FORT MYERS, Fla. — The sports world is littered with convoluted rules and arcane regulations, so many solutions in search of a problem. When the rare stroke of genius comes along, we should stand and applaud.
Baseball, take a bow.
The pitch clock is a home run.
A few days into spring training, the new rule that limits players to 30 seconds for resuming play between batters is quickly proving itself an inspired intervention. Early returns have games concluding almost a half-hour faster than last year (NESN said last spring’s games averaged three hours, with this year’s, going into Monday, at 2:39), fulfilling one of the main reasons Red Sox manager Alex Cora threw his full support behind the change.
“I want to be home sooner rather than later,” Cora said.
For years, baseball has been the bane of every early riser and the butt of every slow-playing sports joke, ridiculed for its tortoise-like pace in the face of the hare-chasing fun found in NFL bursts of action, NBA fast breaks, or NHL breakaways. What had always been one of the game’s greatest badges of honor — no time limit required as nine innings (or more) unfold under a warm midday sun or cool evening breeze — had morphed into an embarrassment.
Baseball lost its way amid the quirky habits, diabolical delays, and intentional slowdowns during games, histrionics that regularly pushed games past four hours.
“I think that more action is probably a good thing,” said veteran pitcher Corey Kluber, musing about changes he will officially contend with for the first time Tuesday, when he makes his Red Sox debut against the Marlins.
“There are probably certain people who have gotten pretty egregious with taking their time.”
It’s been bad enough across a 162-game regular season, but the impact on the postseason, when interest is highest and pitching changes are endless, pushed slow play atop the list of culprits for waning interest in a sport that still insists on calling itself the national pastime. A TikTok video making its way around Twitter shows how many times Astros speedster Jose Altuve can complete an inside-the-park home run while Dodgers pitcher Pedro Baez waits to throw a second pitch in the 2016 NLCS.
The answer? Seven.
Maybe we have Baez to thank for a rule that now limits a pitcher to 15 seconds to deliver with the bases empty or 20 with a base occupied. A hitter has to be in the box and facing the pitcher with no less than eight seconds left, with timers situated in the outfield and behind home plate. A violation by the pitcher results in an automatic ball; one by the batter is an automatic strike.
As players and umpires find their way, we get wacky endings like the tie in Saturday’s Sox-Braves game when Cal Conley took too long and was called out on strikes, or the confusion of a Masataka Yoshida at-bat Monday, when he ended up taking two strikes within the same pitch count.
But as Kluber put it, “That’s what spring training is for. Work out a few kinks. Umpires are getting used to it too.”
So are players.
“I did get a couple pitches where I was at 11, 10 seconds and I was still not looking up and I was like, ‘Oh [expletive], I gotta look up,’ ” Kiké Hernández said. “But it’s just a matter of a couple of games and we’ll get used to it.”
Justin Turner had the opposite experience, saying, “My first at-bat walking up there, I found I had more time than I thought I might. I wasn’t as rushed. There’s not really any time to practice. We all have a routine leaving the on-deck circle too but there’s not time to practice and my first time I felt like I kind of rushed it. I looked up and I saw I still had 16 seconds and I was like ‘Oh, OK.’ ”
Connor Wong, who played Triple A ball last season when the rule was already in place there, has been where they are.
“The first couple of times, you feel really rushed, you’re thinking, ‘Oh, I got to look up already,’ but I think once you get your routine going and know what you want to do before a pitch comes, I think it will be pretty smooth,” he said.
For Wong, the adjustment is more on the catching end, where “definitely it’s quicker-paced for sure, just getting signs to the pitcher quicker, giving them the option to shake off and still have time to figure out what we’re going to throw.”
The promise of intrigue is wonderful, with pitchers possibly holding onto the ball for those final eight seconds, forcing a batter to freeze (Mets ace Max Scherzer gleefully described the potential for such chicanery). And the days of fireballers taking all the time they need to rev up for a triple-digit pitch? Not so easy now, where a return to more finesse, timing, and pace would also be welcome.
I get it. Baseball, beautifully steeped in its own history, has traditions that deserve to be honored. But that doesn’t mean they should be so rigid as to write the game’s obituary. This is progress, and it has played out with subtlety. It’s not as if there’s some ticking basketball shot clock casting a nerve-racking shadow. The change is largely imperceptible, except when it comes to the overall game time.
“I think it’s a better product for the fans,” said Cora, who used the example of his own children, how they prefer the action and excitement of soccer and gymnastics practices over the repetition of taking grounders or lining up for a chance to hit at baseball practice.
“There’s a lot of dead time, and I think that’s what we’re trying to avoid. The pace has been amazing. For the game, for where we want to go, no doubt about it this is the right thing.”