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New pitch clock helping solve what some have seen as baseball’s ‘boring’ problem

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Last year, the Houston Astros closed the Philadelphia Phillies out in six games to win the World Series – an event that solidified the team as a modern baseball dynasty for many.

It was also the second-least watched World Series ever.

That may be because in spite of all the big names and massive contracts, baseball has developed something of a reputation for being a little boring.

To solve this, the MLB has started a timer – a pitch clock – on all games this season. Initially, the rule change was met with backlash, but now games are shorter and viewership appears to be up.

For some insight as to what this means for America’s pastime, the Texas Standard spoke to Mark Leibovich, a staff writer at The Atlantic, who covered this change in his latest cover story. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Baseball has long been known to move at a leisurely pace, and for a lot of folks, that’s been part of its charm. But you write it’s actually slowed down over the years. Can you say a little bit more about how that’s happened?

Mark Leibovich: Basically, baseball has always billed itself as a game without a clock. And it’s true. It does move at a leisurely pace compared to things like basketball, hockey, that kind of thing. But recently, it’s just slowed down a lot. You know, the average time of a game over the last couple of decades has gone up maybe 45 minutes a game. Sometimes less or more, depending on the season. So people were tuning out and this was all happening concurrently with the speed of brains moving faster and attention span shrinking. You know, we have phones, we have computers, we have TikTok. And, you know, it is not a timeless society we live in now. So those two forces were moving in a really bad direction for an entertainment company, which is what Major League Baseball is. And they were just bleeding fans and bleeding ratings. And so they had to do something pretty radical.

So what they chose to do is put on a pitch clock. Can you walk us through exactly how this works?

Yep. Starting this year – this season, beginning in spring training – pitchers now have to throw the ball to the plate in every 15 seconds. There’s a clock that counts down from 15. If there’s a runner on base, it’s 20 seconds and the batter must be ready to hit at the 8-second mark. So the game basically has this new tempo, this new urgency, and the endless kind of staring into space and the tapping of the spikes with the baseball bat and the various rituals that are charming in their own way but aren’t much to watch after several seconds have been eliminated from the game.

So basically, baseball, to use their analogy, has kind of “liposuctioned” itself. Like a lot of the dead time has been sucked out of the game. And it’s been, I think, a tremendous success. If you go by just the rhythm of watching baseball games, ratings are up, ticket sales are up. Anecdotally, most people really like it. And players who were a bit averse to the change at first seem to have come around also. So I think it’s been a big win-win. And my piece kind of coincides with this Manhattan Project that baseball undertook in recent years, and it seems like it’s worked.

So the baseball itself has become a bit of a hot potato. You got to get that thing away or else.

Yes, I mean, if you can’t get anybody out, the clock is not going to save you. I mean, the game is still measured in 27 outs or more if there’s extra innings. But, you know, if you want to play baseball all day and not like decide a winner, you can. But yeah, I mean, now it’s like you got to hurry up. And if you don’t, if a batter is not ready to hit, you will be penalized by a strike. If the pitcher is lethargic and throwing the ball to the plate, you’ll be penalized with the ball. And so there’s a real consequence of actually not abiding by these time limits.

So the season kicked off in March. What’s this doing to average game times?

Oh, it’s been a boon. It’s been great. It’s probably about 20 on the average. It’s about 28 to 29 minutes less to watch a baseball game. And that’s just glorious, especially if you have a melting down second grader on a school night sitting in a park, you don’t have to leave in the third inning anymore. You can actually watch much of a baseball game. And speaking as someone who really used to love baseball and really hadn’t paid much attention in the last several years, I’ve found that I’ve returned to the sport also for the first time, you know, really since my thirties.

That’s saying something, right? Well, I know the concern around the pitch clock was about changing the nature of the game in a sense, tampering with America’s pastime. And I remember that during spring training there were a lot of calls for issues surrounding the pitch clock and a lot of grumbling from players. What did the Player’s Association say early on and how are they feeling now?

Well, I mean, first of all, what you have to understand about the Major League Baseball Players Association is that they’re an incredibly powerful union and they’re clearly the most powerful union in all of sports. And very little gets done without their consent. It’s also a very change-averse game. I mean, baseball tends to be quite conservative. Baseball players are very, very bound to their rituals, to the things that they’ve been used to. And it’s their livelihood. If you come in and disrupt someone’s workplace that dramatically and possibly their performance, they’re going to resist it. And certainly they’re going to pay close attention to it. But ultimately, I think people have adjusted and you haven’t heard much complaining very much since then.

Well, now you note that the average baseball game this season is now going about two and a half hours. And I notice that you mentioned that Manhattan Project for baseball. You know, if you really want to know the clock, I mean, you could bring it down to what, something like make it seven innings and a pitch clock. I mean, how far off were we from something like that? 

You could, yeah. I mean, the thing about seven innings is you’re actually going to get less baseball. I think as a fan, I would probably adjust to seven innings. But look, I want 27 outs. Like, I don’t want to watch less baseball. I just want to watch less dead time. But yeah, like, if you wanted to shave off, you know, a few innings, a few seconds, you probably could, although I think they’ve reached a pretty nice medium here.

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