To acquire wisdom, one must observe

The pitch clock is good for baseball

Major League Baseball (MLB) is changing. As the sport continues to try and attract new viewers, the MLB has added rules to try and make the game more interesting to watch without changing the fundamentals of the sport. Last year, the universal designated hitter (DH) was added so that pitchers no longer had to hit. In theory this would allow for more offense and make the game more fun to watch. I personally am still split on whether or not I like the change. I don’t think that a couple of at-bats in a game makes a significant difference in my enjoyment. However, the potential for more home runs and offense in general is appealing. A year after this change, the MLB has decided that they want to continue with their adjustments. So in this past offseason they made three more rule changes which have already made significant changes to the sport. These changes have been tested in the minor leagues and have now been implemented in spring training, where many fans are seeing the changes for the first time. 

Change one was the elimination of the shift. The shift is basically when players on defense move to different parts of the field because they are predicting where the batter is going to hit the ball. In the infield, this often consists of the third baseman or shortstop moving to the right side of the infield when left-handed batter is at the plate. The team is predicting that the batter is going to pull the ball toward that side, therefore they might as well have more infielders on that side of the infield. This occurs similarly on the other side if it is a right-handed batter. Not every batter has the shift played against them. It depends on the numbers and whether or not they say that a batter is significantly likely to hit the ball that way. Again, with the MLB trying to increase the amount of offense, they removed the shift. So now all four infielders need to have both feet in the infield and two infielders must be on both sides of second base. In theory this allows more well-hit balls to become hits and defenders to show off their athleticism more by having to cover more ground on defense. I like this change and don’t like it at the same time. A part of me likes the change because batters should get rewarded when they hit the ball hard. A line drive up the middle of the infield should be a hit, but a lot of the times it wasn’t because of the shift. Batters get rewarded for good contact when there is no shift. However, I do like the strategy of the game. When you put on the shift, you put your defense in a vulnerable spot because sometimes bad contact will result in hits. So when do you put on the shift? That is interesting to me. Also, I say this as someone who has never played baseball before, but if you have a large shift against you, just hit the ball the other way. You are getting paid millions of dollars to get hits, so learn how to hit the ball the other way. I know it is difficult, but it seems like something that could be worked on. Minnesota Twins outfielder Joey Gallo is an example of this. In 2018, the Houston Astros played a shift where all four infielders were on the right side of second base against Gallo. There was literally no infielder on the left side of the infield. Guess what he did. He pulled the ball to the right side. The shift incentivized players to learn how to hit better. Again, I have never played baseball before, but it seems like something that could be worked on. In spring training you can already see a difference. For the longest time, left-handed hitters had a higher batting average than right-handed hitters. Then the shift was used more and it switched. Now with the shift removed, left-handed batters are hitting .359 and right-handed batters are hitting .303 through the first couple games of spring training. It is a small sample size, but even just from watching you can see more hits overall. 

The second change was the increase in size of first, second and third base from a 15-inch square to 18 inches. There are two big impacts of this change. One is that it increases player safety. In 2022, there were fewer injuries near the bases in the minor leagues with the larger bases. Fewer injuries are great. I have watched too many injuries happen around the bases and if there is anything the MLB can do to reduce that, I am on board. The other impact is on stolen bases. Although the differences may seem small, it is actually significant for stolen bases. Oftentimes a player is safe or out when trying to steal a base by just a few inches. So we are likely going to see a lot more stolen bases. Even in the few games I watched so far, there were significantly more stolen bases than before. Players are less afraid to steal bases. I really like this change. Stealing bases have become so uncommon because of how good catchers are and how risky it is. This has put a damper on some of the faster players’ ability to use their speed. But now I have a feeling that speed is going to be utilized a lot more now and that is definitely going to be fun to watch. 

I saved the most important change for the last because I think there is much to discuss. The addition of the pitch clock. The pitcher has 15 seconds to pitch the ball when the bases are empty and 20 seconds when there is a runner on. While this is going, the hitter has to get into the box and be ready to hit with eight seconds left on the clock. He gets only one timeout per plate appearance. Also, the pitcher gets to step off or throw a pick off twice per batter. If he does more than that it is a balk. There is a lot to unpack here so let’s start with the pitcher. The clock was put in place because sometimes at-bats take too long. There is a video circulating on the internet of pitcher Pedro Baez taking almost two minutes to throw a single pitch. That just shouldn’t happen. It slows the pace of the game and is definitely part of the reason why people don’t watch baseball. Each at-bat can sometimes take forever. Now, pitchers have to be much faster. While this may affect some pitchers, like Kenley Jansen, more than others, it is definitely going to take some getting used to. If a pitcher takes too long to pitch the ball, it is an automatic ball for the batter. After watching a few games with the clock, I can say that the pace feels faster for sure. There are much fewer pauses in the action considering pitchers are consistently dealing to the plate. The average length of the first few spring training games is two hours and 38 minutes, which is down 23 minutes from the average length of a game last season. That is a drastic difference. I don’t think that starting pitchers are going to have as big of an issue as relievers with the pitch clock. Starting pitchers are used to getting into a groove and pitching at a rhythm. Also, they have more time to adjust in the game. Relievers have to come out of the bullpen and immediately get into a rhythm for an inning. Additionally, they don’t have nearly as much time to make adjustments. At the beginning of the season, we might see more pitching violations from relievers than starters. On the batter’s side I can see some of the issues. A lot of batters take their time getting into the box and getting set because they have to make some adjustments. That isn’t always the case, but I have definitely seen batters take their time getting in the box because they can. Now it’s completely different. San Diego Padres third baseman Manny Machado was charged with the first automatic strike after he got set too late. In an interview later he said, “I might be 0-1 down a lot this year. It’s super fast. It’s definitely an adjustment period.” Obviously, hitters are going to adjust. It is not an absolutely game changing thing for hitters, but I do believe that it takes some of that processing time out of things. They can’t just roam around the box for a bit and think about the next pitch. 

Although I actually believe that the pitch clock is good for baseball, it definitely needs some tweaks. Firstly, the game cannot end on an automatic strike or ball. On Feb. 25, in a game between the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves, the game ended in the most ridiculous fashion possible. The bases were loaded with two outs. Braves infielder Cal Conley stepped up to the plate and got the count to 3-2. Then all of a sudden, the game was over. Conley did not get set in time and got an automatic strike which ended the game with a strikeout. That cannot happen. I understand that the batter should have been ready but I think everybody would agree that it was a terrible way to end the game. Imagine if game seven of the World Series ended with an automatic strike. I would maybe change the rule such that there is no pitch clock in the ninth inning or something to that extent. A game cannot end like that. The next issue is that the pitchers can abuse the clock. Although I think that pitchers are likely going to have a harder time making the adjustment to the clock, over time we may see more pitchers use the clock to their advantage. This is all because the batter needs to get into the box with eight seconds left. A batter may get set with 10 seconds left on the clock to make sure he doesn’t get called for an automatic strike. The pitcher can then hold the ball and stare at him for a full 10 seconds before pitching. 10 seconds can feel like an eternity and the pitcher may use that to catch a batter off guard. A pitcher could always do this, but the batter used to be able to call timeout and step out of the box. They can now only call one timeout per at bat. I am not entirely sure what a change to this could be, but I believe that over time we see pitchers use the pitch clock to their advantage. 

In the end, all that matters is entertainment. Is an MLB game more entertaining with these rules? I think it depends on the way you watch the sport. However, I believe that it is good for making more fans of the sport. In general, the game is easier to watch because there are fewer breaks and now you don’t have to sit there for three or more hours. We are probably going to see much more flashy plays and offense, which is how you get people hooked on the sport. Everyone loves to see a diving grab and close stolen bases. People are less interested in watching a pitcher take a minute to throw a single pitch which ends up being grounded out to the shortstop in the shift. I am very interested to see if the MLB makes any changes before the season starts and if there are more changes to come. Are we going to see an automatic umpiring system? Adding to that, are we going to see players with the ability to challenge balls and strikes? I don’t think we see either of those things soon, but I do like the direction the MLB is taking with making the sport easier to watch. When I say easier to watch, I mean for a casual fan. I am not saying it’s easier in terms of accessibility because that is 100% still an issue.

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