Nearly two months into baseball’s shot clock era, you sometimes wonder how the sport got so slow. Why do we put up with stopped traffic on a ride that could have been so much smoother?
“It was the Red Sox/Yankees, a lot of people in these places, they certainly know about that,” Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais said with a smile last week before a game at Fenway Park in Boston. “I mean, it was four hours each night. Just a normal 4-2 game was 3 hours and 40 minutes. It has sped things up a lot.”
The game Servais’s team played that night would not evoke the prose of Angell or Updike. Mariners pitchers allowed 12 runs and 16 hits, while Red Sox pitchers walked eight. Two hit batters remained, three errors, 10 pitchers and 19 runners on base. However, it took just 2 hours and 57 minutes, faster than the average for major league games in each of the past seven seasons.
“The first five innings of a game fly by,” Servais said. “We have two or three hits, they have two or three hits and you look up and it’s the fifth inning and we’re not even an hour away. It’ll be a little slower from there, but there are some nights where I’m like, ‘We’re going to finish this in an hour and 50 minutes.
In fact, a few days later on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball,” the scene of many of those notorious marathons between the Red Sox and Yankees, Mets and Cleveland Guardians, ended in 2 hours and 6 minutes, on “Sunday Night Baseball” faster. Baseball” in eight years.
For veteran players, the shot clock, the most prominent of several rule changes in Major League Baseball this season, has required recalibrating the familiar rhythms of the sport. But the results are impossible to ignore: As of Monday, the average time for a nine-inning game was 2 hours, 37 minutes, which would be the fastest pace in MLB since 1984. Last season’s average, for the same number of days, it was 3 hours. 5 minutes.
The average time for a nine-inning game had never been as high as three hours until 2014. After a slight dip in 2015, it had been at least three hours ever since. Think of MLB as the lenient parent who suddenly got strict. The kids stayed out very late, so now there’s a curfew: 15 seconds with bases empty, 20 seconds with runners on.
“If there was a way to get the pace off the clock, we would have done it 20 years ago,” said Morgan Sword, MLB executive vice president of baseball operations.
“We started Day 1 of spring training with strict enforcement of all these new rules, and we felt that was the best way to help players through that adjustment period and get to the other side,” Sword continued. “And as we’ve seen in the minor leagues, once you’re on the other side, violations happen in less than half the games and they’re not a huge part of the competition, but you feel the benefit of the clock on every pitch for the entire game.” evening. .”
The rule changes, Sword said, have worked as MLB intended. With bigger bases and a limit on pickoff attempts per plate appearance, stolen base attempts are up 1.8 per game, the most since 2012, and the 78.7 percent success rate is the highest ever. . With a ban on defensive changes that placed more than two infielders on one side of the diamond, the batting average on balls in play is as low as .298, up six points from last year, and fielding is back. to be fashionable
“You can’t hide the second baseman at turn anymore,” Red Sox shortstop Kiké Hernández said. “I feel like there were a lot of really offensive second basemen who didn’t necessarily field his position that well, but were able to get away with playing second base because they got hidden on the turn. Now you have to be a little more athletic again.”
In a way, the change was like a cheat code. The data showed where a batsman is most likely to hit the ball, so defenders were positioned accordingly. Without the changeup, intuitive infielders with a passion for preparation have an advantage.
“I like the spacing of how the defense is now; it’s so pure,” said Seattle’s Kolten Wong, a two-time Gold Glove winner at second base. “You really have to pay attention to the pitch calls, the tendencies of the hitters, what the guys are trying to do in certain situations. It makes the game more intriguing.”
Wong, a left-handed hitter, hasn’t seen a benefit on offense; he’s hitting under .200. Overall though, lefties are hitting 37 points higher on ground balls thrown and 28 points higher on line drives thrown. Future generations of lefties may never know the heartbreak of their predecessors.
“It was a nightmare,” said Matt Joyce, a former outfielder who hit .242 in a 14-year career through 2021. “It drove me crazy. The argument for me was that if it affected right-handers equally, that’s fine. But you were basically killing left-handed hitters, which obviously wasn’t fair. They are definitely being rewarded for good contact now, because there are a lot more holes.
Joyce is now a television analyst for the Tampa Bay Rays, who have thrived on the bases. The Rays had 53 stolen bases through Monday, tied with the Pittsburgh Pirates for the most in MLB.
Tellingly, the five teams with the lowest payrolls this season (Oakland, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Cleveland) are also the five teams with the most steals. Cheaper players tend to be younger and younger players tend to be faster. With a higher chance of success on stolen base attempts, low-payroll teams have another weapon.
“Tarrik Brock runs our base-running, and he started texting me as soon as we thought these rules were going to go into effect,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said, referring to the team’s first base coach. “He was playing with his staff, because we have young, athletic players who have played within these rules a little bit, so they knew what was going on with them. The message from the start of spring training was: We’re going to run the bases aggressively.”
The Pirates have struggled in May, but were still tied with Milwaukee for the top spot in the NL Central as of Monday. Meanwhile, the Rays have been the best team in the majors, although they have lost two of their starting pitchers, left-hander Jeffrey Springs and right-hander Drew Rasmussen, to arm injuries.
The question remains whether the faster pace is affecting the player’s health.
Speaking generally about the shot clock, and prior to Rasmussen’s injury, Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder said the rushing pace clashed with the modern approach to pitching.
“It’s lifting weights every 15 seconds,” Snyder said. “It’s all they have. No one is holding anything back in 2023. It’s a lot more power and less art than it used to be, and now they have less time to recover in between.”
Pitchers can reset the clock by coming off the rubber twice per plate appearance, albeit with only one runner on base. They have a few other tricks to buy a few seconds here and there, but nothing to noticeably change your mental or physical pace.
“It’s important to slow down the game when you get in trouble and you don’t really have that opportunity,” Boston reliever Richard Bleier said. “You can only throw so many balls on the bench before they tell you no.”
Chicago White Sox reliever Joe Kelly, a former starter, predicted in spring training that injuries to starters would “shoot up” because their muscles need more time to recover between pitches than the clock allows. That hasn’t quite happened, but it may be a matter of perspective.
From spring training through the 55th day of the regular season (Monday), pitchers went on the disabled list 232 times, compared to 204 last year. Then again, spring training was shorter in 2022 because of the lockout: From Day 2 of this regular season through Day 55, pitchers’ DL placements have dropped slightly, from 111 to 109.
“The best predictor of injury is a previous injury, and we have more pitchers on our rosters today who have significant injury histories than ever before in baseball history, so there’s kind of a snowball effect,” Sword said. .
He added: “But also, the throwing style that has emerged in the last two decades, which is maximum effort, high velocity, high spin, is also related to injury. And if we combine that, we’re definitely seeing a bit of a long-term uptick. I don’t think there is strong evidence to support a material change this year relative to the last two years.”
It will take years to assess the true impact of the new rules. With harder power tosses to hit, will thin tosses become more popular? With less time on the field, will the position players feel stronger as the season progresses? With a more attractive product, will attendance continue to rise, up 6 percent from last year at the same point?
We already know this: a large amount of dead time has gone and nobody wants to recover it. Remove weeds from the garden and the good things will have more room to flourish.
“Rhythm aside, the product is just cleaner,” said Howie Rose, the radio voice of the Mets. “Guys still strike out too much, pitchers still walk too much, guys still try to hit the ball out of the park. But because the ball is always being delivered, whether it’s in play or not, it just heightens your senses. And to me, that’s a very welcome thing.”