Last Friday, the MLB pace of play committee announced some initiatives aimed at speeding up the pace of MLB games. The new rules reduce downtime after commercial breaks, reduce delays due to instant replay challenges, and force batters to keep one foot in the box except in specific circumstances. The pitching and hitting-related rules will not be enforced through in-game penalties, such as penalty balls or strikes, but rather through fines for violators beginning in May.

These changes may not be the final measures in the battle to speed up MLB games, though. During last year’s Arizona Fall League, more intrusive measures were tested, such as use of a pitch clock, no-pitch intentional walks, and limits on the length of breaks between innings that carried in-game penalties. The new regulations appear to have worked, as game lengths dropped compared to 2013 AFL games. Inspired by the apparent success of pace of play rules in the AFL, these rules will take effect in AA and AAA games in 2015.

While the length of games in the AFL have been used to measure the success of the new rules, pace-of-play doesn’t necessarily go hand-in-hand with game length. When pundits and writers are discussing pace of play, they’re usually specifically referring to the time between important events. The theory is that fans would not be bothered by long game length so much if the interesting events can be compressed together. This is the issue MLB should aim to address with any time-related rule changes.

One professional baseball league already experimented with pace-of-play rules and their findings could signal help is on the way for fans who take issue with lulls in the action during games. In the independent Atlantic League, changes similar to those implemented in the AFL have already been implemented. Beginning last August, the Atlantic League started enforcing existing rules, like the 12-second pitching rule, more strictly and put limits on time outs, among other rule changes. The Atlantic League found these rules reduced the length of games by nearly ten minutes in the thirty days after implementing the changes. Writing about the Atlantic League changes for Sports on Earth, Joe DeLessio found that the changes also appeared to quicken the pace at which the games were played. Players even appeared to adjust to the new rules and make an effort to keep the games moving by hustling on and off the field. Dialogue between MLB and the Atlantic League could inform some of the decisions MLB makes in regard to new rules affecting pace-of-play.

Any change to the rules brings up several important questions, though, as rule changes could be ineffective, cause confusion or have unintended consequences. Take recent efforts to enforce the strike zone with greater accuracy: while cracking down on what constitutes the strike zone was not technically a change to baseball rules, it did add inches to the effective strike zone. Pitch f/x data made it clear that umpires were not consistently enforcing the strike zone to the bottom of the kneecap, as stated in the rules. As outlined by Grantland’s Ben Lindbergh (with some help from research by Jon Roegele) offense has declined significantly since umpires started calling the full zone. The recent decline in offense has even led new commissioner Rob Manfred to comment that he would consider taking action to address the lack of offense such as limits on extreme defensive shifts.

In this series, I’ll look at proposed rule changes under consideration by the pace of play committee as well as other common suggestions for rule changes supported by pundits and fans, and attempt to answer key questions about each change. The important questions are: can all of these proposed rules be implemented effectively and will they lead to exploitation or unintended consequences for teams?


The Pitch Clock

Baseball is supposed to be the one major American sport where clocks don’t matter: games take as long as they need until a winner emerges. This could all change if MLB implements a pitch clock rule which was used in a trial in one park in the Arizona Fall League last October and slated for use in Double-A and Triple-A in 2015. In the AFL, the pitch clock gave pitchers 20 seconds to commit to pitching the ball or throwing a pickoff attempt. Clocks were clearly displayed in multiple locations: center field, in both dugouts, and behind the plate. They were operated by a party independent of the umpire crew, so starting and resetting the clock did not tack-on an additional responsibility for umpires. Umpires were responsible for enforcing the ruling when pitch clock rules were violated, though.

In the AFL, the clock started the moment the pitcher received the ball in the dirt circle around the pitching rubber and did not stop until the pitcher attempted a pickoff or delivered the ball to the plate. The caveat for the pitch clock is that the pitcher can satisfy the clock by coming to a set position but he must then deliver the ball to the batter or make a pick-off attempt. If the pitcher steps off, the clock continues to run (as seen in the above video in which Mark Appel is penalized after stepping off). Violating the pitching clock resulted in a ball called on the pitcher. Major League Baseball has not announced what lengths it is considering using for the pitch clock in major league games, yet.

What is the intended effect of the rule? Is there already a rule affecting this area of baseball?

Reducing the time between pitches should speed up the pace of play during a game and reduce the overall time it takes to finish a game, killing two birds with one throw. By reducing the time between pitchers, Major League Baseball may be trying to keep fans from losing interest during the long stretches some pitchers take between delivering pitches.

Funnily enough, there is already a rule in Major League Baseball addressing this exact topic. Rule 8.04, the “12-second rule”, states:

When the bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives the ball. Each time the pitcher delays the game by violating this rule, the umpire shall call “Ball.” The 12-second timing starts when the pitcher is in possession of the ball and the batter is in the box, alert to the pitcher. The timing stops when the pitcher releases the ball.”

Ideally, violations of this rule would be called by the 2nd base umpire who carries a stopwatch. The 12-second rule rule only applies to pitchers when the bases are unoccupied, though, so it does not address any other scenario. The pitch clocks in the AFL were universal, affecting the pitcher when the bases were empty or occupied, so it appears to overrule the seldom enforced 12-second rule.

Mark Buehrle: one of the few starting pitchers a clock might not affect. Source: Wikipedia.org


Would this rule actually achieve its goal?

There are a number of reasons why the 12-second rule was DOA. For one, checking a stopwatch could pull an umpire’s focus away from watching actions on the field. Part of the 2nd base umpire’s assigned duties is to communicate with the other umpires in the field and assign which umpire should move to the outfield to cover flyballs. The stopwatch seems like a distraction in this respect, in that the umpire needs to be ready to read the ball off the bat. The stopwatch, once used, would also need to be used during every pitch and in every situation where applicable to avoid any bias toward one team. That’s an entirely new element of the game to add to an umpire’s responsibilities. Using a pitch clock seems more effective toward achieving the goal of regulating the pitcher’s delivery pace since the clock is not operated by umpires and the locations make them easy to see by anyone on the field.

Fangraphs.com and BaseballProspectus.com actually track a Pace stat, which is the number of seconds it takes a pitcher to deliver a pitch. According to Pace, there appears to be a significant difference between the fastest and slowest pitchers in the game. According to Fangraphs’ version, David Price averaged 26.6 seconds per pitch, slowest among all qualified starters in 2014, while Mark Buehrle averaged just 17.7, fastest among all starters in the sample. This means Buehrle spent around 4 minutes 24 seconds pitching per inning, based on the average number of pitches per inning, while Price clocked in at 6 minutes 40 seconds (both averaged very close to 15 pitchers per inning). There is no advanced stat for eyeball hours yet, but I’d be curious to find out how often the slow-pace pitchers like Price cause fans to check their phones, change the the channel, or engage in any activity that causes their eyes to wander away from watching a game in progress. There appears to be a real application for this rule if it is successful since it would force pitchers like Price to speed up their pace and possibly keep fans more engaged between pitches.

These appear to be just two pitchers on opposite ends of the spectrum but even a 20-second pitch clock would affect a significant amount of starting pitchers. In 2014, 79 out of 88 qualified starters averaged more than 20 seconds between pitches, according to the Fangraphs version of the stat.

Here we see the pitch clock in its natural habitat. Source: MLB.com


Is this rule contradictory, unnecessary, or over-reaching? Would it cause confusion?

Some pitchers don’t appear to appreciate the idea behind this rule. Jon Lester, citing the lack of clock in baseball as part of the beauty of the sport and contributing to the “cat-and-mouse” game pitchers and hitters play, already spoke out strongly against a pitch clock while speaking to ESPN Chicago. It’s easy to understand the frustration someone like Lester might have with this rule. He’s spent most of his life developing the pace and approach he brings to each pitch but this rule would force him to make in-game adjustments in addition to the adjustments to warm-up pitches he will soon need to make..

In an interview with the Effectively Wild podcast, former major league pitcher Dirk Hayhurst expressed different opinions. Hayhurst explained that Lester’s very good stuff makes him an effective pitcher, not the pace of his pitching. In addition, Hayhurst opined that any changes to the pitcher-batter relationship probably help the pitcher. “The pitcher who moves fast and throws strikes usually gets better results than the guy who doesn’t,” according to Hayhurst. Hayhurst explained the batter’s only chance to change his relationship to the pitcher and the established strike zone is to step out of the box hoping the strike zone will “reset” to something more in his favor (since the umpire’s perception determines the strike zone and it is not static). The pitch clock, accompanied by a rule preventing a batter from stepping out after a ball or strike, might actually allow the pitcher to maintain control over a favorable strike zone. Hayhurst also encouraged pitchers to figure out how to exploit the rule to their gain rather than allowing the rule to exploit them.

In terms of confusion, this rule seems simple on the surface: pitch the ball before the clock runs out, but there are other subtleties at play. The rule doesn’t operate like a basketball shot clock, for example. In the video of Mark Appel, when he comes set, the clock continues to count down. When he steps off the rubber, the clock continues to count down and eventually he is penalized. If he had thrown home or attempted a pick-off after coming set, the clock would have reset (the clock appears to be reset incorrectly in the video). In this video, Appel, the broadcast team, and possibly the clock operator appear to be confused as to what should happen next. The umpire gets the call right, though, and Appel is charged with a ball.

Once fans catch on to the pitch clock, it’s possible home team fans will treat it like a shot clock. In basketball, fans often intentionally count down the clock with the wrong timing in an attempt to disrupt the visiting team. This may be slightly distracting to pitchers but, if the pitch clock leads to more fan involvement while increasing the pace-of-play, isn’t that a win-win to the pace-of-play committee?

On a less important note, a common metaphor among fans of advanced stats and strategies is that the outs in a game serve as baseball’s “clock”. Just like an offense in football tries to horde the ball for as much of the clock as possible, baseball teams should try to maximize the amount of batters they send to the play with the limited amount of outs they are afforded. A physical clock in baseball might confuse new fans who encounter that metaphor since suddenly there would be a clock physically present in the game.

What are possible unintended consequences of this rule? Could it be exploited or circumvented? Does it unfairly punish or reward certain players? What unintended consequences might occur?

The complementary rule that would likely be introduced with any sort of pitch clock requires the batter to keep one foot in the box unless a foul ball, steal attempt, or timeout occurs. This would make it difficult for batters to find a way to exploit the pitch clock to their advantage and shifts some of the pace-of-play burden to the batter. The important question is if base-runners could find ways to disrupt the pitcher by trying to draw their attention as the clock expires. As mentioned earlier, once the pitcher comes set, they do not have to worry about the clock so long as they attempt a pickoff or throw home. Could a base-runner try lure a pitcher into stepping off, though, and try to help his teammate in the batting box?

Mound visits or other time-outs are also a factor to consider with a pitch clock, since managers or catchers could try to give extra rest to their pitcher or break up tense situations. It appears that MLB is prepared to implement rules addressing these areas, though, such as rules about time-outs during a game which would include mound visits, so I’ll address them in a future post. The issue of feigning injury to slow down the pace of a game or create an avenue for communication between the bench and the mound is a valid concern, though. For example, could a pitcher fake elbow or shoulder soreness in a late game situation in order to break up the tension or ask for advice from a pitching coach who is visiting to check on the “health” of the pitcher?

On the issue of health, there needs to be some consideration for the increased physical stress a pitching clock could cause on a pitcher. Does the down-time between pitches help hard throwing pitchers recover and rest their arm and shoulder, if only for a few moments? On Effectively Wild, Hayhurst pointed out that the real rest comes between innings, so it’s in the pitcher’s best interests to work quickly through the inning so he can sit down and recover in the dugout. There will still be some physical adjustment for pitchers who currently rest for longer time between pitches than their peers, though. In a sample of 503 pitchers who threw more than 100 innings between 2011-2014, there isn’t a significant correlation between fastball velocity and PACE (.295) but every pitcher’s physique is different so I’ll leave it to another study to see if PACE and rest between pitches is significant enough to consider.

It’s also hard to judge how the clock will affect tense situations where pitchers and catchers may run through a few sets of signs before settling on their plan for a pitch. If MLB also implements timeout restrictions, will this lead to a new set of hand signals pitchers and catchers will communicate with, similar to the way pitchers and infielders coordinate pickoff moves?

There is also the fan reaction to the pitch clock affecting events during the game to consider. There is a significant amount of vitriol aimed at the intentional walk, since it takes the bat out of the hands of a hitter. Could a pitcher just let the clock run out four consecutive times to issue an intentional walk under this rule? They would receive 80 seconds of rest, save themselves the potential disaster of accidentally throwing a wild pitch with a runner-on and, at worst, they would only need to endure the boos of thousands of fans. The no-pitch intentional walk rule, another proposal to be addressed in a later post, would eliminate this scenario but it’s worth bringing up if intentional walks are not affected by new rule changes. This doesn’t address how will fans will respond the first time pitch clock changes the course of a game. Will fans be upset that the clock takes the ball out of the pitcher’s hand or will the blame fall solely on the pitcher for failing to meet the clock?

Final Thoughts and Conclusions

John Schuerholz, president of the Atlanta Braves, is leading the committee for pace of play changes and sent the memo to alert minor league clubs that the clock would be used in 2015. Schuerholz appears to hold quite a bit of clout around Major League Baseball as he already led the committee that recommended the original instant replay rules as well as that committee that recommend the changes to the amateur draft that began in 2012. If Schuerholz supports the pitch clock, I suspect owners and MLB executives will support it and a pitch clock is inevitable. The fact that the pitch clock is coming to minor league games in 2015 further supports the idea that this rule will make its way to MLB parks. While some pitchers have expressed opposition to the clock, I can imagine a scenario where position players might support the clock to even the in-game pace-of-play burden placed on hitters due to the newly announced batting box rules. If a divide occurred between pitchers and hitters over the clock, it could weaken their negotiating platform with the owners’ representatives on the pace of play committee, further clearing room for the clock.

To return to the original question, if the clock is inevitable, will it actually make the game more interesting? Will it do more than reduce the length of games but also compress the interesting events in the game together? I cannot say that the pitching clock improves the quality of the game, as it merely changes the pace between events in the game while, ideally, not affecting the events themselves. There may be more noble issues facing baseball that deserve more time and investment than the pitch clock (like investigating Adderall use or wage fairness for minor league players). If this forces pitchers like David Price to deliver pitches or pick-offs more frequently, though, wouldn’t that hold viewers attention longer? In a world with 5 minute attention spans, if the clock makes fans stay tuned to see if the clock will expire and cost the pitcher a potentially valuable pitch, doesn’t that create value for Major League Baseball?

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