Could be time for change in baseball
Pitch clocks, shift limits and larger bases in MLB’s future
LOS ANGELES — Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and the rest of major league pitchers are likely to be looking over their shoulders next season — at a pitch clock.
Clocks have cut the length of minor league games by about a half-hour this year, and baseball officials appear certain to promote the timers to the majors.
“I think it needs it, obviously. And I think it’s coming regardless of opposition of the players. It’s kind of our fault,” the Yankees’ Cole said ahead of Tuesday’s All-Star Game.
Major League Baseball also is considering shift limits, larger bases, restrictions on pickoff attempts and — perhaps in 2024 — limited use of robot umpires to call balls and strikes. The new collective bargaining agreement includes an 11-person competition committee with six management representatives, four players and one umpire, and it is empowered to make changes by majority vote with 45 days’ notice.
Average time of nine-inning games increased from 2 hours, 43 minutes in 2003 to 3:13 in 2020 before dropping to 3:02 so far this season through July 12, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. A clock experiment in the minor leagues cut the average this year to 2:37 from 3:04 at a similar point for non-clock games last year.
“At first, I wasn’t buying into it. But then we started the season, I was, ‘Oh, this is pretty good.’ I like it. I think it’s more efficient,” Brooklyn Cyclones manager Luis Rivera said before a 9-0 win over Greensboro on July 12 that breezed along in 2:27.
Time between pitches with no runners on base ranges from 12.6 seconds for the Brewers’ Brent Suter and Giants’ Sam Long to 26.6 for the Cardinals’ Giovanny Gallegos and 26.0 for the Braves’ Kenley Jansen. With runners on, Padres’ Tim Hill leads at 18.1 and Gallegos (32.1) and Jansen (31.1) are the slowest. MLB’s average through Thursday was 20.5 seconds with no runners and 27.3 second with runners. Boston manager Alex Cora notices call-ups are working more quickly than veterans.
“Little by little, everything they’re doing in the minor leagues is going to affect their big league game, which is great,” he said.
Long the most traditional of U.S. major pro sports, baseball adopted video review for home runs in 2009 and for a broad array of umpire decisions in 2014. All 30 teams are using the electronic pitching signaling device introduced this spring.
A clock is being used this year throughout the minors: 14 seconds with the bases empty and 19 with runners on at Triple-A, and 14⁄18 at lower levels. The clock starts “when the pitcher has possession of the ball and the catcher is in the dirt circle surrounding home plate.” In addition, “the batter must be in the box and alert to the pitcher with at least nine seconds remaining.”
MLB’s goal is to eliminate dead time, such time-consuming tics such as Nomar Garciaparra tapping toes and adjusting batting gloves between pitches.
“It’s something that takes a while to get used to, but I think overall the impact it had on the pace of the game was good,” said the Yankees’ Matt Carpenter, who spent April at Triple-A with Round Rock.
Minor league pitchers also have been limited to what the regulations call “two disengagements per plate appearance” with runners on — pickoff attempts or stepping off the runner. A third attempt that is unsuccessful results in an automatic balk.
Bases have been increased to 18-inch squares from 15, promoting safety — first basemen are less likely to get stepped on — but also boosting stolen bases and offense with a slightly decreased distance.
Shifts have been limited all season at Double-A and Class A, where teams are required to have four players on the infield, including two on each side of second base. The Florida State League adds an additional restriction starting July 22 by drawing chalk lines in a pie shape from second base to the outfield grass, prohibiting infielders from the marked area pre-pitch. MLB also is piloting an Automated Ball-Strike System in the minors, which could reach the majors as soon as 2024.
MLB hopes quicker games will be more appealing to fans as it tries to rebuild attendance following the pandemic.