The clock is ticking for pitchers, and there are concerns
FORT MYERS, Fla. — The pitch clock has been used for four minor league seasons, and it has dropped the time of games, on average, by eight minutes. So the clock did accomplish its goal.
Now it’s being brought to the big leagues. It’ll be used in spring training games, much to the dismay of many veteran starting pitchers. As David Price points out, “Throughout our development, we’re taught to slow down the game, and now we’re being asked to speed it up.”
Rick Porcello, who works quickly, shouldn’t have a problem, but he fears, “I can see where the fans would pay attention to the clock and not to the batter and pitcher and then start chanting ‘3, 2, 1 . . . ’ Like they do in college basketball.”
Then again, the minor league rules allow you to step off the rubber if you get close to the time limit, and the clock restarts. Nobody knows if this will be implemented. Apparently, the 20-second clock starts when the pitcher receives the ball from the catcher, and if the batter is messing around outside the batter’s box as the clock ticks away, “It would be up to the umpire to make sure the batters get in the box,” according to Red Sox chairman Tom Werner. And Red Sox principal owner John Henry said, “And the pitcher could throw a pitch if the batter wasn’t in the box.”
Werner and Henry are huge proponents of a pitch clock.
Maybe it is a necessary step in speeding up the game, but the thought of a clock in baseball makes me ill. Maybe I’m lost in a different generation. Maybe I don’t mind three-hour games. With newspaper deadlines, you’d think I would, but I don’t.
Baseball has a natural flow and beauty to it. What’s made games longer are analytics and not-so-instant replay. Analytics have put more thought into every pitch and every at-bat. Pitchers need time to process things between pitches. While there are pitchers such as Wade Miley who get the ball and throw it, most are like Price, needing that extra time to process what they’re about to do with the hitter.
Some who despise the clock have raised the possibility of a pitcher getting injured. If you’re speeding up the time a pitcher has to get the ball out of his glove, it’s not always going to get a good result. Red Sox vice president of pitching development Brian Bannister feels the downside of the upbeat pace could be that it messes with a pitcher’s recovery time from pitch to pitch.
“More rest in between reps is a benefit,” Bannister said. “The more you fatigue your body, the more stress you’re putting on it.”
Whether that was even considered is unknown.
‘‘We will start getting ready for the possibility that we’re going to use the pitch clock on Opening Day,’’ commissioner Rob Manfred said Sunday at spring training media day in Florida. ‘‘We have to get going.’’
The MLB average was 24.1 seconds between pitches in 2018, but that number reflected all pitches and all situations. This pitch clock, as far as we know, would be used only with no men on base.
Last season, the Red Sox averaged 25.2 seconds between pitches, the sixth-slowest in the majors. The Angels (25.6 seconds) were the slowest.
According to FanGraphs, the departed Joe Kelly was the slowest at 30.5 seconds. The Red Sox bullpen, in general, was slow to the plate. Heath Hembree was 28.4. Matt Barnes was 28.2. Ryan Brasier was 28.2. Craig Kimbrel was 27.9.
Price is one of the slower-working starting pitchers in baseball at 26.9 seconds between pitches.
There was no Red Sox pitcher working under 20 seconds between pitches last season. The fastest was Brian Johnson at 20.6. Steven Wright was quick at 21.6, Porcello was 22.6, and Chris Sale was 22.7. They should have no problem whittling down a couple of seconds.
What MLB is asking pitchers to do is speed up their sequence between pitches, which may sound easy to the average fan or to the powers that be, but it’s not quite that easy for the pitchers who have to alter their between-pitch analysis of the hitter.
The penalty is being charged with a ball if the clock runs out.
While Price doesn’t like the new rule, he feels he can adapt.
“When I’m warming up, I’m throwing a pitch every five or six seconds,” Price said. “That’s the way I warm up. I can adjust. I’ve adjusted my entire career. I’ve done that with my changeup, cutter, fastball location. I’ll adjust like I always have.
“I’m not worried about it. I’m going to get ready the way I’m going to get ready. This is my spring training and I’m going to get ready for it the way I’ve always gotten ready.
“We have really long games because we have the best offense in baseball. The other teams are going to throw 200 pitches a game against us. We’re going to foul off pitches and stuff like that. Most teams don’t have the caliber of offense we do.
“If we want shorter games, take the DH out. It would be much quicker. But then you’re going to lose 15 jobs.”
According to Price, there’s a possibility that throwing the ball around the infield after a strikeout will be taken away.
“After you strike somebody out, the ball goes right back to the pitcher,” Price said. “That’s what I heard. Then you’re playing games in April and Chris Sale strikes out five guys in a row. The infielders never touch the ball and then there’s a ground ball and they throw it away because they haven’t touched the baseball.”
Porcello said every pitcher has a game plan in his head — how he wants to pitch a certain hitter and how to get ready to throw that pitch.
“When he steps into the box, I’m actually trying to work quick so that he doesn’t think along with me in hopes that keeps him off-balance,” Porcello said. “There are different tempos for different situations, so in those situations you need to be able to slow down the game.
“Why don’t they work on instant replay? Some of the calls are so obvious and we’re waiting there for three minutes. Why don’t they work on that? Half the time we’re scratching our head like, ‘Why wasn’t that overturned?’ ”
Both players mentioned the entertainment value of manager-umpire disputes. With Tigers manager Jim Leyland, it was two minutes well spent, unlike waiting for New York to make a call.
Red Sox special adviser Tony La Russa said he watched a lot of minor league games where the clock was used.
“It worked fantastic,” he said. “The pitchers adapted and it shaved time off games and improved the pace of play.”
Henry said he’s excited about the pitch clock.
“I am,” he said. “I prefer 12 seconds [which is the actual rule for pitchers between pitches] so why shouldn’t it be 20 seconds? It’s a step in the right direction.
“We need a shortened time of these games. We feel strongly about pace of play. We’re not in the 1950s. People have a lot of other things they can do and watch. We need the game moving.”
That part is true. Baseball will likely always be popular in the Northeast, as parents pass along their love of baseball to their children. And baseball knows it has a problem with attracting a younger generation.
“The pitch clock works in the minors,” Werner said. “There will be no penalty in spring training, but you’ll get a warning from the umpire. From our point of view, there are necessary improvements the game needs to make. Hopefully our partnership with the players’ union will allow us to do more.”
The players resist change. And you can tell by the response union head Tony Clark had to the clock that it’s not going to be an easy road. The players, who are the product, object to major changes in the game they grew up playing.
“Players have made a sincere attempt to engage with clubs on their proposals to improve pace of play and enhance the game’s appeal to fans,” Clark said in a statement. “At the same time, we have presented wide-ranging ideas that value substance over seconds and ensure the best Players are on the field every day. We believe these substantive changes are imperative now — not in 2022 or 2025, but in 2019.”
MLB will have chief baseball officer Joe Torre talk about the rule changes Tuesday.
While the guys who have been in the minors have learned to adapt, the next big step is for the veterans such as Price, Porcello, Sale, Nathan Eovaldi, and Eduardo Rodriguez to adjust. The Sox bullpen is also in for some rough sledding.