BY KEVIN KERNAN
Thank goodness there was no pitch clock in the WBC. Or back in 1978.
The epic Shohei Ohtani vs. Mike Trout at-bat would not have been the same.
I pulled out my stopwatch and examined the Tuesday night at-bat, Angel vs. Angel, which ended with a swinging strikeout on a 3-2 wipeout slider from Ohtani, absolutely the perfect pitch, giving Japan a magnificent 3-2 win over Team USA to capture the 2023 WBC title.
Those two iconic players would never have arrived at the exact same place with that at-bat because, according to my calculations, there were multiple Ohtani pitch clock violations during the at-bat, which would have changed the momentum of the battle. The camera was not on Trout the entire time, but there also appeared to be a violation by Trout as well; he was not engaged with the pitcher at the eight-second mark.
Thankfully, though, there were no pitch clocks in the WBC.
This was just pure baseball. This was just Nation vs. Nation, mano y mano, with the timekeepers sitting this one out.
Those days are over now, however, and the pitch clock is part of baseball’s rules. Just as I predicted on the day the new shift rules were announced that teams would move the left fielder to short right field on occasion, I predict the pitch clock rules will be tweaked before the season-opening pitch; but it will remain an issue.
Just think back in time to some of the greatest hitter-pitcher matchups, those special moments baseball gifted us.
They will be different now with the pitch clock.
ESPN made their Sunday Night Baseball crew available to media members Wednesday for a delightful baseball conversation to discuss the upcoming season that will begin Thursday, March 30 on ESPN as the reigning World Series Champion Astros host the White Sox at 7 p.m. The first official Sunday Night Baseball broadcast will take place April 2 at 7 p.m., when the Texas Rangers will entertain the defending National League Champion Phillies.
“If we tried to do that 20 or 30 years ago there would have been bench-clearing brawls about trying to quick-pitch somebody from the stretch.”
The talent, as they say in the business, Karl Ravech, David Cone, and Eduardo Perez, were there to answer any and all questions.
David Cone is a thoughtful and honest speaker whom I have known for a long time, going back to his days as a pitcher. He has grown into a tremendous analyst and I think the pitch clock and the rule changes will make him even better, because he thinks things out. I asked him Wednesday how the pitch clock would have impacted him, if there had been such a thing when he pitched, and would it have gotten into his head on July 18, 1999, the day he threw only the 16th perfect game in baseball history.
“A little bit,’’ Cone admitted and then smiled and added: “What I really needed was the bigger bases because there was a night in Atlanta where I missed first base and two base runners scored, so I really needed the bigger bases.
“As far as 1999 goes, yeah I’m interested in that, watching last night’s game, the WBC game, that great at-bat, that gift, Ohtani vs. Trout; we weren’t thinking about a pitch clock then. I’m going to ask the Pitching Ninja (Rob Friedman) to kind of juxtapose like he does and see if there were any potential violations.’’
I then told Cone in my low-tech way, I thought multiple “violations’’ occurred.
“I think everybody can agree that the dead time in baseball has grown over the years and we need to cut out as much of that dead time as we can, that’s what the rules are designed to do,’’ Cone said. “Including the shift rules, which should be right in your wheelhouse, Kevin, in terms of more athleticism and less algorithms so to speak, which Theo Epstein talks about. Back to the nature of the athletic part of the game. But to your point, one of the best at-bats I saw as a child growing up was the Reggie Jackson-Bob Welch at-bat in the World Series. It was, I think, a (six)-minute at-bat that ended up in a strikeout. Reggie Jackson flailing (on the first pitch), landing down on one knee, the drama building of that particular at-bat.”
Shohei Ohtani #16 of Team Japan strikes out Mike Trout #27 of Team USA to defeat Team USA in the World Baseball Classic Championship at loanDepot park on March 21, 2023 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Masterpress - Samurai Japan/SAMURAI JAPAN via Getty Images)
“That’s one thing that I’m interested in watching at the end of games and as we sit here and speak, Kevin, I think there’s still probably going to be some tweaks to these rules,’’ Cone said. “We are going to have meetings about it coming up and I’m not sure whether it’s going to be that the batter gets an extra timeout in that situation, that might be fair. The pitcher can step off the rubber twice, the batter can only step out of the box once. That may need to be looked at, that possibly could be an area that could be tweaked. Maybe around the fringes, the nuances of the rules have a chance to be tweaked before Opening Day.
“One thing I saw in spring training with Max Scherzer, and of course it’s Max Scherzer, he is going to push the system,’’ said Cone, always a heady pitcher himself on the mound. “His first start, with men on base, he was already in the set position before the batter got in the box and tried to quick-pitch the batter before he could even get set. That, to me, has got to be addressed right away. The pitcher should not be in the set position until the batter gets in the box. That’s never been done in the history of the game; if we tried to do that 20 or 30 years ago there would have been bench-clearing brawls about trying to quick-pitch somebody from the stretch. It would not even have been allowed back in the ‘70s or ‘80s. I understand Max Scherzer trying to push the system a little bit; but with men on base, you cannot be ready to throw the ball, already in the set position, before the batter is in the box. That has got to be addressed before the season starts.’’
Each point Cone made was a home run.
I followed up with a mound disengagement rules question and how much tougher that is going to make life for pitchers.
“I really think the guys who will get exposed more are the short relievers, the guys that over the last 10 years or 20 years have kind of been in their own little world,’’ Cone said, perfectly breaking it down. “They can brood around the mound. They’re maximum effort guys, they throw the pitch as hard as they can. They take their time. They have big leg kicks. That’s what I see. I see a leadoff walk, and I don’t want to pick on anybody, but let’s say Kenley Jansen. Leadoff walk, uh-oh, he’s got to speed up. He’s got to change his whole delivery. He doesn’t hold runners on well. Steal second, steal third, nobody out.
Former MLB player David Cone reacts after throwing out the ceremonial first pitch prior to game two of the American League Division Series between the Cleveland Guardians and the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on October 14, 2022 in New York, New York. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
“I see some of that happening later in the game with short relievers,’’ Cone added. “I think starting pitchers are better at adjusting because you get more reps holding runners on and you get more practice at sort of slide-stepping and quickening up your delivery – so I think starting pitchers are probably more likely to adapt a little quicker; but the short relievers are the ones late in the games that (will) feel rushed, and those are the ones, as you said, Kevin, guys can really run on when the game is on the line.’’
Yes the games need to move along faster, but this new pitch clock system has to be tweaked. Here at BallNine we don’t sugarcoat anything, and the baseball people we have talked to all believe the 15 seconds, 20 seconds, eight second engagement mark all have to be tweaked. More time needs to be added to the clock. If not, it is the violations that are going to become the center of attention and not the speeding up of the game.
In spring training it’s all pretty much fun and games. The games don’t mean anything. The players love the game moving along faster. They want to get home. For the first time ever, I’ve been told, coaching staffs are getting out of the ballpark before six. Of course, the players, the coaches, the manager, the front office people, the media are going to love the shorter work day. Who wouldn’t, but there already are danger signs.
I spoke to a scout who in five of his last eight games saw more than 400 pitches thrown. The pitchers may be faster to the plate because of the clock, but they are not throwing the strikes they need to throw. They are not commanding the baseball the way they need to command the baseball. Some of that is the situation. Everybody, it seems, gets to pitch in spring training. I remember a manager commenting to me nearly 20 years ago on why the heck he has so many players in camp. “Twenty of them can’t play at all, they shouldn’t even be here,’’ he said.
Having that many bodies around often is front office eye-wash. They want to make it seem like the organization has more quality players than they really do have.
Come March 30th this all becomes real.
Violations by the pitcher or the hitter will not be laughed off. If games were to end on a called strike three on the hitter because of a violation, the hitter will not go quietly into that good night. As we get closer to the end of spring training, more players are coming out and saying the system is not right and needs to be fixed.
Certainly the TV production game will change and there will be less time for replays; replays will have to be shorter and there will be more “to the point” analysis. Not a lot of fluff, make your point, land the plane, as they say in the business and move on to the next pitch. ESPN will have a small pitch clock on the screen. When I turn on any game now, that is the first thing I look for. It used to be batter vs. pitcher, the count, the outs. Now it’s “how much time is on the clock?’’
And if the camera is panning the crowd, I’m wondering, “Is the batter looking at the pitcher with eight seconds left?’’
It’s human nature. Throw a clock on the screen and we want to look at it, in the same manner in a basketball game when the shot clock is winding down. There are going to be many unintended consequences with the New Rules and Cone, to his credit, addressed many of those situations. Stolen bases should go through the roof. Even the analytics gurus will see the value in the stolen base.
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the WBC was that it showed there is nothing wrong with baseball, if you play with passion and purpose. The game moves along quickly without a clock. The superstars rise to the occasion without a clock. The fans will pack the ballpark to see real baseball without a clock.
When it was Ohtani vs. Trout, no one wanted The Moment to be spoiled by a clock.
The same as it was back in 1978 in the ninth inning of Game 2 of the World Series at Dodger Stadium, when it was Welch vs. Reggie, a showdown with two runners on base that saw Jackson foul off four pitches, driving the count to 3-2, before Welch – the rookie – fired a fastball that Reggie swung through, to give the Dodgers the 4-3 victory over the Yankees; and Reggie then stormed off in frustration.
All that was accomplished without a clock.
And a 14-year old David Cone enjoyed every second.