Despite hitting a walk-off, three-run homer to seal the Diamondbacks’ first Cactus League victory on Monday, Emmanuel Rivera might not have been the star of the show. That honor, one could argue, belonged to the pitch clock — the crown jewel of MLB’s latest round of rule changes and the primary reason for Monday’s blistering game time: two hours and four minutes.
“It was crazy,” Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo said. “I’ve never been in a game like that.”
There were other factors outside of the pitch clock that shortened the game, of course. The Diamondbacks pitching staff held the Cubs to two hits. The D-backs only had seven, three of which came in the ninth inning. In a world without the pitch clock, this game would have been relatively short. But two hours and four minutes? Not a chance.
For reference, two hours and four minutes is the exact runtime of Iron Man 2, Jurassic World and the new Ant-Man movie that released last month. It is also shorter than the average NBA game by about 25 minutes and shorter than the average NFL game by more than an hour. Last year’s average MLB game time was 3:07.
So, was this a one-game phenomenon, or is the pitch clock shortening game times across baseball? How are pitchers, hitters and catchers — yes, catchers — adjusting? And, perhaps most importantly, what do fans think of the change?
Here are five observations after five days of watching the pitch clock in action.
1. Yes, the pitch clock shortens games
Not every spring training game has taken two hours flat so far, but the pitch clock has clearly made an impact. The D-backs’ first three Cactus Leagues all took slightly more than three hours, but all three featured 17 runs or more and a whole bunch of base-runners. Without the pitch clock, those games might have lasted 3 1/2 hours or more.
According to a tweet from The Athletic’s Jayson Stark, the average spring training game time was 2:39 entering Wednesday compared to 3:01 at this point in spring training last year. That’s a difference of 22 minutes.
Regular season games have not averaged under 2:39 since 1981, when the average game took two hours and 38 minutes. Games have not averaged less than three hours since 2015.
Regular season games might take longer than what we’ve seen in spring training, as teams naturally make more mound visits and challenge more calls in games that count. When the dust settles, regular season games are still going to be shorter in 2023, likely by 20 minutes or more.
2. The product is undeniably better
When MLB implemented the pitch clock, it did so on the basis of two findings from fan surveys: (1) Fans want a faster pace of play and (2) fans want more action in the game.
According to Morgan Sword, MLB’s executive vice president of baseball operations, the league learned in its research that the median preferred game length among fans is two hours and 30 minutes. While the pitch clock is unlikely to bring the average game time down that far, all indications are that the pitch timer will close the gap significantly.
Although most fans want shorter games, there is a contingent of folks who scoff at the thought of fellow baseball fans rooting for a shortened game. Are they even real fans? Do they just want the game to end?
The pitch clock does not mean less baseball, though. The winning team still needs 27 outs, regardless of what any clock in the ballpark reads. The amount of baseball is identical to what it was before. What has changed is the pace of the game. And, so far, that accelerated pace has felt like an invigorating breath of fresh air for a sport that has basically been slowing down since it began.
The pitch clock appears to be striking a healthy balance between keeping the game moving while also preserving the sport’s relaxed nature. Pitchers aren’t running back to the mound like headless chickens just to make sure they throw their next pitch in time. At the same time, they also aren’t allowed to be Pedro Báez.
Only time will tell if the pitch clock helps baseball bring in new fans. However, the majority of fans appear to be embracing it already, and MLB’s research in the minors suggests that fans will become increasingly supportive over time.
3. The pitch clock is complex, and adjusting is no joke
According to a tally from The Athletic’s Jayson Stark, MLB had seen 1.74 pitch clock violations per game entering Wednesday. That is almost identical to the 1.73 per game that occurred in the pitch clock’s first week in the minors.
Unlike some of MLB’s recent rule changes, however, such as adding the DH in the National League and implementing a three-batter minimum for relievers, the pitch clock is not cut and dry. There are some situations that teams won’t fully understand until they experience them firsthand.
One of those situations happened on Monday, when Cubs outfielder Brennen Davis started an at-bat with a 1-1 count against D-backs left-hander Joe Mantiply as a result of a double violation. The issue actually began with D-backs catcher Carson Kelly, who made the final out of the previous half inning and was not fast enough to get his catching gear on to catch Mantiply’s final warm-up toss. Davis, meanwhile, wasn’t in the batter’s box and alert to the pitcher at the requisite eight-second mark.
Lovullo told reporters on Tuesday that his staff is meeting with Major League Baseball to discuss the incident.
“I’m grateful for the time that they’re going to spend with us so that we can get more grounded with these rules,” Lovullo said. “It’s coming at us pretty quick.”
Many players around the league don’t seem to be too stressed about it. That includes D-backs pitcher Zac Gallen, who worked relatively quickly last year with the bases empty but was one of baseball’s slowest workers with men on base.
“If I worry about it, then I’m going to be worried about it,” Gallen said. “It’s just an adjustment that I’ll have to make.
“I know with runners on base I tend to slow the game down. It’s just part of my process of slowing the game down. It’s like, you’re gonna go at my pace. I’m not gonna let the game speed up on me. So, yeah, it’ll be a little bit of adjustment, but I’m not really too worried about it.”
Gallen has yet to appear in a Cactus League game in 2023.
Pitchers with especially large pitch arsenals could be among those who struggle most with the pitch clock. Zach Davies, for example, has five pitches. A slight miscommunication with his catcher could mean not getting the pitch off in time.
“There’s some things about it that I’m not happy with just because I’m a pitcher that throws five different pitches,” Davies said, “and all…up, down, left, right in the zone. So, you have to go through a lot of pitches.”
Davies was called for a pitch violation in his Cactus League debut on Tuesday, when he and catcher Gabriel Moreno were unable to settle on the pitch he wanted before the clock expired. The result was an automatic ball, and the at-bat ultimately ended in a walk.
Davies said that he and other D-backs pitchers are planning to test out a transmitter that would allow them to communicate the pitch to the catcher, rather than the other way around. Doing so could expedite the pitch selection process and potentially prevent violations like the one Davies experienced on Tuesday.
4. Stolen bases are up
With the pitch clock will likely come more stolen bases, particularly for a speedy team such as the Diamondbacks. So far, the D-backs have gone 5-for-6 in stolen bases as a team in six Cactus League games, including a successful double steal on Wednesday that involved Josh Rojas and Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
According to data compiled by Jason Colette, there were 1.09 stolen base attempts per game in the opening weekend of spring training games — an increase of more than 40 percent over spring training last year. Also, according to a story from J.J. Cooper from Baseball America, the stolen base success rate was 78 percent over the opening weekend of spring training games, compared to 73 percent throughout spring training last year.
Granted, just because teams are stealing 40 percent more often in spring training doesn’t necessarily mean they will do the same in the regular season. That uptick could be a result of teams experimenting with the new rules more than anything else. However, steal attempts increased roughly 25 percent when the pitch clock was implemented into the minor leagues last year, and a similar increase in the majors seems reasonable. For the moment, it appears that the pitch clock is doing its job of encouraging teams to run more.
5. This could get ugly in the postseason…but it probably won’t
Some fans were put off by the way Saturday’s game between the Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox ended, and understandably so. With the bases loaded, two outs and a 3-2 count in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth, Braves infield prospect Cal Conley did not get set in the box in time. The violation resulted in a strikeout, and the game ended in a tie.
Of course, one cannot help but wonder: What if this had happened in a playoff game? We’ll never be able to rule out that possibility completely, but it’s unlikely.
Remember, this moment happened on the second day of spring training. Players were — and are — still in the early stages of getting acclimated to the new rules. Pitch clock violations have already become less frequent in a matter of days, and, based on minor-league data, we could see fewer than 0.5 pitch clock violations per game by the end of the season.
On paper, that translates to less than one violation every two games. The chance that a violation happens at the most pivotal moment of an actual playoff game — when players are theoretically more locked in than ever — is low.
Nonetheless, if even one pitch clock violation spoils a big postseason moment, it won’t be a good look for MLB. In the same way that NBA fans often say that they “don’t come to see the refs” in the playoffs, no one wants pitch clock violations to steal the spotlight from MLB’s brightest stars come October.
For now, the pitch clock appears to be doing exactly what it was intended to do. Games are moving faster than they have since the 1980s, stolen bases are on the way up and many fans have already embraced the change. It may not be long before the skeptics join them.
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Top photo: Matt Kartozian/USA TODAY Sports