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MLB’s pitch clock has shortened Cubs spring games by about half an hour

The clock’s doing its job and I couldn’t be happier.

Trey Mancini and the pitch clock
Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

If you’ve been watching Cubs games and they seem faster, you’re not imagining it.

The first 10 Cubs games this spring have averaged two hours, 33 minutes, and that’s nearly 30 minutes faster than the average of the first 10 Cubs spring games over the previous five seasons.

Here are the numbers.

Cubs spring game times, first 10 games, 2018-23

YEAR 2023 2022 2021 2020 2019 2018
YEAR 2023 2022 2021 2020 2019 2018
Game 1 3:06 3:25 3:26 3:19 2:46 2:52
Game 2 2:54 2:57 2:44 2:39 3:11 3:02
Game 3 2:46 2:51 3:12 3:45 2:54 3:58
Game 4 2:04 2:56 3:08 3:43 2:44 3:22
Game 5 2:11 3:14 2:30 2:56 3:27 2:24
Game 6 2:35 3:16 3:18 3:11 2:31 2:17
Game 7 2:35 2:45 2:57 3:04 2:52 3:02
Game 8 2:14 3:12 2:25 2:34 3:03 3:11
Game 9 2:14 2:52 3:02 3:22 3:00 2:42
Game 10 2:52 3:18 3:21 2:49 3:19 3:03
AVERAGE 2:33 3:05 3:00 3:08 2:58 2:59

The differences are almost shocking. In their first 10 games this spring, the Cubs have played six games in 2:35 or less. That equals the total number of games in 2:35 or shorter in the previous five years combined.

(For purposes of this study, I eliminated several seven-inning games played in 2021 and one extra-inning game — only the first 10 nine-inning games from each year are listed above.)

Per this Yahoo article from last week, the Cubs’ average spring game time of 2:33 so far is shorter than the MLB average of 2:37, and that game length would be a real blast from the past:

If MLB games averaged two hours and 37 minutes, it would be the quickest pace of play since 1979.

Remember that the point of the clock isn’t specifically to shorten games, it’s to pick up the pace of play. But when you do that, you’re obviously going to have shorter games, and the timer is working exactly as expected. The average of those Cubs spring games combined from 2018-22 is 3:02, so the 2023 average is 29 minutes shorter.

I would expect that difference to be slightly less during the regular season. Spring games don’t mean anything and so we are probably seeing fewer pitcher “disengagements” during at-bats with runners on base. Stolen bases are up so far this spring as a result. During the season, that probably will not be the case. I’d still expect the average game time to drop by about 20-25 minutes, which was the case when the pitch timer (as it’s officially called by MLB) was in use throughout Double-A and Triple-A over the last few seasons. Last year, the average game time for regular-season MLB games was 3:06 and in 2021 was a record 3:11 and I would expect it to drop to somewhere in the 2:40 to 2:45 range.

This Chicago Tribune article by Cubs and White Sox beat writers Meghan Montemurro and LaMond Pope is headlined “New pitch-clock rules remain a chore,” but most pitchers I’ve watched have seemed to adapt to it pretty well. One notable exception is Cubs lefthander Drew Smyly:

Drew Smyly’s head dropped when he saw the pitch-clock violation signal from the plate umpire.

Smyly at times struggled to get on the same page with Chicago Cubs catcher Tucker Barnhart during their first game working together. Twice he shook off the call heard through PitchCom during his Cactus League start Tuesday against the Milwaukee Brewers. Consequently, the timer expired before Smyly delivered the pitch, resulting in a ball.

“The pitch clock was way more of an adjustment than I thought it would be,” Smyly said. “I feel like I’m a pretty fast pitcher, but I felt myself definitely being rushed throughout those two innings.

“It felt hard to get through a sequence. If you shake twice, by the third time the clock’s at one. Pitcher and catchers are going to have to do a much better job game planning before the start.”

This is one of the reasons the clock is being enforced now, from the beginning of Spring Training. It’s to get players used to the new rules and pace of play. I have no doubt that Smyly will be able to do so. Per Baseball Savant, Smyly was the fastest-paced of all Cubs pitchers last year. The Tribune article notes:

With nobody on base, Smyly’s pitch-timer equivalent (9.5 seconds) fell well within the 15-second limit, and at 14.3 seconds he also was estimated to be within the 20-second restriction with runners on base.

The article also notes that there will be adjustments needed for umpires, so that they don’t make incorrect calls like this one:

Major-league umpires also are learning the new rules. For the Cubs, that meant a violation incorrectly called on outfielder Brennen Davis during a split-squad game last Monday.

Arizona Diamondbacks reliever Joe Mantiply exceeded the two-minute warmup window when he entered before the third inning. Davis had been standing near the box, understandably not wanting to step in while Mantiply was throwing.

The plate umpire should have awarded a ball and then reset the clock to 30 seconds entering the half-inning. Then if Davis wasn’t in the box and facing the pitcher with at least eight seconds left, a strike would have been given. Instead, the umpire simultaneously — and erroneously — called a dual violation on Mantiply and Davis to make it a 1-1 count to begin the at-bat.

“We were taught to have a routine and do it every day, and mine took over the seven seconds that you are allotted to get ready. So I had to make an adjustment and shorten that up,” Davis said of his experience with the pitch clock at Triple A last year. “But it’s an adjustment and everybody’s going to make the adjustment because you have to.”

And that is indeed what’s going to have to happen. Baseball people are creatures of habit. They are simply going to have to learn new habits, and that includes umpires. Again, this is why they’re doing it in Spring Training, where the games don’t mean anything, helping to create these new habits before Opening Day.

For more reading on the pitch timer, how teams and players are preparing for it and info on some of the other MLB rule changes, I recommend this article by Jesse Rogers, which includes this quote from Cubs manager David Ross:

“We’re doing a lot on a timed basis. That’s the main thing. Working within the timeframe that we’re allotted. Let’s build our stamina, our mental toughness, the speed in which we work,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “If we get 15 seconds, let’s get everyone within 12 so you never feel rushed. When the game starts, it slows down instead of speeds up.”

Honestly, I could not be more pleased with the pitch timer so far. Players no longer waste time adjusting batting gloves between each and every pitch. Batter walk-up music is now limited to 10 seconds, so that will save some time as well. For the most part, there have been only one or two violations per game so far this spring, which is pretty good considering the MLB average of about 250 pitches per nine-inning game. I suspect the number of violations will drop as players get more accustomed to the new pace of play.

The games just feel faster, and without losing any of the competitiveness that baseball needs. This is a long-overdue change for Major League Baseball, and I couldn’t be happier that it’s here.