LAKELAND, Fla. – One of the fastest pitchers in baseball likes going slow, thank you very much, and the game’s coming culture war is aimed right at him. He throws as hard as any left-handed starter, his fastball sitting in the mid-90s. He also takes a lunar cycle to throw it – 26.6 seconds between pitches last year, to be exact, the longest wait by a major league starter.
That is 6.6 seconds more than the 20-second pitch clock Major League Baseball will implement in the minor leagues this year and, it hopes, introduce at the big league level in the coming seasons. Take those 6.6 seconds, multiply them by 100 pitches and that’s 11 minutes of game time, vanished. And, so, yes, in theory David Price does understand why baseball is talking about a pitch clock, which would complement less-drastic changes the league implemented Friday to increase pace of play in what it worries is becoming an increasingly interminable game.
At the same time, consider Price, a former American League Cy Young winner, among the many players in baseball dubious of the clock. And understand, too, that this matters, because the players must ratify any such changes of the sort at the major league level. Instant replay was one thing, designed to mitigate human error, something at which it succeeded. The changes announced Friday – which include batters keeping one foot in the box during at-bats, both teams hewing to a timer so games resume immediately after between-innings commercial breaks and managers tethering themselves to the dugout when asking for replay calls – are relative no-brainers as well.
The pitch clock is different because it strikes at a fundamental truism onto which purists cling like it’s a wubby: Baseball is a game with no clock. Beyond that, though, are the very legitimate concerns of unintended consequences, some that may exist in theory alone and others that could have a profound effect on how the game is played.
“There could be a lot of strategy to go along with this stuff,” Price said Friday before his Detroit Tigers held their first workout of the spring. “And until they get this into gameplay and see how it goes, I don’t think anybody really understands what can happen. There’s definitely going to be strategy to this.
“Initially, I think it’s a bad idea. But I guess I kind of get it.”
He kind of gets it because baseball’s inverse reality – games have gotten longer even as run-scoring approaches historically low levels – reinforces the stereotype that the modern game is too dull, too boring. Convincing 1,200 major league players – nearly half of whom are pitchers – to agree that’s reason enough for a seismic shift remains one of new commissioner Rob Manfred’s greatest early tests.
Because to the players – again, pitchers especially – this seems like an assault not just on their game but their ingrained habits – habits, it should be noted, that baseball allowed to grow. The emphasis on hitters keeping one foot in the batter’s box? Rule 6.02(d), in baseball’s Official Rules, has permitted umpires to call a strike on a hitter who won’t get in the box. Slowly, players turned into glove-Velcroing time-sucks, and no umpire had the gumption to enforce the rule, lest he be subjected to the screaming that surely would follow.
Granted, it goes both ways. Price dawdles on the mound and does it by design.
“It’s going through a routine,” he said. “You throw a pitch. You fix the mound. You fix your part of the rubber. All that stuff is taken into account. You don’t want to land in a spot that you’re unfamiliar with or don’t know how it’ll take when you land. You want to make sure that spot is good for you to throw the pitch.”
Here’s the thing: He used to be quick. Not Mark Buehrle quick but quick enough. As a rookie, Price took 20.1 seconds between pitches. As recently as 2011, it was 20.6 seconds. Then it jumped a second and a half. In 2013, it spiked to 25.8 seconds, the highest in the big leagues. And 26.6 in 2014, the second-highest mark since PITCHf/x began keeping track, behind habitual lingerer Josh Beckett.
This shouldn’t exactly be a surprise, seeing as where Price spent the first six seasons of his career. The Tampa Bays Rays were by far the slowest team in 2014, averaging 25.6 seconds between pitches, more than a second higher than the San Francisco Giants. Considering these are the Rays, and that almost nothing they do is by accident, the fact that they also led the league in 2013 may well mean they gleaned an advantage from waiting.
Indeed, that’s one of the worries of pitchers, one that ties directly into the unintended consequences and strategy Price mentioned. Pitchers like to say their craft is one of disrupting hitters’ timing. With a clock hanging over the pitchers, they have a finite amount of time to do that – in their minds too short of a time – and it allows the hitter to key in rather than get lost in wondering what might come firing at him.
More than that is the effect it has on baserunners. If there is a runner on first base and the clock is running down, the pitcher could simply step off the rubber and flip a throw to first base – the worst sort of maneuver for slowing down games. And in that vein, if a clock is ticking, and a baserunner knows the pitcher must do something, he could get a far better jump trying to steal a base. Which validates concern among conspiracy-theorist pitchers – whose complaints about baseball always trying to increase offense are rightful – that the clock is nothing more than a cover to counterbalance its real intent: more offense.
However grassy-knoll that may sound, it’s a hurdle the league faces if it wants a pitch clock in major league stadiums. The only hard-and-fast rule in baseball is that there will be extreme, grandpa-shouting-from-the-porch skepticism at any proposed rule changes. Between the clock and the league studying the strike zone – Price: “You think these hitters aren’t going to get up there and start taking if they shrink the strike zone? And the game will be that much longer. Leave it alone.” – baseball is threatening a salvo, and one that seems to contradict itself.
“Pitch really fast and shrink the strike zone,” Price said. “It’s crazy. Insane.”
The words are loaded because the issue is very much the same. Even though the pitch clock had its intended effect in Arizona Fall League games, that’s not enough for the players. Perhaps it will take a generation of pitchers weaned on it in the minor leagues before it penetrates the major leagues. Because for now, they want those five or 10 extra minutes on the mound a game, and it’s going to take more than asking pretty please, thank you very much.
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