With news that the players union has caved to the owners’ desire to have an old man who hates baseball be able to unilaterally implement any crazy rule he’d like (except a robo ump) with a scant 45-day notice, the questions of if we would ever get a pitch clock and when it might happen have been answered. The answer is yes, and it will happen in 2023. Rather than take the sensible approach to introducing a clock into a game that has functioned outside of time for more than a century and starting as unobtrusively as possible with say, a universal 20 or even 25-second clock designed to merely prod the slowest stragglers and eliminate certain situations that cause significant downtime without fundamentally altering the batter/pitcher dynamic that makes the game great, it looks very much like MLB will take the opposite approach and implement an even shorter clock than is currently utilized in the minor leagues and in NCAA baseball. 

The goal here of course is to shorten games and increase the pace of play. I have a logical problem with this goal from the outset, because I think games are just fine as they are. I like the pace of play. I like being able to have a conversation while watching a game and not miss a pitch. I like to relax with a beer at the end of my work day and soak in the tension and atmosphere. When I make a 5-hour round trip to Fenway Park and spend north of $200 on tickets and hot dogs for two, I want to spend more than two and a half hours in the park, being close to the fresh cut grass and basking in the crack of the bat and slap of the glove. Everyone I know who loves baseball like I do feels the same way. The only people I really hear complaining about it are football fans, broadcasters, analysts, and umpires. Football fans probably aren’t going to convert even if we shave 15 minutes off the game, and all those other folks are just looking for a shorter work day. From where I’m sitting, you’re adding an unneeded and unpleasant element to the game with the stated goal of making the game less enjoyable for fans like me.

Will Middlebrooks tweeted the other day “If you don’t like baseball at 3:10, you’re probably not going to like it at 2:55 either”, and I couldn’t agree more. We’re starting from a place where we are making drastic changes to a wonderful game to appease a demographic of fans that most likely doesn’t care in the first place. However, while my preference would be to simply have our broadcasters and analysts teach young fans how awesome the pace we have is, I understand that I am getting older and young fans are getting more inundated with technology and the fast-paced life of the 2020s and beyond. Maybe a pitch clock is necessary for young fans to get hooked on the game, so while I don’t think it’s time for a clock yet, maybe it is an inevitability. 

What is really going to happen though? With MLB front offices as innovative and creative as ever, you can rest assured that Rob Manfred’s expectation of everything else staying the same while the pace picks up is certainly not going to be the outcome. If Manfred ever watched a lot of baseball he would know this, but clearly he is much more passionate about golf. Maybe if I followed him around the putting green with a shot clock it would help him to understand how inane it is. 

There is some good hard evidence that putting a pitch clock on a hurler reduces average velocity. This is an added bonus for some, who assume that lowered velocity will encourage more contact and more offense. It might have that effect to a small extent, but what it is really going to do is further diminish the role of the starting pitcher in the game. I believe it will be another domino that falls in a chain reaction that will eventually eliminate the role of the starting pitcher entirely. 

The reason that a pitch clock lowers velocity is because the pitcher doesn’t have as much time to recover between pitches. The result of this overall on an inning-by-inning basis is to increase fatigue. Pitchers who now become fatigued around 100 pitches may start being fatigued now in the 80-90 pitch range, maybe earlier depending on how much the pitcher likes his downtime. This will not affect relievers as much, as their short one-inning, max-effort stints are too short for extra fatigue to build up, but it will certainly have an impact on starting pitchers who rely on endurance. With all the smart analyzing the analytics nerds do these days, they are certainly not going to let pitchers stay out there when they are obviously fatigued and working with reduced effectiveness. This means managers will be making that call to the bullpen earlier, and since we’re already in a place where it takes most average starters 100 pitches to get through five innings, starting pitchers hitting the showers after four innings could become the standard. 

Now that surely sounds lousy to the crowd who bemoans the reduced role of the starting pitcher and increased new-fangled “bullpenning” in today’s game, ironically often the same crowd who advocates for a pitch clock. Maybe they are willing to deal with one more inning of bullpens if it makes the game shorter, but it won’t stop there. Once you have starters taking on less of the total innings required to get through a season, you begin to have issues with relief pitcher usage/workload and roster construction. Simply put, if four of the five members of your starting rotation drop an average of one inning off their starts, that’s about 130 additional innings that your bullpen needs to cover over the course of a season. Spread out over seven relievers, that’s almost 20 innings per reliever, or nearly a 33% increase even for the pitchers shouldering the largest relief workloads. 

Asking relievers to carry that additional burden is unsustainable. Whether health issues or ineffectiveness or fatigue, this will not be an effective way to get outs, they’ll need a bullpen for the bullpen! We will be in a place where our starting pitchers will no longer be able to cover their current share of the load, and relievers will be unable to take on the additional burden. So what do we do? We could expand rosters. Adding two more roster slots would allow teams to meet the issue head-on with a quantity solution, they would simply have more hands to share the work. This isn’t appealing to greedy team owners who would need to pay two more salaries however, and it isn’t great from a fan perspective either since it would water down the talent pool and allocate innings to pitchers who aren’t quite MLB quality as we currently think of it. 

The more obvious and more likely solution is to throw the current starter/reliever dynamic in the trash and start over. While maybe you’ll still see true aces still hold down a traditional starter role, I can already hear the gears turning in Tampa Bay about how to overhaul their pitching staff in a way that we’ve never seen before. Right now analytical teams like Tampa Bay don’t let their starters go through an order for a third time. What if they just stopped letting their pitchers go through the order a second time? What if instead of five starters and seven relievers, Tampa Bay just had 12 pitchers?

Pitchers would throw no more than three innings at a stretch, but they would be trained and able to pitch more often than once every five days. A mid-rotation starting pitcher can probably still handle the 150-175 inning workload under the pitch clock, but he may no longer be able to do it in 32 5-inning stints. He might now require 55 3-inning stints instead, pitching approximately once every third day. Since he’ll be capped around 50 or 60 pitches the recovery time should be less, and as an added benefit more pitchers will be able to get on a schedule, eliminating concerns like valuable late-inning relievers going under-utilized during a losing streak. Maybe it would be as simple as having one true traditional starter, two traditional one-inning relievers, and nine guys who threw two or three innings at a time every two or three days as needed, with the starter providing room for extra rest and the two one inning relievers cleaning up messes and closing down games similar to the way they do now. It could also mean just twelve guys who can all bring it, used as needed for three innings maximum in a season that features nothing but bullpen games. That sounds awesome to us here at Bullpen Game, but probably not very awesome to a league that needs to sell fans on stars, not to mention a new and growing legal gambling industry that thrives on the cornerstone of the starting pitching matchup to set lines and entice bettors to get in on the action.

All these changes just from one little clock? It would be a pretty extreme strategy overhaul, but this is not the only factor pushing in this direction. Analytics show that most pitchers pitch more effectively when used in shorter stints, especially ones who don’t have the dominant front-line starter arsenal of a Max Scherzer or Jacob DeGrom. Payroll-conscious owners who struggle to afford their self-described unprofitable baseball teams would certainly embrace the idea of replicating the performance of players who earn starting pitcher money with pitchers who command significantly lower salaries. Putting in the clock seems like just a little change, but it will eat away just a little bit more of the starting pitcher’s role, and if that role gets eaten away enough, it will require a major overhaul to the fundamental game strategies.

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