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Mudville: July 19, 2024 4:45 pm PDT

No More Human Rain Delays

The newly introduced pitch clock in MLB seems to be the topic du jour, with the Padres’ Manny Machado being the very first major league player (in spring training 2023) to violate the number of seconds he had to get in the batter’s box and be ready to hit. You can take that little factoid to the baseball trivia bank with you; because it doesn’t seem like the pitch clock will be going away any time soon.

The first spring training games this season have mostly clocked in at about two and half hours each, and that was the goal of introducing the pitch clock – make the games both quicker and shorter.

We’ve discussed the pitch clock at length several times already in BallNine’s Up N’ In; and what was found in the independent and minor league trials of the clock was that, on average, it shaved roughly 20 minutes off the length of a baseball game.

And that’s a lot of time.

Till now, baseball was the only major league team sport that was untimed in any fashion, though technically umpires have always had the discretion to penalize players for taking too long to get ready to pitch or hit.

Other attempts have been made to shorten games, such as adding the phantom runner in extra innings (“the Manfred Man”); but no actual clock had been introduced. And it does change the game.

The main driver for introducing the pitch clock, as discussed in most baseball circles, was to shorten games in order to appeal to the “younger generation of fans,” who allegedly do not have the patience to sit through a three-to-four-hour, nine-inning game.

But there’s another, perhaps more insidious, mechanism at work here: part of the goal undoubtedly was to fit baseball games into shorter, more predictable television time slots. That’s not to say football and basketball and hockey and soccer games, which were always timed, never run over their planned tv time slot (due to overtimes and such); but they tend to be more predictable in terms of length than baseball games.

Think about it. If you’re MLB or even a local MLB team, and you work out a tv deal for your games, unless you own the network on which the games are being broadcast, how long the time slot they require impacts the deal for both team ownership and the network – and both in terms of cost and revenue. Some modicum of predictability goes a long way in trying to work out, or even sustain, such a deal.

Pitch clock on the Green Monster South

View of the pitch clock during the first inning of a Grapefruit League spring training game against the Tampa Bay Rays on February 26, 2023 at JetBlue Park at Fenway South in Fort Myers, Florida. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)

We’re not hearing a lot of public discussion of this aspect of pitch clocks; but it’s somewhere in the mix – of that you can be certain.

But there’s another aspect of the pitch clock about which we’re only starting to hear discussion; and that’s the impact it has on individual players’ approaches to the game, game management, lineup decisions, and ultimately, roster decisions.

There have always been players who took longer than others between pitches to get ready to hit – and to get set in the batters’ box. Mike Hargrove (“the human rain delay”) and Nomar Garciaparra famously each took so long they would have been social media memes in this day and age.

Nomar Garciaparra fiddling with his batting gloves

(Getty)

And then we had the pitchers who just absolutely had to take a walk around the mound between each batter; and in some cases, step off the rubber for what seemed like eons between each pitch.

Steve Trachsel was the poster child for extra-long games in his day. When Trachsel started a game, it was almost bound to take over three hours just due to his pitching style and the delays between pitches and hitters.

“I always hated facing him,” Cliff Floyd said of Trachsel. “He takes too damn long.”

The pitching version of “the human rain delay,” Trachsel’s games got longer as his career progressed.

“Games started getting longer for some reason. Going back and thinking about them, the games definitely felt like they were moving really quickly, at least in my head,” said Trachsel at one point. “But there was probably a good five-year period where my infielders probably thought it was painful for them. I know it was painful for some umpires as well. There would be comments made by them beforehand, especially the guys behind the plate. ‘Oh God, I’ve got Trachsel’s game.’”

Trachsel’s two slowest years were 1998, in which the average time of his starts was three hours and 11 minutes,19 minutes longer than league average (kind of makes you think, doesn’t it, with the pitch clock attempting to save about 20 minutes per game); and 2002, when his three hours and 10 minutes per game average was 14 minutes longer than that of the rest of the league (Trachsel quotes and data courtesy of https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/steve-trachsel/).

Steve Trachsel in his windup

Starting pitcher Steve Trachsel #18 of the Baltimore Orioles delivers a pitch during his game against the Boston Red Sox during a Spring Training game on March 11, 2007 at City Of Palm Park in Ft Myers, Florida. Trachsel went gave up six hits and two runs over three innings and recorded the win 5-3. (Photo by Carlo Allegri/Getty Images)

But, of course, Hargrove, Garciaparra, and Trachsel all became notorious for their lengthy in-game habits because they were the exception, rather than the rule.

And we can all think of ways that average game length could have been sped up more organically than with an actual “shot clock” for hitters and pitchers.

Yet here we are, with the pitch clock in action, and it’s worth asking how it’ll affect the game beyond simply shortening it.

Which takes us back to the question of the impact it will have on individual players’ approaches to the game, game management, lineup decisions, and ultimately, roster decisions.

Baseball insiders and journalists are already noting the clock is going to impact hitters more than pitchers, and that seems likely. A tied, bases loaded spring training game has already ended by an umpire calling out the final batter for a pitch clock violation (also called “delay of game”). Now, upon replay, whether he actually violated the clock is debatable – and umpires will have to work with MLB to determine what is and what is not an actual clock violation – but the fact remains that no one wants a regular season game, or especially a postseason game, to end in this fashion.

So there’s definitely an aspect to all this of “everyone’s going to have to work together” to figure out how the clock rules are actually going to be implemented.

But even as clock rule nuances are worked out, players who’ve never experienced the clock (meaning, they most likely haven’t come up to the majors just this season or last) will have to adjust their habits and timing to fit the clock. For some, that means speeding up their pitching or hitting routine; but for all, that will most likely entail speeding up their mental routine.

Players (and some managers and coaches) have already begun saying the clock has its advantages. Games are more efficient, defenses are staying more on their toes, and pitchers aren’t getting distracted by lengthy hitter antics; but even more than any of this, there’s less time to overthink either on the mound or in the batters’ box.

Hitters are being forced to just react to pitches a little bit more, and as HOF pitcher Jim Kaat has always been fond of saying, “you think long, you think wrong.”

Pitchers are now in a position to do something resembling quick pitching hitters – except it’s no longer a trick. If you’re Max Scherzer and you’re a fast pitcher to begin with, just imagine what you can do with the batter being pressured by a clock to respond.

Scherzer has already come out publicly saying he likes the pitch clock and intends to fully use it to his advantage. You can imagine scores of other major league pitchers following suit.

Max Scherzer in his windup

New York Mets pitcher Max Scherzer pitches during a spring training workout, in Port St. Lucie, Florida, on February 17, 2023. (Photo by Alejandra Villa Loarca/Newsday RM via Getty Images)

In terms of game management and lineups, here’s where the clock will have impacts on game strategy.

In what sequence do you use your bullpen? If your closer is a fast pitcher, at what point in the game is it best to use him – always at the end? Probably not. If he’s not particularly fast, and will tend to make pitches just in time to not violate the clock, when is it best to incorporate that pitching pace?

And the same questions will arise for your other relievers.

How do you construct your lineup? If tie games continue to sometimes end on pitch clock violations the way we’ve already seen this spring, do you leave a fast hitter on the bench for the end of the game – just in case? Who hits at the top of the lineup, and who hits at the bottom – and how much is their reaction time and quick, solid decision making in the box a factor in that decision?

Ultimately, at least initially, clock impacts may even go beyond player approaches, game strategy, and lineup decisions all the way to roster decisions.

(Getty)

Some players may simply not do well when being timed. Not everyone reacts to time pressure the same way. We’ve seen very few clock violations so far this spring; but my guess is the players whose batting averages suddenly drop this season despite the new zero-shift rule may not be handling the clock very well, and you can bet your baseball bingo cards those players will be watched very closely by their general managers – as well as the general managers around the league.

It’s difficult to know if any actual roster decisions will be made based on individual pitcher/hitter pitch clock reactions – a lot of pitch clock minor league data would be needed to even project that kind of thing. And yet, it doesn’t seem completely out of the realm.

Fan reaction early on this spring to the idea of the pitch clock seems to be mostly based on like or dislike of previous rules put in place to speed up or homogenize the game; and not based on having watched multiple minor league games in previous seasons with the pitch clock already in use. Notionally, the clock seems like such a far deviation from the traditional game of baseball that immediately dismissing the clock isn’t a surprising reaction.

But going to the universal DH seemed to follow a particular trajectory with fans: initially attracting a lot of dismissal and frustration, but seemingly now accepted by most as just part of MLB. All sports leagues change their rules over time. Every sport is a living, breathing activity that evolves with the humans who play it and who legislate it.

The question about the pitch clock is whether it will go the universal DH route, or be eliminated in either short or long order. But at least for 2023, it’s here to stay – so, for now, MLB gentlemen, start your engines.

BallNine's fearless editor. Sports addict who's lived on both coasts (though loyal to her hometown New York City teams). Writer of many articles on education. Speaker of little bits of many languages.

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