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Left-Right: John Fisher, Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani, Rob Manfred. Graphic by Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay and David King.

Confessions of a Baseball Fundamentalist: The Pitch Clock and Burger Baseball

Written by
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay
and
and
July 15, 2023
Confessions of a Baseball Fundamentalist: The Pitch Clock and Burger Baseball
Left-Right: John Fisher, Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani, Rob Manfred. Graphic by Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay and David King.

This past March, the World Baseball Classic visited upon us the last opportunity most fans will ever have to witness the best players in the world go head-to-head without the added external pressure of a pitch clock bearing down upon them with relentless urgency. Watching the final at bat between two of the best players to ever play the game, in Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout, was a rare and beautiful moment; two players, teammates on the hapless Los Angeles Angels, facing off for their respective national teams on the world stage. 

Everything was as it should be. 

Except watching this back now, it’s worth noting that every single one of Ohtani’s pitches would have resulted in a pitch clock violation under the current rules of Major League Baseball. For the blissfully uninitiated, the pitch clock allows for 15 seconds following the pitcher receiving the ball back from the catcher to make their next pitch with no one on base, and 20 seconds when there are runners on.

Many people have gone back and edited the video such that it aligns with the new limitations on time between pitches. While it’s debatable the difference it truly makes to the moment, I would argue that there is very little to be gained in the retroactive evaluation of this moment in particular. It’s hard to miss what you already have. We already know that Trout worked the count to 3-2 and the at-bat ended in a strikeout on an ungodly sweeper from Ohtani and lasted about two minutes and thirty-eight seconds, netting Team Japan their third World Championship.

The edited videos show that approximately 38 seconds were shaved from the entire spectacle—seconds which I am frankly loath to consider “empty” when rewatching the original. I’m certain had I been watching it live I wouldn’t have wanted it to end any sooner than it did. But evidently I’m in the minority here.

Many of the comments under these edited videos are favourable to the implementation of the pitch clock, reasoning that the game is faster and implying that somehow there’s something good about spending less time watching baseball. Some, it would seem, have forgotten that baseball is being played even when no pitch is being thrown and no swing is occurring, which is as sad as it is unsurprising.     

And now, as another MLB All-Star Week has passed us by, for those of us who obsessively follow baseball, this marks the non-technical halfway point of the regular season. For me it also marks a week wherein my usual respite from the trials of everyday life will cease and I once again retreat into a state of perilous self-reflection for lack of adequate distraction.

Thus, I return to the pulpit to foist my hysterical and shockingly reactionary baseball takes upon the public. No one asked for any of this, save for my colleague who has reminded me that her article from two months ago about the Nintendo 3DS is still showing on the paper’s website. Needless to say, Arthur is known neither for its sports reporting and/or timely news.

In the first of these articles, published back in January, I preemptively bemoaned the introduction of the pitch clock, noting that it would irreparably destroy baseball’s (in)famous tendency to exist outside of conventional time which, I argued, was its most revolutionary trait in the time-obsessed twenty-first century defined by late capitalist mentalities. 

What I anticipated would be a nuisance and generally unwelcome force within the game has played out as less a taunting spectre of a failed revolution than a slightly awkward, artificial appendage which has served its purpose.  

The effectiveness of the pitch clock is not up for debate. With MLB games now taking an average of 26 fewer minutes to play on average in 2023 compared to 2022, we are now experiencing a length of game not seen since the 1983 season. The pitch clock has, in effect, set the experiential clock back 40 years.

With this established, what some of us now find ourselves tarrying with is the less expected ramifications of this little imposition.

While the time spent watching baseball might be similar, the game we are witnessing is fundamentally different from the year that Darryl Strawberry won the NL Rookie of the Year and the Baltimore Orioles beat the Phillies in a five-game World Series. 

The important ways in which the game has shifted and changed are not wholly ones that are easily perceptible while experiencing a single game. It is evident that the new rules, which include bans on the shift, bigger bases, and timing pitchers, have not fundamentally addressed the rise in strikeout rates. Those parties concerned about fewer balls being in play have led some in the league and the media to consider further measures, such as limiting the number of pitchers on a roster and moving the mound back. 

In all instances, however, the total effect of these changes, like anything concerning baseball, has to be taken in across a large sample. 

At the time of writing, there have been 1357 MLB games played in the 2023 regular season, which is 459 more than the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, wherein nine-inning games lasted an average of three hours and seven minutes. The season that safely holds the record for the longest average game time—including those which go into extra innings—however, is 2021, when games went for an average of three hours and eleven minutes.  

Beyond the fact that pitchers are throwing harder than ever, the bases are bigger, and players have the equivalent of a crosswalk signal flashing in their faces, the implementation of new rules over the past few years has also meant that the variation between the longest and shortest games has been cut down to historical lows. This phenomenon was identified by The Ringer writer and Effectively Wild podcast Co-Host, Ben Lindbergh back in May, in an article which argued that this was perhaps the biggest impact that the pitch clock has had so far in 2023. 

Lindbergh and I differ when it comes to our stances on the pitch clock, yet we are in lockstep when it comes to our stances on other unnecessary and obscene intrusions into our mutually beloved sport. Our shared disdain for the “Zombie Runner”—the preferred term for those of us who understand “Ghost Runner” to mean something specific and decidedly different from the extra runner granted to the batting team during extra innings since 2020—is palpable. We also have no time for the phenomenon he identifies which has seen the standard deviation of games drop by 41% over the first half of 2023.

“There is some cost to pitch-clock baseball’s comparative conformity,” Lindbergh wrote. “Few fans of any ilk miss four-hour, nine-inning slogs, but baseball sickos (like me) miss the novelty and oddity of ultra-long games, and night owls (again, like me) miss having games going on in the wee hours on the East Coast.”

I say this, with love and respect as a fellow baseball sicko: We can’t have it both ways.

The issue I continually find with arguments for the pitch clock, especially as it continues to be debated within the baseball writers’ community, is that they’re always somehow cased in a kind of wistfulness for some other essential element of the game—elements which not only make baseball more interesting than other sports (for said sickos), but which also were always the intended outcome of introducing the pitch clock.     

Even an apparently unanticipated outcome, such as the drastic drop in standard deviation of game-length, is directly related to the underlying purpose of the pitch clock—which was, and remains, to make the game more marketable. The conceit tends to frame it as making it more marketable to fans, however, in doing so the obvious outcome is that it makes it more marketable to corporate sponsors and television networks, where an ever increasing amount of Major League Baseball’s profits are actually made.

“MLB has defeated time in a different way: by strictly controlling it” Lindbergh writes, which is true in the same way that McDonald’s has defeated unpredictability in fast food. A Big Mac is a Big Mac in Toronto or Los Angeles; a game between the Jays and Angels will take basically the same amount of time no matter where it is played under the new rules. 

In essence, the pitch clock has jammed the mentality of a fast-food joint down the throats of viewers, while allowing corporate interests to shore up their will behind an appeal to a supposed segment of the population who may or may not consider themselves fans of baseball. All of this in a desperate hunt to find new fans of the game in a population that doesn’t necessarily see the game as anything more than a nice day out with friends. 

Of course, there is nothing wrong with engaging with baseball in that way, or any way for that matter. There are infinite ways to express fandom and all of them are valid. The fact remains that tinkering with elements of the game with a mind to making it more marketable does nothing to endear it to those who revel in the oddity and spectacle of the game itself. Such purists (or fundamentalists, as it were) see anything inhibiting the organic shifting (pun intended) of the game as something altogether distinct from the imposition of elements which are constitutionally foreign to the way the game has always been played and presented. 

Baseball is, or was historically, measured only in outs, meaning that while other sports might have shot clocks or timed periods and rules against what the leading team can do when on defense, there was, and still isn’t, a feasible way to really “run the clock” in a way which will actively protect a team’s lead or otherwise work to anyone’s benefit. 

In many ways, Earl Weaver’s well-worn assertion on why baseball is the greatest sport in the world rings true. You still have to give the other guy a chance to throw the ball over the plate. However, now there is effectively a clock to run down and pitchers have proven to have the upperhand in terms of the ways they manipulate the clock to their advantage in certain instances. 

With batters having to be alert to the pitcher with eight seconds remaining in the countdown after they have called a time-out, they have to stand there as the pitcher takes as many of those eight seconds as they wish before delivering the pitch. This repeats until the plate appearance is over.

People may have complained in the past about batters taking too long between pitches, however, I’m at odds to see how this is an improvement. The same kinds of psychological tactics are being deployed in each instance, however prior to the introduction of the pitch clock, the audience didn’t know exactly when it will end—all they know is that it will, eventually.

Add to this that the Major League Players Association is beginning to make noise about the fact that they would like the league to consider adding a few seconds to the pitch clock in the post-season. Head of the players’ union, Tony Clark, has stated the rationale from the players’ side is that these extra seconds would allow them “a chance to take a few extra seconds, a deep breath” between pitches.

The logic follows from the league’s decision to not use the Zombie Runner in the post-season, despite MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred’s apparent preference to play by regular season rules in the post-season overall.       

Naturally, rules in sport are at all times arbitrary and subject to change. It needs to be stated that changes to the rules in this context include only changes that directly affect the ways players interact with the ball and each other on the field. Anything beyond that is, and historically has been, foreign to the game of baseball. Examples such as the advent of over-hand pitching, strikes for foul balls, and ground-rule doubles, are all instances which made the game different, but I would suggest that in all these cases, the game retained its essential character. 

One could go on infinitely about the litany of changes to the sport that have been implemented since the inception of Major League Baseball and argue over the relative impacts of all of these things, however, none have so drastically impeded the autonomy and psychological element of the game as the pitch clock. It does nothing to fundamentally change the way the players interact or how the game looks, but rather places an arbitrary limit on the timeframe within which they can act and think about what to do next.

Baseball has long been characterized as a “thinking person’s game,” which combined both brains and brawn in a manner which isn’t always as obvious as it is in other sports in which constant action predominates. It’s not a matter of suggesting that baseball requires more thought than other sports, but rather that the time taken to decide one’s next move, and anticipate that of one’s opponent, is and always has been more obvious and drawn out than other sports. 

A certain paradox has always endeared me to baseball, specifically the fact that as our lives, work, and communications have become more and more fast paced, scheduled, and time-oriented, the average game of baseball would become longer and longer and that this would be seen as a problem by people who purport to enjoy the sport.

As the game (and the business) evolves, so too do the players and strategies. The ironies of harkening back to a length of game which hasn't been seen since the 1980s is the implicit appeal to an older fanbase who remembers “the good old days” of baseball. The unspoken, but nevertheless palpable undertone of MLB’s marketing tactic is that baseball was somehow “better” or more “pure” forty years ago before the advent of “Moneyball”, the shift, and other dastardly Ivy League interventions.

A notable advertising campaign for the new rules featured Bryan Cranston sitting in a darkened theatre, imploring the audience that the new rules would bring about “the game we all want to see.” One where the players “field like Ozzie [Smith], run like Rickey [Henderson]” while clips of contemporary stars Francisco Lindor and Mookie Betts play beside their Hall of Fame predecessors.

“Get that shift outta here,” Cranston goes on to say. “Free up the players to put on a show.”

That show feels somehow out of place within the contemporary game. 

The viewpoint that baseball needs to be fixed is itself the product of corporate interest and one perpetuated by owners who don’t actually view the sport or their team as anything more than an entity that they can soak money out of at every opportunity, while being careful to point out that it’s never quite enough money to make it worth it. 

At the beginning of last year, Cincinnati Reds President, Phil Castellini, stated in response to fans telling him and his father to sell the team that the only real way to make the team take strides towards improving would be to relocate it. 

“If you want to look at what would you do with this team to be more profitable, make more money, compete more in the current economic system that this game exists, it would be to pick it up and move it somewhere else,” Castellini callously explained. “So, be careful what you ask for.”

More recently, the owner of the Oakland Athletics, John Fisher, has managed to chart new territory, even in an industry dominated by bullshit-peddling billionaires, as he attempts to relocate his team to Las Vegas despite widespread blow-back from both the City of Oakland, the team’s fanbase, and members of the MLB community including Las Vegas native and two-time MVP outfielder, Bryce Harper.  

Perpetual meddling gets us nowhere fast, and a league which is constantly tinkering with itself creates an atmosphere of unpredictability and confusion for fans and players alike. It will take a long time for us to truly understand the implications of any of these rules from both a statistics lens and a business side perspective—especially coming out of multiple pandemic-impacted seasons—and when we finally do, I’m not sure we’ll be altogether thrilled with the results. And my question is—what then?  

I can predict that the novelty of stealing more bases will eventually wear off when players and managers remember the reasons why they stopped doing it at such a high rate to begin with, and pitchers and catchers begin to make inevitable adjustments to their deliveries and pitch mixes. When that day comes, what happens to the bases? 

I swear this will be the last time I mention the pitch clock in print until the day arrives when it is expunged from the game of baseball and we return to an Edenic state of unhurried gameplay freed from the shackles of petty human time. 

Until then, woe be unto all those who hastened this new all-too-human master onto the pristine diamond. 

Arthur Spring Elections 2024
Miracle Territory April 20th
Severn Court (October-August)
Theatre Trent 2023/24
Arthur News School of Fish
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Arthur Spring Elections 2024
Miracle Territory April 20th
Severn Court (October-August)
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Arthur News School of Fish

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