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MLB is testing pitch clock in spring training, hoping to add it for the 2019 regular season

A 20-second pitch clock will be used in spring games beginning this weekend

The pitch clock was evident during Friday’s spring training game between the Mariners and A’s in Peoria.

Major League Baseball on Friday announced the implementation of a pitch clock on a trial basis this spring, one day before the full slate of games begin in Arizona and Florida.

For the first week or so the 20-second pitch clock will operate between pitches though with no enforcement, allowing players and umpires to get used to the process. After that, umpires will between innings inform teams which players are violating the rule, though again no penalties will be attached.

MLB said that “later in spring training” and after negotiating with the MLB Players Association, only then would it have umpires assess ball-strike penalties for rule violations.

There are a few details to the pitch clock that will be used in spring training:

  • Timer only starts after the first pitch of the at-bat.
  • Clock starts once the pitcher has the ball in the dirt circle around the pitching rubber and the catcher is in the box.
  • Before the 20 seconds are up, the pitcher must begin his windup or motion to come set. The pitch itself doesn’t have to be thrown before the 20 seconds are up.
  • Any pickoff attempt, wild pitch or passed ball would reset the timer, as would even feigning a pickoff throw or stepping off the mound.
  • The timer won’t be used on the first immediate pitch after a foul ball, a dead ball, or a mound visit.
  • The timer won’t be used on the first pitch after time is called though, “if time was called solely for purposes of resetting the clock, or changing a baseball, the timer shall start on the umpire’s signal.”

MLB discussed adding a pitch clock last year though ultimately decided against it, instead implementing a limit on mound visits and a reduction of time between innings.

The pitch clock for the regular season can technically be implemented by commissioner Rob Manfred, though the league has expressed a willingness to compromise with the players union. As of now no decision has been made whether to implement it during the 2019 regular season.

Opinions vary among players. Dodgers left-hander Rich Hill told the L.A. Times the pitch clock was “ridiculous,” while Pirates right-hander J.T. Brubaker told, “For the most part, it’s something you don’t really notice.”

Batters are affected, too

Pitchers aren’t the only ones scrutinized by a pitch clock, though they will understandably bear the brunt of most punishments under any new rule. Batters are required to be “in the batters box and alert” by the five-second mark of the timer.

As of now there are no penalties built into the pitch clock, but MLB notes that any potential penalties enforced by umpires will be “ball-strike” related.

20 seconds is a long time

The last pace-related rule implemented by MLB was a limit on the number of mound visits in 2018, to six per team for a nine-inning game. Players and teams hemmed and hawed over this during spring training, but for the most part the change worked with nary a hitch. Teams rarely even approached the mound visit cap last year; they were able to easily make the necessary adjustments.

This was a far cry from previous years. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts mentioned a game in August 2017 during which the Diamondbacks visited the mound 19 times against them. Nineteen!

Though these are more about pace, the average game time in MLB in 2018 was three hours, four minutes, down four minutes from 2017. MLB games have averaged at least three hours for the last seven seasons.

Grant Brisbee two years ago painstakingly analyzed video of two games three decades apart and found the bulk of the difference in game times between 1984 and 2014 was captured in the time between pitches. That’s what this pitch clock will try to combat.

“The waiting is the hardest part.” -Thomas Petty
Source: MLBtv

Taking a gander at Yasiel Puig‘s home run in Game 4 of the 2018 World Series, there were five pitches in the at-bat, the last four of which would be measured against a pitch clock if this rule was in place then. This isn’t exact, but a rough estimate shows that Eduardo Rodriguez took more than 20 seconds all four times:

  • Before 0-1 pitch: 22 seconds
  • 1-1 pitch: 21 seconds
  • 2-1 pitch: 22 seconds
  • 3-1 pitch: 26 seconds

Rodriguez averaged 25.7 seconds between pitches using PITCHf/x data during the regular season in 2018. And he’s not alone.

Of the 468 pitchers to throw at least 30 innings last year, all but six averaged more than 20 seconds in between pitches using this metric. Though it is more of an estimate that sometimes captures delays like stepping off a mound, for instance, this pace metric gives us a rough idea of who some of the slowest workers in the game are. Six pitchers averaged more than 30 seconds in between pitches, and they seem more likely to be most affected by this new rule, if implemented.

The slowest-working pitchers in baseball

Pitcher Pace between pitches IP ERA FIP
Pitcher Pace between pitches IP ERA FIP
Bud Norris 31.2 seconds 57⅔ 3.59 3.99
Brad Hand 30.5 seconds 72 2.75 3.20
Joe Kelly 30.5 seconds 65⅔ 4.39 3.57
Pedro Baez 30.3 seconds 56⅓ 2.88 3.16
Jeurys Familia 30.3 seconds 72 3.13 2.65
Sam Dyson 30.0 seconds 70⅓ 2.69 3.47
2018 season, minimum 30 innings Source: FanGraphs

While you could feature a full-length commercial between the pitches of this sextet, on average, they all happened to perform well in 2018, posting a collective 3.22 ERA while averaging 10 strikeouts per nine innings.

For now, we have roughly four weeks worth of spring training games to see of the pitch clock experiment will work. My guess is players will adjust, eventually, and this is something we’ll mostly forget about until a pitcher gets assessed a ball penalty and walks in a run in the World Series.