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Pace of play needs addressing, but the pitch clock should be the last resort

pitch clock

Douglas Short

I have mixed feelings in the wake of this morning’s report that baseball is, at least for the minors, considering implementing a pitch clock.

On the one hand, yes, I would like to see the pace of play improved and to do that you have to deal with the batter-pitcher interaction, getting both sides to speed things up. On the other hand, I can’t help but think the pitch clock should be a last resort in this regard, not the first move. My opposition to the pitch clock, has a lot of elements to it, no single one of which is major, but taken together feel like a lot.

It would be a visual distraction. Broadcasters would be flashing it on and off the screen and talking about it all the time. Managers and players would use replay challenges or, at the very least, argue about when it was started and stuff. Technical glitches would happen. Less concretely, it would put lie to the old -- and good -- saying about how baseball doesn’t have a clock. There’s just a football element to it that I don’t much like.

But more significantly, I am a person who prefers that problems attempt to be solved by the least intrusive means first and that more drastic measures be taken if and only if less intrusive measures prove ineffective. Baseball hasn’t done that yet.

What it could do: simply make the umpires enforce a time limit in which pitchers must throw pitches. The rule book says 12 seconds. Fine, many around the game have said that 12 seconds is too fast, so make it the 20 seconds to which a pitcher is subject under the clock rule. Baseball can, with a simple directive to umpires, ask that this rule be emphasized, just as it has often done so regarding other rules in the past. Have some meetings in spring training and tell everyone, “hey, we’re going to be making a point of this, OK? Don’t say you weren’t warned.” Yes, I realize that can lead to some subjective umpiring. One pitcher may get 22 seconds and another called at 19. But it’s also the case that, if the pace of play is not otherwise a problem in a given game, it will become a non-issue.

The broader problem I see here -- which I wrote about back in August -- is that a pitch clock is just the latest example of Major League Baseball’s habit of adding unnecessary rules and unnecessary components of new rules when smaller moves might solve the problem. Baseball felt the All-Star Game wasn’t holding people’s interest, so they made it decide home field advantage in the World Series. They felt they had a problem with small market teams not being able to compete, so rather than give them money or draft picks, they put them in a silly competitive balance lottery. They felt they had a problem with calls being missed so rather than simply solve that with a straightforward replay system that would allow umpires to correct their own mistakes, they added an unnecessary manager’s challenge. They felt they had a problem with catchers getting hurt on plate collisions so they made a new rule rather than enforcing existing rules about when catchers can and cannot block the plate.

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but baseball has been a big fan of 90 degree turns and long arcs these days. And of taking the officiating of the game out of the umpire’s bailiwick and putting it into the players’ and managers’.

Maybe a pitch clock will ultimately prove necessary. Or, maybe, if implemented it will prove to not be an issue at all. Heck, for that matter, maybe this is all just a negotiating tactic by the owners, aimed at getting the union to agree to a stepped-up enforcement of existing rules to begin with. But that possibility notwithstanding, I am always skeptical of radical change being Step 1 rather than being taken if and only if a less radical solution is not first attempted.