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Examining MLB proposed rule changes

The pitch clock, time of game, and pace of play

Earlier this month, various rule change proposals were revealed. These include

  • Adding a 26th man to the roster
  • Further reducing mound visits
  • Adding a pitch clock
  • Changes to draft rules to prevent tanking
  • A three-batter minimum for pitchers
  • One trade deadline
  • Moving or lowering the mound
  • Adding the DH to the National League

I am going to focus on a couple of the above: the pitch clock (and pace of play), the three-batter rule, and implementing the DH MLB-wide over the course of the next few weeks.

Pitch Clock

The current proposal is for a 20-second pitch clock. Below shows the 2018 distribution of pitchers’ “pace”, defined as the average time between pitches. This includes all pitchers with a minimum of 10 innings pitched.

The average was roughly 24.4 seconds. Only slightly over one percent of pitchers averaged a pace less than 20 seconds. Perhaps MLB’s definition of when the timer starts is slightly different, but this clearly would speed up most pitchers. For frame of reference, Aroldis Chapman averaged the most among Yankees pitchers at 29.0 seconds; David Hale averaged the least at 19.8 seconds. The team average was around 24.5 seconds.

I, for one, am not a huge proponent of the pitch clock. There are times when a pitcher needs to focus on varying his delivery times. For example, say there is a runner on first base who is a threat to steal. The pitcher must vary his timings, otherwise the baserunner will easily be able to get a good read and consequently a good jump to steal second. This involves the pitcher quick-pitching, holding set for a long period of time, and everything in between. Thus, assuming the way the times are calculated between Fangraphs and the MLB are identical, I think that perhaps using a pitch clock that speeds up a certain percentage of pitchers could be useful (but perhaps not all).

One very raw example would be taking the 75thpercentile for pace and setting the clock around there. For 2018 this was 25.9 seconds. This means that 25 percent of pitchers averaged longer than 25.9 seconds between pitches. The sample size was 618, so this would lead to roughly 155 pitchers needing to speed up their times.

The pitch clock is an element of a larger issue trying to be tackled by baseball: the pace of play. If you just look at the times of the games per nine innings, it certainly has risen over the history of the game. Here are the average game times per nine innings for the last three decades.

Decade

Avg. Time/9 Innings

2010-2018

2:57

2000-2009

2:50

1990-1999

2:49

That seven-minute spike this decade is quite significant. However, 2018’s average time per nine was an even 3:00, down from 3:05 in 2017.

There is one important point though: time of game does not equal pace of play.

Time of game simply tells us how long a game was from first pitch to last pitch. Pace of play has more to do with the tempo and excitement factor.

As seen above, the amount of pitchers used per game has steadily increased since 1999. This can be attributed to factors such as some teams adopting “openers” as well as the rise of analytics that has caused managers to look deeply into different matchups. The rule of having a pitcher face a minimum of three batters was proposed in order to rectify this. Pitches per plate appearance have also risen slightly, which sometimes can slow the game down.

But many fans will look at one main culprit of this debate: commercials. Major League Baseball’s revenue was $10.3 billion, and it is a business. Reducing commercials and other advertising doesn’t seem like a viable solution. In 2017, the total value of commercials during games was $313.4 million. However, another proposed change was having split-screens at the beginning of innings to cut down on the inter-inning times.

Again, time of game does not appear to be too drastic of an issue – it has been rather constant. But picking up the pace of play isn’t such a bad idea. And while the proposed changes will not be implemented in 2019, they could come sooner rather than later. Those include implementing some form of a pitch clock as well figuring out how to reduce the time between innings without losing out on ad revenue. What about the three-batter minimum?

Well, I hope to dive into that into more detail in my next article…

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