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Time running out: pitch clocks now in the minors

After a prototype scheme was first implemented in the Arizona Fall League, pitch clocks are going to be used at some levels in the minors this season.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It was announced this week that Double-A and Triple-A leagues will have similar restrictions as were in place during the Arizona Fall League last year. While the details are being worked out, that would mean twenty seconds between receiving a ball from the catcher and throwing a pitch, with a maximum of 2:05 between innings, and 2:30 for a pitching change. Failure to adhere to the limit would result on a ball or strike being assessed, depending on which team the umpire considered responsible for the delay.

According to a memo sent out by the Atlanta Braves' president to their minor-league affiliates, "Each club will be responsible for hiring and paying a timer operator, and all necessary equipment will be purchased by MLB Advanced Media." Trying it out on a broader scale in the minor-leagues is an obvious next step, not least because it can be done by dictat from MLB, since there's no union of farm players who might object. Any implementation at the major-league level would likely require some negotiation: we may know if there are plans in that direction next week, after the owner's meeting, here in Phoenix.

There's no denying, the clock seemed to have the desired effect in the AFL, at least as far as speeding up play was concerned. The average AFL game in 2013 took 2:51; the first three test games with the timer in 2014 averaged out at thirteen minutes less, and one of those went 11 innings. Over that trio of contests there were only four violations. However, it's certainly a different experience: we were at Salt River Fields for one of the contests, and here's what we wrote about its impact, both actual and potential.

As a spectator, I found my eyes inexorably drawn toward the clock during an at-bat - accompanied by the theme from 24 in my head. I can only imagine what it was like for the pitcher. Remember Game One of the 2007 NLDS, where Cubs fans in the home-plate seats were flashing a neon sign, until the umpires cracked down? Imagine that for every pitch. Word was that Archie Bradley found the clock a distraction during his season-opener last week, and the display color was muted before last night.

The potential problems are obvious. I'm certain, with a crowd bigger than the 831 in attendance at SRF last night, you'll get chants of the countdown, like WWE fans at the Royal Rumble. I suspect some evil attendees at certain stadia - hello, Philadelphia! - might attempt to screw with the pitcher by a fast count, reaching "3... 2... 1..." when the clock still had longer to go. And, since the clock starts when the ball is received by the pitcher, the hitter doesn't have to be ready to receive, so can dawdle, effectively sending the pitcher into hurry-up mode.

The impact certainly won't be limited to speeding up proceedings: it will also add a new tactical dimension, likely unintended and perhaps unwanted. For instance, a pitcher stepping off the rubber is eliminated, as the clock continues until a throw, be it to home or first. The cure may be worse than the disease.

A number of others have qualms about the concept. As Cliff Corcoran points out, unlike the shot clock in basketball, or play clock in the NFL, it has no strategic purpose: "It's just there to be a nag. A big, bright, blinking, ticking nag." He also points out that both NFL and college football games run longer than baseball, have less actual time when the ball is in play, and more commercials. It does seem a stretch to think that shaving thirteen minutes off the game will suddenly make it significantly more appealing to an audience currently avoiding it. "A game now takes two hours and forty minutes, rather than two hours and fifty-five? I'm sold!"

Jon Lester has already come out against the concept. "You take the beauty out of the game. There's such a cat-and-mouse game as far as messing up hitters' timing, messing up pitchers' timing. Different things that fans and people that have never played this game don't understand. I feel like if you do add a clock it just takes all the beauty away from the game. I think you're going down a path you don't want to go down." Not sure how much "beauty" there is to be found in David Ortiz stepping out of the batter's box, going walkabout, adjusting his gloves, and scratching his genitals, but something something eye of the beholder.

Lester would probably not be one of those particularly affected. His average time between pitches last year was 22.6 second, compared to MLB average of 23.0. [Note: that's measured from pitch-to-pitch. The clock in the AFL didn't start counting down from 20 seconds until the pitcher received the ball from the catcher, and he only had to go into the 'set' position before it ran out] It wouldn't be much of a problem for the 2014 Diamondbacks either: at a team average of 21.9 seconds, only the Nationals and Blue Jays were quicker pitchers. However, that did conceal wide variation among our individual players.

Fastest was the now-departed Wade Miley, whose figure of 19.0 seconds was fourth-quickest among all pitchers with 100+ innings. He'll be taking that to the AL, and doing his bit to speed up those interminable Red Sox-Yankees games. Though interestingly, the next-quickest was Vidal Nuno, at 19.4 seconds: maybe such haste was why New York wanted to get rid of him? Our relievers seemed particularly deliberate, occupying the top seven spots, and it seemed the later they pitched, the slower they got: runner-up was J.J. Putz at 27.3 seconds, while replacement closer Addison Reed was even more glacial, averaging 27.7 seconds between pitches.

Daniel Hudson (23.5 seconds, in case you were wondering) also came out against the idea:

Personally, I'm not too bothered. Baseball games are like movies: quality and brevity are not necessarily related [The Godfather runs a lot longer than Manos: Hands of Fate], and it's not as if I usually have somewhere else to be. That said, there is slack - but why is it specifically the pitcher who is being told to hurry things up? You don't even necessarily need any rule changes, just actual enforcement of the current ones, e.g. 6.02 = "The batter shall take his position in the batter’s box promptly when it is his time at bat" and 8.04 = "When the bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives the ball."

So is this an unnecessary gimmick, or addressing a genuine problem?