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It’s time for MLB to institute a pitch clock

Games are getting ridiculously long.

A pitch clock in use in Triple-A Lehigh Valley April 30, 2019
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Game times for the first five games of the 2019 World Series:

3:43, 4:01, 4:03, 3:48, 3:19

That’s way too long. Like way, way, way too long. Even the relatively swift Game 5 time couldn’t bring the average down too much. The five games averaged 3:47, and none of the games went beyond the standard nine innings.

Just to be clear here, I’m not necessarily criticizing long baseball games in general. Some of those are compelling and have action throughout.

These games haven’t. There’s a lot of stalling, a lot of batters stepping out, pitchers stepping off, and this has become a big problem around Major League Baseball.

This Associated Press story sums up the issue:

This season, Major League Baseball said the average time of a nine-inning game reached a record 3 hours, 5 minutes, 35 seconds. That exceeded the 3:05:11 in 2017.

The average was cut to 3:00:44 in 2018, aided by new rules that trimmed mound visits without pitching changes. It was 2:46 in 2005.

Baseball tried a speedup at spring training, experimenting with a 20-second pitch clock. Nationals ace Max Scherzer was among many players who didn’t like it.

I’m sure Yu Darvish was a pitcher who didn’t care for it either. During that spring training experiment this past February and March, Darvish violated the 20-second count on virtually every pitch he threw, whether there were runners on base or not. There was no penalty, as MLB was simply gathering information. A couple weeks into spring training, they stopped doing it, as by then it had been decided there would be no pitch clock during the 2019 season.

Let’s also be clear that one of the culprits here is, in fact, TV advertising time:

The break between half-innings is now 2 minutes, 55 seconds, up from the 2:05 for most regular-season games.

There are 17 such ad breaks in a nine-inning game (after the top and bottom of the first eight innings and the top of the ninth). At 50 extra seconds beyond a regular-season inning break, that adds 850 seconds, or a little more than 14 minutes, per game. Take those 14 minutes out and we’ve got the shortest 2019 World Series game down from 3:18 to 3:04, still somewhat longer than the average regular-season game.

Once again, we are not talking about the length of games here, but the pace of play. MLB has attempted some rule tweaks to try to speed up pace. One of them was the automatic intentional walk, or the “Manfred” as I like to call it. (Here’s the very first “Manfred” issued, by the Cubs to Yadier Molina on Opening Day 2017.) I’ve watched video of some pre-2017 intentional walks. (Here’s one example.) They appear to take about 45 seconds each. There were 753 intentional walks issued in 2019. At 45 seconds, that’s 565 minutes’ worth for the entire season, or about nine hours. Using the numbers above, MLB games totaled about 7,516 hours in 2019. Congratulations, Rob Manfred, you have shaved one-tenth of one percent of game time by not having pitchers throw four balls outside the strike zone.

Cutting mound visits from six to five didn’t really move the needle, either.

A pitch clock — plus empowering umpires to actually enforce it by penalties on pitchers and hitters — is the single biggest way MLB could actually pick up the pace of play.

For an example of what happens when hitters simply stay in the box and don’t constantly step out, here is the complete video of Game 1 of the 1974 World Series:

That game was close, 3-2, and had a couple of mid-inning pitching changes along with 17 hits (two home runs) and seven walks. There were thus lots of balls in play.

Time of game: 2:43.

On the other hand, there is this fact about the modern World Series:

“When you get to the World Series, every pitch and every decision is going to be more magnified. They’re more important now, so they’re going to take a little more time,” former manager Jim Leyland said as Houston took batting practice Saturday.

“But there’s no question about it, they’re dragging on a little too long,” he said.

Jim Leyland is right. Things are going to take a bit longer in the World Series because of what’s at stake.

But it’s way past time for a pitch clock in the major leagues. They’ve been doing it in Double-A and Triple-A since 2015 and in the first year they were used at those levels, the average game time was slashed by 12 minutes.

That would be a big help at the MLB level. The AP article says:

MLB is allowed to implement a pitch clock next season — the minor leagues already have them — but Commissioner Rob Manfred is reluctant to do that without support from all sides. Manfred plans to discuss the issue at an owners’ meeting next month.

Time to get this done, or time is going to keep dragging during major-league baseball games.