6 things I learned watching the pitch clock in action

May 20th, 2022

EASTLAKE, Ohio -- “I heard they’re using that pitch clock thing?”

As we walked into Classic Park, my 20-year-old nephew, Colin, asked me this question, not knowing that the pitch clock was the reason I had come to see the High-A Lake County Captains (a Guardians affiliate) play the Great Lakes Loons (Dodgers) on a beautiful spring night. But in inviting Colin to tag along with me, I knew I’d be getting perspective on the clock from a member of a generation it targets.

The pitch clock, which for the first time is being used across all full-season leagues in Minor League Baseball, is a way for baseball to address the pace-of-play issues that many fans -- especially those in Colin’s demographic -- see as a barrier to entry. It’s a solution for those who sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game … but Don’t Keep Me There All Night.”

So when I asked Colin what he thought of the clock before even seeing it in action, I figured he’d respond positively.

“Stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” he said.

Oh.

Clearly, there are many baseball fans who want the sport without a clock to remain that way. They worry that rushing players will reduce the quality of play and ruin the sport’s rhythms.

Or they are like my nephew, and their opinions on the clock have been shaped by what they’ve seen on Twitter.

“All I’ve seen,” he explained, “are videos of guys getting called out for taking too long.”

Well, social media snippets are no way to assemble an opinion. So I asked Colin to watch the game with an open mind and see what he thought.

One hour later, it was already the fifth inning.

“Not gonna lie,” he said. “Big fan of the clock.”

The clock did not cheapen our experience one bit. We watched the Captains, boosted by Angel Martinez’s go-ahead RBI double in the bottom of the eighth, beat the Loons, 2-1, in a nice, tidy, entertaining ballgame, with the final out recorded two hours and seven minutes after the 6:35 p.m. first pitch. The sun was still setting over Lake Erie as we walked to the parking lot and Colin told me the sport he now referred to as “fast-paced baseball” was something he could get used to.

But clock conversion won’t come as easily for some as it did for my nephew. And if the clock does come to Major League Baseball as soon as next season, it could be tweaked from the current form being used in MiLB.

That’s why, hours before that game between the Captains and Loons, I spoke with members of both teams to get a sense of how life on the clock is going, roughly one month into its usage. What do they like? What would they change?

Some of their answers surprised me. There are consequences of the clock that I had not previously considered. And one has to see the clock in action to get a real feel for its effects.

So here are six observations on the MiLB pitch clock.

1. The clock works.

Under the current pitch clock rules in MiLB, there is a 14-second timer between pitches with no one on base and 18 seconds with a runner on base (19 seconds in Triple-A). There is a 30-second timer between batters. If a pitcher fails to throw a pitch in time, it is an automatic ball. If a hitter is not ready in time, it is an automatic strike. Each batter gets one timeout per plate appearance, and pitchers get a total of two step-offs or pickoffs per batter.

This version of the rules -- with limits on batters stepping out and pitchers stepping off -- was put in place to eliminate the loopholes people had taken advantage of with past iterations of the clock in Double-A and Triple-A and to reduce game times. And it has done exactly that. The Minor League season began with no pitch clock, and in the first two weeks of the MiLB season without it, nine-inning games were lasting two hours, 59 minutes, on average. In the time since pitch clock was put in place on April 15, the average game has taken 2:35 to play.

For the sake of comparison, in 2021, the nine-inning average in MiLB was an even three hours, with 55% of games taking three hours or more to play. This year, only 10% of games have gone that long. (In Major League Baseball this year, the average nine-inning game is taking 3:05.)

“I don't think there have been a lot of concessions made in terms of quality of play [with the clock],” Captains manager Greg DiCenzo said. “I haven't seen that. It’s in conjunction with pitchers getting on the mound and not stepping off as much and defensive players being ready to play and being a little more engaged and not drifting off mentally.”

Loons broadcaster Brad Tunney compared a game from April of this year to one from last May with a similar number of hits, runs, walks and pitches and found the 2021 game took almost exactly one hour longer.

“I think it’s a better product for fans,” Loons manager Austin Chubb said. “I probably shouldn’t say this, but there were times last year where I was, like, bored during games. When games get out of hand, there’s no reason for guys to be taking 30-plus seconds between pitches.”

Added Loons pitcher Lael Lockhart: “It definitely takes away from hitters going up there and drawing a picture in the dirt with their bat, which I hate.”

Players appear to have adjusted quickly to the new rules. There were 1.54 pitch-clock violations per game the first week the rules were in effect, 1.19 the second, 0.93 the third and 0.68 the fourth. During the game I attended, the only two times a pitcher even came close to violating the clock came with a full count, but the pitch was delivered on time both times.

“We’re still getting used to it,” Captains first baseman Joe Naranjo said. “You’ve just got to make sure you’re ready and aware of the pitch clock at all times so that we’re not getting behind in the count or wasting pitches.”

2. The clock can possibly improve player health and performance.

An oft-stated concern with the clock is that forcing pitchers to speed up their routines will increase the threat of injury. But in the Single-A California League – the only affiliated league where the clock was used last season -- pitching injuries were actually lower than at all other levels.

Last summer, outfielder Jonny DeLuca was promoted from Rancho Cucamonga in the California League to Great Lakes in the Midwest League, and going from clock to no clock was, for him, a letdown.

“I came from Rancho playing like two-and-a-half- or three-hour games to getting called up and playing three-and-a-half- or four-hour games,” DeLuca said. “No one wants to be out there for that. Having it be a pretty good pace is important for just overall focus.”

And recovery, too. Loons pitcher Nick Nastrini, the Dodgers’ No. 13 prospect per MLB Pipeline, wears a Whoop band -- a fitness tracker that monitors heart rate variability and resting heart rate -- and has noted how time spent at the field has an impact.

“Just from a recovery standpoint, getting back in at a reasonable hour and getting a good night’s sleep is a game-changer,” he said. “It could be the difference between being able to play for five years and being able to play for 12. Because there’s the accumulation of getting back at 11:30 [p.m.] and 12:30 [a.m.] and getting into bed by 1 [a.m.] and having to do it all again the next day for 132 games in our season or 162 games in a big league season. It takes a big toll on your body. This is a grind. So getting back to the hotel or our apartments at a reasonable hour is definitely a step in the right direction.”

3. The clock adds intrigue to the running game.

With Minor League pitchers limited to two step-offs or pickoff attempts under the 2022 rules, it should come as no surprise that runners are attempting to steal more bases and are successful more frequently.

We already saw an uptick in steal attempts last year when Single-A and High-A experimented with rules designed to incentivize stolen-base attempts, and we’ve seen another increase in attempts (and success rate) across all of MiLB. Here’s where things stand through the first 1,400 Minor League games this year, as compared to the first 1,400 in 2021 and 2019.

YEAR: SBA/G (SB%)

2019: 2.11 (70.5)
2021: 2.79 (76.3)
2022: 2.88 (78.4)
*No MiLB season in 2020 due to pandemic

The ticking clock and the pickoff limitations are an advantage to runners -- and not by accident, given MLB’s desire to increase action on the basepaths.

“In the past, [a pitcher] might put just a hold on with no pitch, where you're waiting for the runner to maybe break early,” Chubb said. “You can't do that now, because you're going to run out of time and it's going to be a ball.”

But pitchers are at least finding the clock can be useful in varying their hold times to keep runners on their toes.

“The clock is a visual,” Loons pitching coach David Anderson said. “Holds always feel longer than they are. Now, our pitchers can see, ‘Oh wow, that was only a two-second hold.’”

Nastrini said he keeps the clock in his peripheral vision for that very purpose.

“It definitely helps me hold the runner a little longer,” he said. “I have a tough time just going right away. So it helps me count one, two, three, maybe four seconds if I need to before [making a pickoff attempt].”

The running game aspect was what most concerned Chubb, a former catcher, when the pitch clock arrived. But he said it hasn’t been as big an issue as he imagined.

“I thought it was going affect that a lot,” he said. “But now that the pitchers are getting the hang of it, they realize most of the time they have more time than they thought and they're able to hold the ball still. So honestly it’s working out a little better than I initially thought.”

4. Pitchers have found a new cat-and-mouse game.

The pitch clock rule calls for batters to be in the box and attentive to the pitcher with nine seconds left on the timer. And batters only get one timeout per plate appearance.

This led to an interesting bit of gamesmanship during the series between the Captains and Loons. Great Lakes pitcher Ryan Sublette was on the mound, and Captains second baseman Aaron Bracho was at the plate. It was a two-strike count with a man on base, and Bracho had already used his timeout. Sublette came set before the nine-second mark, and Bracho stood attentive in the box. But rather than deliver the pitch, Sublette stood there motionless for three seconds, four seconds, five seconds, six seconds …

Bracho got antsy and stepped out of the box.

“It was like he was rattled because he had never seen anyone hold the ball that long,” Chubb said. “But he wasn't allowed to get time out again. So Sublette threw a strike [when Bracho stepped out], and he took it for strike three.”

The clock gives an inherent advantage to pitchers who work quickly. But the nine-second feature -- combined with the limitation on timeouts -- provides an added advantage to those comfortable with long holds.

The Loons are teaching that to their pitchers.

“It kind of feels like a cheat code when you do it,” Lockhart said. “Pitchers work on the long hold every once in a while, but I’ve never heard of a batter working on a long pause in the box. If you do it right, you can get away with a few strike calls here and there. It’s a mental thing that adds to that cat-and-mouse game.”

5. The clock operator is an X-factor (at least in the Minors).

There are 120 Minor League ballparks, and while each clock operator is given the same set of instructions, there is bound to be some variety given that these are human beings we’re talking about.

At the Loons’ home park in Midland, Mich., the clock is operated by a rotating crew of four retirees and five high school and college kids on internships. At Classic Park, the Daktronics All Sport 5000 Series Control Console is run by Brian Solar, a semi-retired former Federal Reserve Bank vault teller who was brought on as a seasonal employee.

“The ump doesn’t tell you when to start the clock all the time,” Solar said. “You have to have your own sense of when it should start. So if there’s a base hit out to left field and they throw the ball into the shortstop, it’s kind of up to you to decide, ‘OK, now start the 30-second clock between batters.’ You have to develop a feel of not doing it too soon. Because if you do, the ump is going to signal for you to cut the clock.”

So it’s an important job. Solar takes it seriously, meeting with the umps before each game to go over hand signals.

By rule, the clock between pitches is supposed to start ticking down when the pitcher has possession of the ball and the catcher and batter are in the dirt circle surrounding home plate. But it doesn’t always work out exactly that way.

“When we were in Peoria the first week it was implemented,” said Nastrini, “and the people running the clock were starting the clock right when we caught the ball and, for the home team, when the pitcher got back to the rubber. So there was a little bit of a home-field advantage that played into it.”

When the pitch clock reaches the big leagues, consistency and a well-trained operator will of course be of paramount importance. And Major League umpires will be able to learn from those in the Minors who experienced this experimental season.

6. Everyone is learning as they go.

And to be sure, whatever is implemented at the big league level will be imperfect, too. Such is life.

But as you’d expect, those surveyed offered some feedback.

“Sometimes it speeds you up,” said Captains pitcher Gavin Williams, the Guardians’ No. 7 prospect. “My take on it is that as soon as you come set in the stretch, [the countdown] could stop then, so that you’re not in a rush [with runners on].”

As for the hitters, there was a suggestion by several surveyed that one timeout is not enough.

“They say the batter has to be alert to the pitcher at nine seconds, and some pitchers are right there ready to pitch at 11, 12 seconds,” Chubb said. “It seems to me it’s a little bit in favor of the pitcher right now. Getting to the Major Leagues and having a Major League veteran rushed in the box, I can’t see that.”

We are, however, very likely to see some form of this “pitch clock thing” in the big leagues in the not-too-distant future. To be sure, not everyone will be a fan. But once you see it in action, you might -- like my nephew -- become one.