball Prospectus ($)

Because there’s greed everywhere, an expanded postseason seems inevitable, with 12 teams looking like the likely scenario for me. How would you guys put together a 12-team postseason? I’d probably give the top two division winners byes, the third division champ plays the 6th seed, and the 4th seed plays the 5th seed in a best-of-three Wild Card series. The highest-seeded winner plays the 2nd seed, the lowest-seeded winner plays the 1st seed in the LDS, and the rest is normal.

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