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christopher l. gasper

Baseball’s pitch clock isn’t keeping perfect time — it needs a little adjustment

Umpire Paul Clemons called a clock violation on a White Sox reliever while a Seattle hitter waited to bat Monday.Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

It’s undeniable that it was time for some action by Major League Baseball. But while we’re giddy about a languorous game now getting green lights via a pitch clock, MLB still must strike the right balance between picking up the pace and not cheapening competition with time-cop-ticket balls and strikes.

Pitchers and batters who don’t mind the time pay with automatic balls and strikes. Pitchers have 15 seconds between pitches with the bases empty and 20 seconds with runners on base to start their delivery or be assessed an artificial ball. Batters must be in the batter’s box and present as “alert to the pitch” with eight seconds left or pay the price with an automatic strike.

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The problem thus far in spring training with the pitch clock is that while it’s meeting its objective, it’s doing it with all the subtlety of a motorcycle gang revving engines as it rolls through town. At-bats feel like trying to defuse a ticking time bomb. Baseball has lurched from one extreme to another. A game that relished taking its sweet time is now under temporal tyranny. I haven’t seen this much clock-watching since I was in high school willing the bell to ring.

Baseball has gone full Salvador Dalí, with the clock as the centerpiece of expression. It’s working if the sole aim is to make games shorter, but MLB needs to work out some kinks and be open to tweaks if the aim is to make the product better and more action-packed.

Surreal, indeed, was the ending to the Red Sox spring game Saturday against the Braves. We got a clock-off finish and were robbed of a dramatic resolution.

With the game tied, 6-6, in the bottom of the ninth with two outs, the Braves had the bases loaded and Cal Conley at the plate facing Robert Kwiatkowski with a 3-and-2 count. Catchers are supposed to be ready with nine seconds left on the clock. But Sox catcher Elih Marrero was standing, signaling to infielders. Marrero’s right foot was on the inside line of the righthanded batter’s box, with most of his frame in said batter’s box while fiddling with his glove hand with seven seconds on the clock. Conley had both feet in the box, head down.

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Conley was clearly the more “ready” of the two.

If Kwiatkowski had thrown a pitch, it would’ve hit home plate umpire John Libka square, with Marrero absent. Yet Libka called a violation on Conley, ending the game in a 6-6 tie on a strikeout.

MLB then backed up Libka’s interpretation, with one source telling The Athletic’s Jayson Stark that the catcher merely has to be positioned in the box with nine seconds to go.

Please. Under no reasonable definition of readiness was Marrero positioned to receive a pitch. The ending was bizarre at best, an abomination at worst.

Collectively, the idea of all the rule changes from the pitch clock to bigger bases to outlawing the shift to limiting pickoff throws is to create more action.

The ending of the Sox-Braves game was antithetical to that. It was bureaucratic baseball. No thanks.

Let me be clear: I’m totally in favor of the pitch clock. Its time has come. With games going on forever, the game could not go on as it was. MLB’s average time of game last season was 3:06. It hasn’t been under three hours since the Fried Chicken and Beer Red Sox collapsed their way out of the postseason field in 2011 (2:56).

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That feels like eons ago. In 1973, the average game time was 2:30 and as recently as 2003 it was 2:49.

No one likes to go to a restaurant and endure sluggish service. That was MLB, pre-pitch clock. You were always waiting too long to dig in to your metaphorical meal.

But now MLB feels like the restaurant that seats you and rushes you through the meal to get you out the door as quickly as possible, not letting you feast on the tasty morsels or digest them.

MLB must balance brevity with competitive integrity; sacrificing the latter for the former harms, not helps, entertainment value.

These rules were in place in the minors last season with even less leeway; the pitch clock was 14 seconds and 18 with runners on base (19 in Triple A). But we all know the majors aren’t the minors. Countless players who succeeded in Triple A couldn’t duplicate that performance in the majors.

The same could be true of timing rules.

There should be no pitch-clock-violation strikeouts for batters on the first two-strike offense. A warning should be issued. Do it a second time and then you’re out on a violation K. If the batter isn’t ready with eight seconds and a pitch is thrown for a strike, too bad. You’re out. If it’s a ball, it doesn’t count.

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That’s an easy fix, and it won’t slow down the game, because if a batter tries to stall thinking he gets one freebie, and he gets “quick-pitched,” he’s out. They won’t risk it.

The other issue with these rules is that batters are at an inherent disadvantage. They can’t trigger play, and they have less margin for error. Pitchers get four balls. Batters get only three strikes. Baseball used to steal time, now it’s stealing at-bats.

As the Globe’s Alex Spier pointed out, pitch-clock violations decreased in the minors from 1.73 per game in Week 2 to 0.73 in Week 5. By season’s end, the average was 0.41 per game.

Kenley Jansen and other Red Sox pitchers have been trying to get the hang of the pitch clock.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Players will adjust, but so should MLB to prevent the clock from going from speeding up games — as of Monday the average time of game for spring training contests was down 23 minutes to a tidy 2:38 — to possibly dictating the outcome of them.

No one wants that. We can get faster games and get home faster the way Red Sox manager Alex Cora wants without perverting the product.

Baseball was overdue to have not just a scorekeeper but a timekeeper too. But while the game picks up speed, maybe we need to slow down a second to make sure the implementation of the pitch clock isn’t hasty and full of unwanted side effects.


Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at christopher.gasper@globe.com. Follow him @cgasper and on Instagram @cgaspersports.