Rob Rasmussen, a reliever currently with Toronto’s Triple-A affiliate, the Buffalo Bisons, abides by three keys to pitching. “The last three things I want to think about before I start an inning: going pitch to pitch, attacking the zone, and breathing. They’re in my hat. I take off my hat and look at them.”
Rasmussen was looking inside his hat shortly after coming into a game in the middle of the sixth inning in Durham in early May. He had just made his warm-up pitches, and his catcher followed with the customary, punctuating throw to second base, one of the many time-wasting habits and routines that baseball needlessly, stubbornly repeats (including the line about baseball stubbornly repeating its habits and routines).
Additional time was wasted by this particular throw to second base, which sailed into center field — although Rasmussen, peering into his hat, didn’t see this. It took some time for the ball to come back and cycle around the infield, then more time for the catcher to decide to discard it and get a new ball from the umpire. Eventually the ball got to Rasmussen. As he looked in for his first sign, the timer ran out. He was assessed an automatic ball.
“I kinda stood there and asked, ‘What did I do?’” Rasmussen, who hadn’t come set yet,1 told me the next afternoon. “But at that point, you’re wondering if the clock’s running again.”
The clock was running again. This year, as part of Major League Baseball’s new Pace of Game initiatives, both the majors and the upper minors are observing a 0:02:25 limit between innings and during pitching changes.2 But unlike in the big leagues, where players can be fined for violations, Double-A and Triple-A players are subject to automatic balls and strikes. They’re also subject to a more intrusive and onerous experiment: The clock counts down from 20 seconds between each pitch. If the clock runs out before the pitcher has begun his windup — or, when runners are on base, before he has come set — it’s an automatic ball. If the hitter isn’t in the batter’s box and “alert to the pitcher,” as the rules put it, he’s assessed a strike. Exceptions: any time the pitcher gets a new ball, either by request or because the hitter fouls it out of play;3 or at the umpire’s discretion.
The clock may strike some as “abhorrent,” as Joe Maddon called it last year when he was managing the Tampa Bay Rays (and when, perhaps not coincidentally, his Rays played the longest games in baseball). But the idea isn’t new. It goes at least as far back as 2003, when Bill James published the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, in which he deplored “the wasted time inside baseball games [that] dissipates tension and thus makes the game less interesting, less exciting, and less fun to watch.” Still, even the forward-thinking James objected to “proposals to put a clock on the pitcher and time him between pitches. … The people who make these kinds of proposals believe fundamentally that baseball is a boring game which needs to be jazzed up for the next century.”
In other words, as Gwinnett Braves pitching coach Marty Reed put it in April — fittingly, during a rain delay, with game time standing still — “the beauty of this game is that it has no clock.”
My brother-in-law uttered that exact phrase to me just a few weeks ago. It is the John 3:16 of baseball, its one-sentence article of faith. A clock? In baseball? What will we have next? Crying?
Well, yes, in a sense. Who cries the most? Children. And baseball is thinking of the children.
“We’ve lost a generation,” MLB umpire supervisor Cris Jones told me. Baseball is booming with the Boomers, producing the seventh-highest attendance total in history last season, but what will happen when the Boomers go bust? Baseball is thinking of the children, yes, but it also wants the children, when they grow up, to think of baseball. Two of MLB’s current #THIS promo ads feature David Price and Mike Trout signing autographs for kids. Price voices MLB’s ambitions in a single sentence: “If I can make kids happy, that’s what I’m trying to do.” And baseball is putting its money where its mind is; with the MLBPA, MLB has just rolled out a $30 million youth baseball development program.
But it’s not only about the children. Chris Marinak, MLB’s senior vice-president of league economics and strategy, told me that the commissioner’s office had been hearing from managers and coaches “who felt like we had lost a little bit of crispness and flow that had been present three to five years earlier.” And that has led to what Marinak decorously called “a reduction in the quality of experience for the fan.”
Crispness and flow and quality of experience are hard to measure, but hours and minutes aren’t, and one thing is certain: By 2014, baseball was taking longer than ever. Last season, the average game topped three hours for the first time.
The rise commenced in the 1980s. What had been a two-and-a-half-hour game since the 1950s rose to 2:49 by 1991, thanks largely to more television broadcasts. It reached 2:54 in 1994, but then mostly leveled off, even declining in some seasons. Games were the same length in 2010 as in 1996, and only one season (2000, which saw the most runs scored in any season in history) topped 2:54. But there has been a sharp spike in the past three seasons:
Pace of Game initiatives were already under way, but that new, ominous three in the 2014 hour column galvanized the efforts. It was time to put baseball on the clock.
Rob Rasmussen’s three keys had been invalidated; he might have gotten more help from his hat by eating it. He couldn’t go pitch to pitch, because the count was 1-0 before he threw one. Thus, he couldn’t attack the zone with complete precision: “I don’t care if the next pitch is middle or in,” he told me, “just down.” And with the clock again dwindling below 10 seconds, there wasn’t much time for breathing.
He threw a knee-high fastball over the middle to free-swinging slugger J.P. Arencibia, who smoked it into center field for a leadoff single.
Here’s what happened next: Wild pitch. Triple. Four-pitch walk. Pop out. Single.
After a strikeout, Rasmussen was removed from the game. He was ultimately charged with three runs in two-thirds of an inning. Over the season’s first two months, he would allow only two other runs.
“You come to realize,” he said, “that there are tangible, negative effects.”
Rasmussen’s violation was the third I saw a pitcher “balled” for, as the argot has it, after the initial grace period ended on May 1 and umpires started enforcing penalties. Rasmussen admitted, a bit sheepishly, that he wasn’t entirely clear on the five-page regulations. I discovered that the same was true for most players, and even some managers and coaches. The grace period may actually have contributed to the prevailing ignorance. “We never got a ‘Hey, you would have violated here,’” Rasmussen said. “Everything was normal, with the clock running but with no real consequences, no information on what you were doing.” The clock was similarly inert during spring training, when it was installed and used in some ballparks, but with no consequence.
Two days after witnessing Rasmussen’s violation, I saw a fourth pitcher balled. (I didn’t see a hitter violate the rules until mid-July.) After all four violations, the pitcher allowed multiple runs in the inning.
I asked Rasmussen if, in a situation like that, the clock gets in his head.
“A thousand percent it does,” he said. “There were a lot of things going through my head that were not baseball.” He added that in Triple-A, “you’re basically auditioning for tomorrow or the next day, and all of a sudden those things start to spiral.”
“The game speeds up on you.”
Two days before time ran out on Rasmussen in Durham, my attention was called to the clock in Charlotte. The game hadn’t even started yet. Under the new rules, an hour before first pitch, the clock commences countdown from 60:00 — we’re getting to the church of baseball on time now. Marty Reed, the pitching coach who’d said the beauty of the game was that it had no clock, likes the pregame timer. “It helps guys prepare,” he said. That’s how conditioned we are against the clock: We object to it even as we praise some of its effects.
It was during this preparatory hour that I spoke with Cole Figueroa, an infielder with the Yankees’ Triple-A team, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, who were playing at Charlotte. Figueroa is a smart, patient, alert player: Since 2011, his walk-to-strikeout ratio has been the highest or second highest at every minor league level where he’s played. I’d have pegged someone like that for a clock-hater, but Figueroa surprised me. He pointed at the clock beyond the center-field wall:
“If it’s going to bring more people into the stands, I feel like that’s an easy sell. You want more people there. It’s good for the fans, in a novice sense. You see the clock winding down. In your mind you know that there’s gonna be action. The newer fan, the younger fan, the millennial” — MLB’s lost generation — “they’re waiting for the now-moment, because everything happens so fast now. Everybody loves a countdown, even if nothing happens.”
And that’s the heart of the matter: action, the now-moment. The concern in the commissioner’s office isn’t length, Marinak said, it’s pace. That echoed a distinction that Durham Bulls GM Mike Birling had made a few weeks earlier: “Youth doesn’t just mean speed.” The goal isn’t fewer minutes: It’s more action, less of the “wasted time inside baseball” that rankles James.
But what was wasting the time? Why had games gotten so long? I asked people from all walks of baseball: MLB officials, GMs, managers, coaches, players, umpires, umpire supervisors — even clock operators, whose job literally keeps some of them up at night, wired from training their eyes on every single pitch and on the umpire, fingers twitching over the timer buttons.4 I got all kinds of explanations. Some seemed flimsy or myopic: more signs from third-base coaches, one third-base coach said. Others were peremptory but vague: “I’m sure it’s something to do with fucking television,” another coach complained, without elaborating. Fucking television was a favorite answer — to many questions, in fact, including, “Who benefits from the clock?” But fucking television gains nothing from the new dispensation, which strictly limits inning breaks to less than three minutes.
Even some hard facts had their underlying causes disputed. About 30 more pitches were thrown in the average big league game last year than in the average game in the mid-1990s, an increase of more than 10 percent and an obvious culprit. But why are there more pitches? Some people blamed the Moneyball/sabermetrics complex, under which hitters are rewarded for working counts, grinding out at-bats, and drawing walks. But walks are actually down in recent seasons, not up. Others blamed pitchers: Gwinnett Braves manager Brian Snitker (the Atlanta Braves’ erstwhile third-base coach), who voiced qualified support for a clock, pointed to an increase in power pitchers in Triple-A (where games have also lengthened, reaching 2:56 by 2014). The kids throw harder now, but they’re less seasoned, Snitker said, so they’re wilder. Yet this is only half-true: Pitchers do throw harder, but Triple-A players are actually a little older now than in 2006, when Snitker last managed at the level before returning in 2014.
Or maybe it’s the umpires. A couple of coaches veered toward conspiracy theory, claiming that minor league umps are more heavily penalized by their supervisors if they call balls out of the zone strikes than vice versa. If they’re unsure about a borderline pitch, these coaches claim, they call it a ball, necessitating more pitches.5
Oh, and walk-up music — everyone wanted to blame walk-up music.
I thought I should go back to my official source.
“If there was more offensive activity,” Marinak said — as in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when there was 25 percent more scoring than there was in 2014 — “maybe we give it another year or more time to study it.” But scoring is at its lowest level since 1981, the same year games started slowing down. As writer Dayn Perry put it, “It’s one thing to have lengthy games because crooked numbers are going on the board, but it’s something else to have long games in the presence of, well, not much besides strikeouts.”
Ah, strikeouts. Their recent record highs may be the main cause of baseball’s pace problem, which is really a perception problem:6 It’s not about scoring, it’s about motion. Not only does a strikeout require the fewest number of players, which is boring (and fascist), it also requires at least three pitches, whereas the endangered creature known as the ball in play can be hatched with just one.
You’ve heard of BABIP, Batting Average on Balls In Play? What about MiBBIP: Minutes Between Balls in Play? MLB has been studying that data, too:
Last season, we spent 20 percent more time watching the corridor between pitcher and catcher, and more time waiting to watch it: The interval between pitches was its longest (23 seconds) since we started measuring. That makes the now-moment scarcer. One manager I spoke with wondered whether, with runs at such a premium over the past few years, more may be riding on this pitch, as Rasmussen’s hat has it, than ever before, especially during the late-game processional of a record-high number of relievers used per game. (According to FanGraphs, all but one of the 50 slowest-working pitchers in baseball since 2011 are relievers.) Hitters step out of the box more often and for longer to gear up (literally, with more gear to adjust) for more pitches from more pitchers than ever; and those pitches come harder and break harder and break more tendons in the elbows that throw them; and hitters swing and hit and miss harder — the whiff rate has spiked in step with the length of games over the past few years. Catchers frame better and fielders shift smarter. In the line score and in time, baseball is coming up emptier than ever.
This may cause “a reduction of the quality of experience for the fan,” in Marinak’s words, but the quality of baseball has never been higher. As Buck Showalter says in another #THIS television promo, “The game is being played better than it ever has in the history of it.” That’s a way of saying that it’s also harder than ever — largely because, although it looks emptier, it’s actually fuller. Every pitch, every play now bursts with far more than anyone can perceive: namely, data — a nuclear explosion of it in recent seasons, invisible but powerfully acting upon the immediate physical encounter between batter and pitcher. Data is the unseen accomplice here: voluminous yet frighteningly precise, swelling the now-moment with almost infinite ramification. Our technologies and our scouting track who throws what, where, when, how fast, with what movement; and who hits it (or misses it), and where, and how hard; and who catches it, and how, and where. Baseball is coursing with more information now than we can possibly keep up with. The game is speeding up on everyone, and it’s our instinct to try to slow it down. We’re not wasting time; we’re trying to catch up with it. Baseball has gotten slower because it’s moving faster.
A pitch clock, then: What primitive technology to govern such complicated stuff on the field! How tiny and beside the point it seems! Perhaps that’s why conversations I had about the clock almost inevitably turned to something else. We’d end up talking instead about renovated ballparks like Wrigley, or the rise of fantasy sports or instant replay or infield shifting, or why major league baseballs are different from minor league baseballs, or how not even Clayton Kershaw has a chance at 300 wins anymore. The clock, Charlotte manager Joel Skinner told me, is merely a way of “legitimizing” a sea change in the way we play and watch baseball. Think of it as the sport’s climate change, massive and perhaps irreversible, with meteorological language to match: scoring droughts, heat maps, spray charts. The clock is a cynosure for a host of deeper issues, trends, and anxieties, from walks to walk-up music, Twitter7 to television, sabermetrics to the strike zone. It is not, to be clear, a metaphor: The clock is real; it counts down; it has “tangible, negative effects” on players like Rasmussen. But these effects flow from a vast sea change, from the rising waters and temperature of the game. If we get caught up worrying about the seconds and minutes, we’ll miss the advent of baseball’s new era. It is, indeed, already upon us.
About an hour or so after I talked with Cole Figueroa, his teammate, RailRiders starting pitcher Eric Wooten, committed a 20-second violation. Wooten tried to do the right thing: From the stretch, the clock was right in his line of sight, and as it expired he stepped off the rubber in an effort to avoid the penalty. But he, like Rasmussen, had not come set. He went on to allow four runs in the inning.
It was just Wooten’s fifth career Triple-A start, after only half a season of Double-A in 2014. His youth didn’t make him an anomaly among his teammates. Figueroa is, at age 28, one of Scranton’s oldest players. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Triple-A team this young,” he said. Neither had I. The Yankees, notorious for old teams, are promoting their prospects more quickly — they’re thinking of the children — “which I applaud them for,” Figueroa said. “People are starting to realize this isn’t just where to hoard older players. It’s another development step.” No, youth doesn’t just mean speed; maybe it means getting up to speed sooner.
Old habits: Before Wooten’s next scheduled start, he was demoted to Double-A.
This isn’t the first time baseball has had a clock, you know.
I learned that from a scout I sat next to at The Diamond in Richmond, where the Flying Squirrels (the Giants’ Double-A affiliate) were hosting the Reading Fightin Phils. It was the “Education Day” game in late April. These twice-yearly morning games (first pitch at 10:35 a.m.) are a chance for schools to bus in thousands of students — exactly the “novice fans” MLB wants to attract. They paid little attention to the game and screamed at the harried between-inning promotions, which now have to rush on and off the field under the new 0:02:25 clock.
The scout recalled playing in the National Baseball Congress, a self-proclaimed “World Series” of amateur and semipro teams played annually in Wichita, Kansas, since the 1930s. (It has many illustrious alumni, and one of its records is still held by Satchel Paige.) In the late 1980s, when the scout played in the NBC, the tournament implemented a play clock, much like today’s. It not only resulted in a ball or a strike if it expired before a pitch; it actually sounded a buzzer, like a game show.
This was the day, right before the end of the April grace period, when some changes to the regulations were handed down from the league office. Everyone, including the clock operator, was scrambling to bone up. It’s important to remember that the Pace of Game initiatives weren’t green-lit until February; this all happened, fittingly, really fast, and evolved on the fly.
The scout’s organization had broken camp with four “young and fresh players,” as he put it, on its major league roster (2015 is the Year of the Prospect). He, like Figueroa, was quick to tie the clock into the notion of youth. Why, he wondered, do we continue to make players toil for years in the minors? Why not “accelerate the Protestant work ethic,” he said, since everything else in baseball is accelerating — for scouts, too. This is not a matter of sabermetrics, which remain not only out of the scouting eye but actually behind it: “The numbers explain the past,” the scout said, but he told me he was trying to see the future, which now gets here a lot more quickly than it used to. He pointed out that it used to be less important to develop prospects: Even after free agency arrived in the 1970s, players often remained with the same team for many years. Also, the amount of bonus money spent on draftees was paltry compared to today; prospect failure wasn’t so costly. In Richmond, the starters were former first-rounders Aaron Nola (who made his excellent major league debut on Tuesday) and Chris Stratton, who represented millions of invested dollars on the mound. The clock on that investment was running, its gears in forced engagement with big league arbitration clocks, the trade deadline calendar, and when the next pitcher blows out his elbow.
Of course baseball has a clock — it has lots of them. After speedster Roman Quinn hit a ball to the left-center-field gap and motored all the way to third base for a triple, another scout clicked his stopwatch and announced that Quinn went home-to-third in just 10.77 seconds. The Flying Squirrels pitcher sitting in front of me, charting the Richmond starter, had his radar gun trained on the mound, clocking velocity. The watch on his wrist was set to Pacific daylight time — San Francisco Giants time.
But the clock that made the biggest impact on me in Richmond was none of these. It was the plainest, most obvious one: the one that tells the actual time. Every ballpark has one, but spectators seldom notice it — especially not in Richmond, where it’s way over in right field. But the first night I was there, a batter hit a lazy fly to right, and as the ball hung long in the air, the clock behind it caught my eye because it did something I’d never seen before at a baseball game: It changed, from 7:36 to 7:37.
With so many clocks in baseball, how much longer can we keep that clock, the pitch clock, out of the game? How much longer can we continue to grant the national pastime its antitrust exemption from the laws of time? Even Walt Whitman saw through the pastoral myth. “It’s our game,” he said, or so we like to think, because baseball has “the snap, go, fling, of the American atmosphere.” And the atmosphere, the climate, has changed, inside the ballpark and out. We cling to the past, its habits and routines, at our peril. As Showalter insists in his #THIS promo, “These are the good old days. They are.” This is the now-moment. This is the national present time.
After the Education Day game, I went for a walk through Richmond’s rapidly rebuilding Scott’s Addition neighborhood. Through a restaurant window, I saw a television showing the Orioles and White Sox playing in an empty Camden Yards, because of the rioting in Baltimore.
There was no one in the stands, but they played walk-up music anyway.
The notion of a clock was so hard for me to absorb at first that I went to watch one be installed in the Durham ballpark. I needed to see for myself that one day there was no clock in baseball, and the next day there was.
The younger of the two electricians happened to be named Adam, like me. I felt a natural kinship with him, as though he was the active version of me, not pondering the clock but realizing it. Adam was wearing a Detroit Tigers cap. He attended the final game at Tiger Stadium. “Al Kaline ran me over,” he recalled, happily, the way you might remember losing a midtown taxi to Bruce Willis.
Adam was an easygoing guy, but when it came to baseball he had a lot of opinions. He said his Tigers were in good shape to win the AL Central again, even without Max Scherzer. But watch out for the Twins, Adam said. “The Twins are my dark horse.”
Through June 25, with just the 0:02:25 clock — abetted by renewed enforcement of a neglected rule, long on the books, that hitters must keep a foot in the batter’s box after taking a pitch — major league games are back under three hours, more than nine minutes faster than they were last year, and Marinak had early reports of improved crispness and flow on the field. We may not even need the more intrusive 20-second pitch clock that’s being tested in the minors. (“I don’t see what impact it’s really going to have,” said Dusty Dellinger, Minor League Baseball’s director of umpire development, before the season even started.) Adam the electrician thought a clock in baseball was perfectly fine, and, more to the point, here to stay. “You’ve just got to get the old guard through,” he said.
The old guard in the stands, the “purists,” might actually find themselves liking the clock. (The recently timed Home Run Derby changed some minds.) But they may not even notice it much. All spring and summer in Durham, hardly anyone has, dispelling fears that it might distract fans’ attention; the clock may actually help focus that attention on the field. With it, there’s less mascot and music, more baseball. Isn’t that what we wanted all along?
It was the day before the Triple-A season started, and the Bulls were taking batting practice on the field. Adam and I spent a few moments marveling at the endurance of this ritual, which is not only a waste of time but probably also detrimental to good hitting habits — yet another old routine to which baseball is clinging.
Adam picked up his drill and shrugged. “There’s always something in baseball that you can’t let go of,” he said. Then he went back up the hill to drive the last few screws into the clock.
Adam Sobsey (@sobsey) lives in Durham, North Carolina, where he covered the Durham Bulls for five years. His baseball writing has appeared in The Paris Review and Baseball Prospectus, and he is the lead author of Bull City Summer, a documentary book project about the Bulls. His biography of the rock musician Chrissie Hynde is forthcoming from University of Texas Press in 2016-17.