Opinion: WHY BASEBALL NEEDS A PITCH-CLOCK

The problem is not the length of games.
The problem is the length of time between pitches.

Baseball is a great game. Its action is unsurpassed. Unfortunately, you don’t know when it’s going to occur. Consider this; no one on base, a 10-pitch at-bat ends in a strike-out. The ball is not put in play. Few fans would consider that “action.” The at-bat takes 5 minutes. That’s a long time with no action.

On the other hand, fans know action is seconds away in football because there’s a play-clock, and basketball because there’s a shot-clock. Hockey and soccer are non-stop action. Even tournament golf attracts a decent television audience because someone is always hitting a ball.

Not only do baseball fans not know when the “action” will occur, too often, whatever momentum the game generates comes to a grinding halt as the batter steps out of the box, and the pitcher walks around the mound. Twenty seconds, 30 seconds, sometimes a minute goes by before the next pitch. The problem is not the length of games. The problem is the length of time between pitches when nothing is happening. It’s boring.

Too many fans see the game as a deliberate, methodical chess match between the pitcher and the batter. There are at least 10 and often as many as 13 players (depending on how many runners are on base) involved in every pitch, but the game is disproportionately dominated by two of them. Without a doubt, the pitcher-batter confrontation is one of the compelling attractions of baseball. But downtime between pitches, left unchecked, is a drag on a great sport.

It’s time for a pitch-clock

At-bats, innings and games themselves will remain timeless, but as Commissioner Rob Manfred has hinted, it’s time for a pitch-clock.  Twenty seconds is too long. Look at your watch. Don’t move or speak for 20 seconds. That is a lot of downtime. Most pitches are thrown within 20 seconds now. A 20-second pitch-clock won’t improve the pace of the game in fact or in theory. Fifteen seconds is plenty of time – enforce a pace more in line with Mark Buehrle and less like Jonathan Papelbon.

Traditionalists say, ‘Baseball is America’s pastime, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ Baseball was America’s pastime when it had no competition. That hasn’t been the case for decades. Now all the seasons overlap. In the spring, Major League Baseball plays 2nd, 3rd, 4th fiddle to NCAA March Madness and NBA and NHL playoffs. As pennant races heat up in August and September baseball faces stiff competition from college and pro football.

It’s a myth that baseball doesn’t change. Besides the designated hitter (DH), raising and lowering the pitcher’s mound and adjusting the strike zone, there was a time when:

  • the batter instructed the pitcher where to throw the ball
  • it took 9 balls for a walk, then 8, then 6 before settling on 4
  • a fair ball that reached the stands on one bounce was a home run
  • a batted ball that curved foul was a strike no matter how far it went beyond the playing field

Baseball is anything but boring. Sometimes it’s subtle. Sometimes it’s violent. Put the focus on the action, not the inaction. ESPN, Fox and others promote their coverage by showing a double being stretched into a triple, a middle infielder airborne to finish a double-play, a first baseman diving to stop a smash down the line. They don’t promote their coverage by showing a batter tightening his batting gloves for the 6th time in the at-bat.

If something isn’t done to reduce the time between pitches baseball risks becoming irrelevant to all but a dwindling core of obsessed fans. They won’t call a press conference or send out a press release. They will just stop coming. Many already have.

To those who say the “chess match” between the hitter and the pitcher is great for the game, when is the last time you watched a chess match?

by Bill Grimes, member Society for American Baseball
Research (SABR), publisher, www.todayinbaseball.com

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