The Baseball Clock Is Good

Photo: Charlie Riedel/AP/Shutterstock

More than any other sport, baseball is suffused with nostalgia and sentimentality. You rarely hear anyone say, “My life changed when my dad took me to that Jazz-Timberwolves game,” or “I’ll never forget when Grandma slammed me through that table at my first Bills tailgate.” Baseball is forever wrapped up with childhood, and with nostalgia for a gauzy, all-American (and somewhat theoretical) past. This is a major selling point for the sport, but it also can be a gilded cage: As fans get older, the game on the field can’t possibly compete with their memories of it. They get so emotionally attached to baseball — in a way that can transcend the actual game being played — that any alteration of it can feel like a betrayal. When baseball begins to feel different than the way they remembered it, the change feels wrong in a way it doesn’t when other sports fiddle with overtime rules or shot clocks.

This is why labor fights are always so reputationally damaging to baseball — They’re supposed to be playing a kids’ game out there! — and why, if someone watches baseball less than they used to, it is often framed not as the natural result of a fragmented culture that offers endless entertainment options, but instead as the fault of the game itself: I didn’t leave baseball; baseball left me. While the sport’s supposed diminished cultural relevance is dramatically overstated — MLB’s television ratings are consistently as high as, or higher, than the NBA’s, despite a level of media saturation that would imply something quite different — there’s no question the sport has been under fire more than usual in recent years, primarily for its supposed grinding slowness in a fast-paced world. Now, the baseball powers that be have done something drastic in response to criticism. And the old debates about what baseball is, was, and should be are back in full force. Witness this:

As a way of speeding up games and trying to attract younger, attention-addled fans, MLB has introduced a series of new rules for the 2023 season. Some are relatively mild: The bases are bigger, to encourage more stolen bases; pitchers can only attempt a pickoff throw to first base twice as opposed to unlimited times; and the “zombie runner on second base” rule, which takes effect in the tenth inning, remains. But the biggest, most notable change is the clock. Baseball has a clock now. And if the first weekend of spring-training games — not to mention that crazy-ass clip up there — taught us anything, it’s that we need to pay attention to that clock.

If you’re confused by that video — and it’s very confusing! — here’s an explanation. This year, pitchers have 15 seconds to throw a pitch if no one is on base, and 20 seconds with a runner on. If they don’t throw a pitch in time, umpires will call a ball. But hitters have new responsibilities too: They have to be in the box “and alert to the pitcher” by the time the clock hits eight seconds, or the umpire will call a strike. What does “alert to the pitcher” mean? Essentially, it means assuming your stance and looking at the pitcher, ready to hit. In the clip, the Red Sox and Braves are tied in the bottom of the ninth. The Braves have the bases loaded, and the count is 3-2 on a mostly anonymous Braves prospect named Cal Conley, who now will probably forever be associated with this moment. Conley wasn’t quite set at the eight-second mark, so the umpire called strike three, concluding the at-bat, the scoring threat, and — because ties exist in spring training — the game. So, in an MLB first, a game ended not because a batter got a hit, or struck out, or walked, but because the clock ran out on him. The moment seemed cooked up in a lab to make the average “What happened to baseball??” fans lose their minds.

But before the purists freak out, it’s important for them to remember that the pitch clock, while new to MLB this year, has gone through some serious testing. It was a part of the minor leagues last year, and, according to Baseball America, it decreased the average game time by an astonishing 26 minutes. Even more important: By the end of the season, players hadn’t just gotten used to the changes, they actively enjoyed them. You may remember Matt Carpenter, the mustachioed, batting-gloves-free home-run hitter for the Yankees last season. But he actually spent the first month of the year in the minor leagues and quickly came to love the clock. “I grew into liking it a lot — to the point where I would fully endorse it in the major-league game,” Carpenter told the Washington Post last year. “The big selling point is that the pace of the game is way better. It just is.” (Surly Mets ace Max Scherzer is a big fan as well.) The adjustment period in the majors may be a little longer — as baseball writer Joe Sheehan has noted, it’s easier to incorporate this change in the minors, where games just don’t matter as much as they do in the majors — but that is a temporary problem rather than a permanent one. Players will get used to it, or they will be replaced by players who do.

One of the common reactions to the game-ending strikeout over the weekend was: What if this happens to end a World Series? (That’s the theoretical Rich Eisen was referring to above.) And while, yes, the idea of game seven of the World Series turning on Nolan Arenado tilting his head toward the mound a half-second later than he was supposed to is a nightmare scenario, it’s unlikely to happen. For one thing, players will be very used to the rules by the time the World Series comes around. Also, umpires have been tasked with being dogmatic sticklers about the new rules during spring training, enforcing the absolute letter of the law right now so they don’t have to later. This edict won’t apply in the World Series. (Yes, the Super Bowl was decided on a minor call, but the violation in question was orders of magnitude more serious than a pitch-clock infraction.) And the league has made clear that this is all a work in progress; in an excellent discussion on the Ballpark Dimensions podcast, former MLB pitcher and current MLB vice-president of on-field strategy Joe Martinez said, “We tested these rules over 8,000 minor-league games, and you still see things pop up … the one thing that we’re probably most confident of is that we didn’t get everything 100 percent correct. There are likely going to have to be some tweaks.” One of the nice things about introducing new rules to a sport forever resistant to them is that you can throw out any that don’t work; it’s easier to make a small adjustment after you’ve already made a big one.

And — and this is important to remember — there is a real problem that’s being fixed here. Excitable nepo-baby podcaster Ben Verlander surfaced this eye-opening video, which shows just how exhausting it can sometimes be to watch a modern baseball game:

Doesn’t that look like a problem to solve? Maybe the pitch clock is the answer, maybe it isn’t. But two minutes between pitches isn’t what baseball is supposed to be about. You don’t have to be a hyperactive, phone-obsessed teenager to get bored watching that.

At a certain level, baseball will be criticized no matter what it does. Changing its rules offends purists, or at least people who consider themselves purists but really just hate change. Not doing anything at all gets the sport labeled stodgy. In a way, merely opening the door for change is a step in the right direction. Baseball isn’t the way it was when you were a kid because nothing is the way it was when you were a kid. Allowing it to break free from those constraints — to stop being a morality play or a paean to a supposedly more innocent time, to let it simply be a sport — is perhaps the best way to save it. We all grew up. Maybe it’s time to let baseball do the same.

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The Baseball Clock Is Good