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The pitch clock will bring more chaos to MLB than expected, and I’m here for it

Baseball players are creatures of routine. When that routine is disrupted, the potential for chaos exists.

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Sea Dogs Baseball Photo by Carl D. Walsh/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

The specific proposals for Major League Baseball’s pitch clock bore me. The league wants 20 seconds, unless the MLBPA doesn’t haggle, in which case they want 18, and there’s some dickering with the exact rules and the ways to circumvent those rules, but the players are so upset about the slow offseason and the codified collusion that they’re in a rejecty mood, but the owners can react unilaterally ...

The details are a mess, and they bore me.

The chaos that’s coming, though. The chaos. That will interest us all.

It was a year ago that I spent dozens of hours of my life with a stopwatch and some old games, trying to figure out why baseball games were so long. All I needed was a YouTube video of a game with commercials included that escaped the crack squad of MLBAM ninjas, and I was lucky that one existed. The resulting article is here, and please note that I’m proudest of the kid with a popcorn bucket on his head eating a booger.

This was the main takeaway, though:

Based on one unscientific deep dive into a pair of similar games, though, the biggest problem with the pace of play is, well, the pace of play. Pitchers don’t get rid of the ball like they used to. Hitters aren’t expecting them to get rid of the ball like they used to. It adds a couple minutes to every half-inning, which adds close to a half-hour.

The commercials made a minor difference. The pitchers holding the ball for a few extra seconds before making the next pitch (to a hitter who probably stepped out of the box) made a major difference. The conclusion was a pitch clock really would help, and that the culture of baseball needed to regress just a touch if there was really going to be a measurable change to the time of game.

And, perhaps most importantly, the pitch clock wouldn’t just shorten games. It would decrease the time in which absolutely nothing happens. That’s the real enemy of baseball in the modern age. There’s something to be said for a sport without a clock, a pastoral respite from a world in which phones are making some sort of chime every 10 seconds, alerting you to your professional and social responsibilities.

There’s something else to be said about taking a half-hour every week to watch one dude breathe heavily while another dude plays with his batting gloves. It’s not fun, and no one likes it. It would appear that the pitch clocks, then, are unambiguously good.

Not so fast! After my article, Rob Arthur discovered something important at FiveThirtyEight about the extra time pitchers are taking between pitches: It makes a difference. The longer a pitcher takes, the harder he throws. The pitchers acted as their own control group, and it didn’t matter how fast the pitcher normally throws. Jamie Moyer probably would have increased his velocity with more rest between pitches. So would Aroldis Chapman.

Pitch clocks are going to lead to slower fastballs, on average.

Slower fastballs are going to lead to more contact, on average.

More contact should lead to more chaos.

That’s just one effect, though. There are all sorts of things we can’t measure that will change how the game is played. Ken Rosenthal talked to five players about the new proposals, and their uncomfortability about pitch clocks was a revelation.

There were more complaints than guys saying, ‘I didn’t really think about it.’ It’s something where the guys in Double A and Triple A said it just caused more headaches.

That’s from Paul Goldschmidt.

It fundamentally changes the way the game is played. And I think that’s one of the biggest things we were against.

That’s from Chris Iannetta, and you know there are scores and scores and scores of players who have similar concerns. Everything we know is going to be different, those concerns might start. Different is probably bad.

If that seems sarcastic, it’s not meant to be. Different is bad when it comes to hitters and pitchers. When mechanics are locked in, that’s a good thing, and by definition, “locked in” means doing the same thing over and over and over. The technical precision of a swing or a delivery isn’t something that benefits from experimentation and disruption. There isn’t a lot of “dunno, guess I’ll just try this radically different thing, see what sticks” in baseball, and there never will be.

A pitch clock qualifies as a radically different thing. The routines of pitchers and hitters will be altered. The years of embedded knowledge on how to hold runners will be altered. Hitters and pitchers will search for cracks in the foundations, ways to sneak around the new rules, or ways to bug the players who are too busy looking for ways to sneak around the new rules. There will be pitchers who discover that pitching at an aggressive pace suits them much better, and there will be pitchers who discover that they really, really need those extra few seconds of composure. This goes for the hitters, too, with some of them realizing they’re actually benefiting from a change in routine, with others struggling to adapt.

You know, chaos.

Then we’ll all get used to it, and the players will either adapt or be punished for their inability to adapt. We won’t know the difference, of course. It’s hard enough to discern why baseball players decline for baseball reasons. It will be impossible to figure out if any of them struggle because they weren’t capable of embracing a new routine. They’ll seem to us like baseball players who declined like all the others. But for a season or two, if not three or four, I’m prepared to absorb the subtle changes in productivity that are all being done in service of pace of play.

It’s also possible that I’m reading too much into the FiveThirtyEight article and the chaos will be muted. When the Arizona Fall League experimented with pitch clocks starting in 2014, the league’s ERA went from 4.14 to 4.27 — that is, if there was a change, it was impossible to isolate. The extra .13 points of ERA could be explained by everything from different rosters to luck, and it could have been that without the pitch clocks, the league’s ERA would have been 3.27 or 5.27.

But when routines are disrupted, be they pitcher, hitter, or umpire, the game is different, by definition. A different game will bring surprises along with it, by definition. The pitch clock isn’t a butterfly flapping its wings so much as it’s a butterfly belching in your ear when you’re trying to concentrate, and I’m extremely interested in how that’s going to work out.

It’s all useless without the death of 15 or 20 minutes of baseball inactivity, which really is the worst thing. My guess is that everything will seem normal sooner rather than later, and the game will be better for it.

Until then, keep an eye open for chaos. Sweet, sweet chaos. It wouldn’t be baseball without it, but this is like a couple of spoonfuls of sugar on top of your Frosted Flakes. Get ready for something different, even if we don’t know what those differences really will be.

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