Friday, October 24, 2014

Baseball's on the Clock

20, 19, 18, 17, 16, 15...
As the World Series marches on, I'm gazing toward a chilly Autumn with proactive regrets and with interest in a season that's just starting. In the Arizona Fall League, Major League Baseball is experimenting with ways to quicken the pace of the game, a long-standing complaint from both casual and committed fans. Among the changes with which the league is experimenting are the Batter's Box Rule ("The batter shall keep at least one foot in the batter's box throughout his at-bat," with exceptions), the No-Pitch Intentional Walks ("In the event a team decides to intentionally walk a batter, no pitches shall be thrown. Instead, the manager shall signal to the home plate umpire with four fingers, and the batter should proceed to first base to become a runner"), and, perhaps most controversially, the 20-Second Rule, the insertion of a  play-clock between pitches designed to hasten the pitcher's delivery and dissuade out-of-the-box dawdling by the batter.

Here's how the 20-Second Rule works, from Major League Baseball: "A clock will be displayed in both dugouts, behind home plate, and in the outfield. The clock will be operated by an independent operator, who is not a member of the umpire crew."
A pitcher shall be allowed 20 seconds to throw each pitch. The batter must be in the box prepared for the pitch during the entire 20-second period. If the batter steps out of the box during the 20-second period, the pitcher may deliver the pitch and the umpire may call a strike, unless the batter was first granted time by the umpire. As described in Rule 6.02(b) Comment, umpires may grant a hitter's reasonable request for "Time" under appropriate circumstances. 
The 20-second clock shall begin when the pitcher is in possession of the ball, regardless of whether the batter is in the box or otherwise alert to the pitcher; provided, however, that (1) with respect to the first pitch to each batter, the clock shall begin when the batter is in the box, alert to the pitcher, (2) with respect to a pitch to a batter following a play in which the pitcher was involved as a fielder (including backing up throws), the clock shall begin when the batter is in the box, alert to the pitcher, and the pitcher has entered the dirt circle to approach the pitcher's plate to begin pitching to the batter, and (3) after a hitter fouls off a pitch, the clock shall begin when the umpire points to the pitcher and says "Play." Please note that the Official Baseball Rules governing quick pitches still apply. 
The clock will stop only when the pitcher begins his motion to deliver the ball (and not "when the pitcher releases the ball" as prescribed in Rule 8.04). Beginning the motion of coming to the set position shall be sufficient to stop the clock. If the pitcher maintains possession of the ball without beginning his pitching motion for more than 20 seconds, the Umpire shall call "Ball." The umpire shall give the pitcher a reasonable opportunity to take his proper position on the pitcher's plate after the umpire has called a ball and before the umpire calls a successive ball pursuant to this Rule.
The players who've been affected by the 20-Second Rule are, so far, displeased. (Granted, it's a small sample; the clock is being tested during seventeen home games at the Salt River Rafters.) Toronto Blue Jays outfield prospect Dalton Pompey: "I feel like it's going to throw off the rhythm because guys have their own rhythm and take deep breaths, practice swings, have their routines. It's just going to make everybody so generic and I feel like that's taking away what the game has been all about for however many years.”
Los Angeles Dodgers prospect and Glendale Desert Dogs infielder Corey Seager shares a similar sentiment.
“It's tough,” Seager said. “You almost feel rushed. It's not your normal (routine) where you can take your time, get your rhythm. It's kind of on somebody else's rhythm. It was a little rushed … getting on and off the field, getting your stuff done in the dugout and in the box mainly because you only have 20 seconds between pitches. You swing and then get right back in—it's a little weird.”
As Pompey (and many others) point out, this rule will irk batters and pitchers who are routine-driven, whose plate appearances or mound poise is defined in large part by a symphony of well-earned, precise, and borderline-superstitious body movements. Think of Mike Hargrove, fabulously nicknamed the Human Rain Delay for his pre- and between-pitch fiddling:


A generation of kids has grown up with nearly unlimited access to video of their favorite players, and so this personality-defining behavior in the box and on the mound is ingrained early, and encouraged, or at least tolerated, by fans, managers, and umpires from Little League onward.

But the more serious concern, it seems to me, is the introduction of a timer into a game celebrated and embraced for its clock-free play. I won't belabor what you've likely heard from besotted fans: a baseball game can, theoretically, go on forever. And there have been some marathons. An inning can last an hour—without commercials!—; a game can last for days. Of course, a 20-second timer between pitches won't affect this salient aspect of baseball, and yet a clock is an intrusion of sorts. It requires that players obey the tyranny of a clock rather than the ebb-and-flow of an athletic moment, an invisible drama staged not within time limits but as an infinite mini-game. A plate appearance is, after all, different every time: when a batter faces a pitcher, especially for the first time in his career, and if he's lucky to see him more than once in a game, he'll adjust as he needs to: his stance; placement of his bat; place in the box; his eye-angles. These minute adjustments take time—I'd wager, on average longer than 20 seconds per pitch. This goes for pitchers, as well, of course, who, when detecting a batter's adjustment, must now adjust his own approach and mental state. I admit to getting exasperated at times with particularly self-micro-managing batters and pitchers, but these strategy sessions, these chess games, will not be hastened by a hovering L.E.D. timer implacably counting down the time before the next pitch.

But, as always when reflecting on the game I love so much, I am careful not to overreact. I don't want to be precious or hidebound about this; I'm curious, is all, as to what effect if any this rule, if adopted, would have on the quality, tenor, and mental pleasures of the game. MLB in its futile attempt to regain the impossible television ratings of yore, will do anything to shorten games. But will a hurried plate appearance do more harm than good? Would we rush archeological diggers at a fossil site? Would we require a painter to finish each stroke within 20 seconds? (Someone stop me, I'm getting precious again.) We'll discover sooner rather than later what tick tick tick might do to the game.

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