Major League Baseball has long battled the stereotype that it’s boring. The games take too long, there is too much downtime with no action, and the summations from fans are plenty.
But this season’s rule changes have affected the way the game is being played, and in turn, how people see the game. And they appear to be working.
Bigger bases, limited pickoff attempts, and shift restrictions are some of the rules that MLB has imposed in an effort to speed up the game. But perhaps the biggest rule change is the addition of a countdown clock, where the pitcher has 15 seconds to throw with the bases empty, and 20 with a runner on base. If they don’t adhere, they are penalized with a ball call.
The new clock also affects batters, as they must be inside the batter’s box and ready to hit with eight seconds on the clock. If not, he will be penalized and receive a strike.
The early numbers show progress. Through last week, stolen base percentages had jumped 30%, the league’s batting average was up 16 points, and the pace of play had gone down by 31 minutes.
“We are extremely pleased with the early returns,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said in a press conference. “Fan reaction has been positive to the brisker pace with more action. And players have made a great adjustment to the changes.”
According to an ESPN study, the average time for nine-inning games, through last week, had dropped from 3:09 to 2:38.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this,” Colorado Rockies first baseman C.J. Cron said after a game this month. “So, I guess we’re still learning, but yeah, it seems like there’s not much downtime, especially on defense. It feels like there’s always action going on.”
Pittsburgh Pirates manager Derek Shelton concurs.
“Number one, I think throughout the game, we’re creating more action, which is something that was highlighted when we put it in,” he said. “Then, the second part of it, and the most important part of it in my mind, is just the pace of play.”
According to ESPN research, the league-wide batting average had risen from .233 last season to .249 as of last week, as well.
And that progress is showing across most teams. Miami Marlins second baseman Luis Arraez, through last week, led the league in batting average with a .444, followed by Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. (.374), and Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Matt Chapman (.367).
The new pitch clock has already accounted for 41 pitch-clock violations in the first 50 games of the season with 29 being on the pitchers, 11 on the batter and one on the catcher.
This statistic is not at all alarming as data from Minor League baseball shows that players adjust to the pitch timer as the season goes on. In MLB Spring Training, for example, the number of violations dropped from 2.03 per game at the beginning to 1.48 by the end.
Two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani, of the Los Angeles Angels, is tied for the most violations with two, and he made history after becoming the first player to receive a pitch clock violation as both a hitter and a pitcher in a game vs. the Seattle Mariners.
“I had a chance to talk to the umpires after the game, and it cleared things up,” Ohtani said. “So, I know what I need to do, and the adjustments I need to do. It should be fine.”
Not everyone is a fan of the new pitch clock, Baltimore Orioles Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, a television broadcaster now, was disappointed and expressed as much in a game where Boston Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers was called out on strike three after not being ready to hit in the box.
“It kind of left an empty feeling, and I’m not even for the Red Sox,” Palmer said on the broadcast. “I mean, you’re in the stands, you paid all that money, and your best hitter is called out because he’s looking at the pitcher a second or two too late. I understand why we’re doing it, but boy it was disappointing.”
Houston Astros outfielder Michael Brantley who is on a rehabilitation assignment expressed his dislike for the new rule after his game last week.
“I don’t want to go into detail, but I don’t like it, it’s an adjustment. I’m a pro, and I’m going to find out,” Brantley said after the game. “I’ve been doing something the same way for 14 years, and now we’re changing it up. I understand that, but I can say I don’t like it.”
There are bound to be some who will agree with Brantley and Palmer long term. But it’s clear the changes are working, and baseball seems better — and faster — because of it.