A Crucial Point With Regard to the Pitch Clock

The pitch clock is coming. It’s coming to the major leagues, and it is inevitable. It’s existed in the minors for a handful of years, and the whole idea there was that it was a trial. A test, before implementation on the biggest stage. From the sounds of things, you can expect to see pitchers — and hitters! — operating with a clock as soon as 2018. Whether you love it or hate it, don’t blame me. I’m just the messenger. And actually, no, Buster Olney is the messenger. I’m just the messenger’s messenger. An excerpt from his report:

But the foundation of the changes to come in 2018 will be in the implementation of a pitch clock, sources say, and MLB is intent on using the same limit used in the minor leagues the past three seasons — 20 seconds between pitches when there are no runners on base.
Twenty seconds, with pitchers required to begin their motion within 20 seconds of the previous pitch.

There are two key points in there:

  1. 20 seconds
  2. when there are no runners on base

If you check out our leaderboards, you’ll see that the league-average pace this past season was a hair over 24 seconds. Pace is the average time between pitches — cutting out pick-offs and mound visits and whatnot — and 24 is greater than 20. Now, the writing suggests pitchers would just have to begin throwing at 20 seconds, so maybe it would work out to be more like a 21- or 22-second cap. Your takeaway might be that a great number of pitchers will be affected. To say nothing of the hitters who have developed their own particular time-wasting quirks.

But the runners-on-base part is significant. There’s a truth you might feel, without truly knowing: Pitchers work faster when the bases are empty.

Pedro Baez is probably the current face of slow pitchers. He did average the slowest pace in all of baseball last season, and so it’s deserved. I want to show you something, with help from Baseball Savant. Here are all of Baez’s career games. I’m not talented enough to just pull all of Baez’s actual pace data when there have and haven’t been runners, but I can show you all his individual game paces, along with the rates of pitches thrown in those games with runners on. It works! The relationship is clear.

As Baez has thrown more and more pitches with runners on, he’s worked slower and slower. He’s made 24 career appearances in which he threw every pitch with a runner on, and his average pace in those games is 36.6 seconds. He’s made 62 career appearances in which he threw every pitch with no runner on, and his average pace in those games is 27.6 seconds. Still slow! Still needs to be sped up. But that’s a nine-second difference. Baez has responded to the situation, and he isn’t alone.

I found a post from January of 2015, written, coincidentally enough, by Sean Dolinar. He found that, with the bases empty, pitchers tended to deliver pitches within roughly 20 seconds. With runners on, however, they slowed down substantially, by eight, nine, or ten seconds. And it makes sense; those runners might be threats to advance, and the situations are more important, more threatening. Pitchers have to be more careful, and their attention is divided.

So while a pitch clock would make a real difference in the majors, it wouldn’t be as dramatic as you might be inclined to think, if it’s only active when the bases are empty. Certain pitchers would be forced to speed up, pitchers like Baez and dozens of others, but most pitchers would be able to work more or less like normal. Which, I think, is how the pitch clock has been received in the minors — most players have said they’ve hardly even noticed it. The real slow-downs take place when there’s a runner or two or three, and it doesn’t look like those situations are being targeted. Not as Olney wrote his report.

Maybe that just means this can be taken further down the road. And we can’t reach any certain conclusions when we don’t yet have an actual rule, with actual, explicit details. This is for baseball to sort out in the coming months. But it sounds like we’re about to have a pitch clock. And it sounds like it should have only a modest effect. Maybe that’s a good thing and maybe that’s a bad thing, but it’s a thing, and it’s for us and everyone else to get used to.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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6 years ago

How is it enforced and what is the penalty, at least in the minor league trials? A free base and an am ump with a timer? Id feel bad for those guys having one more thing to have to focus on.

I also can’t wait for the Jedi mind trick skill of a batter drawing pitch clock violations. Hooray for more data points!

6 years ago

I think there’s a clock in the stadium for that. Similar to NFL delay of game with the play clock. I think the penalty for it would be an automatic ball.

6 years ago

As someone who has literally been the one starting and stopping the clock at the AAA level, I can tell you that it is not enforced.

6 years ago

There’s a clock on display in the stands. In theory if the pitcher isn’t ready to throw when it hits zero, the ump awards a ball to the batter. If the batter isn’t ready to go, the ump awards a strike to the pitcher (or so I was told). In practice, in the handful of AAA I’ve attended, I’ve never seen it happen.