FORT MYERS, FLA. – A clock ticking backwards isn't only the newest and most significant change to the way baseball is played in the major leagues — it's also a metaphor for what the national pastime is trying to accomplish.
"We want to restore the pace and rhythm that the game once had, something that had gradually gotten away from us," Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said. "We're not creating something new; we just want to make sure the game remains as crisp and exciting as it has for many decades.
"I would predict that once all the attention dies down, most fans won't even notice the clock."
They might on those nights at Target Field when the final out is recorded around 9 o'clock instead of 9:45 p.m., as had become the norm. A month's worth of spring training games have demonstrated that enforcing limits on the time between pitches, between batters and between innings dramatically shortens a typical baseball game without removing any of the action.
"It feels really good, too," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said of spring games, which have averaged 2 hours, 36 minutes, according to MLB. "The game doesn't have to be three, three-and-a-half hours, and we're proving that right now. Get out there and throw strikes, attack hitters, and the games will be crisp."
But the pitch clock is not the only way that the Twins' season, which opens Thursday at Kansas City, will be strikingly different in 2023. The bases, 12 inches by 12 inches until now, will be 15x15, a change that will subtract 4 ½ inches from the distance base-stealers must travel. Infielders must be standing on the infield dirt when a ball is pitched, and two on each side of second base.
In addition, extra innings will begin with a runner on second base, a pandemic rule that has now been made permanent. And beginning this season, the Twins will play at least one series against all 29 MLB opponents each year.
"Part of our job is to adapt to change, and to do it well," Baldelli said. "That's never been more true than this year."
Grinding to a halt
The need for change has been building for several years, as baseball's popularity has declined relative to other sports.
Two of the three least-watched World Series since TVs became common have taken place in the past three years. Attendance peaked at nearly 80 million in 2007; even before the pandemic, it had slipped below 70 million and last season sunk to 64.5 million.
The game on the field had gradually changed as well. Pitchers throw harder than ever, leading to fewer hits and more strikeouts. Batters responded by simply trying to hit home runs, adding more strikeouts. Teams positioned their defenders according to each batter's tendencies, squeezing still more offense out of the game.
Worst of all, the amount of time between pitches, as high-effort pitchers rested and hitters adjusted their batting gloves, turned most games into action-deficient slogs, particularly for TV viewers.
"We were always taught, slow the game down, make sure you're comfortable, control what's going to happen. Don't rush into anything," Twins outfielder Kyle Garlick said. "I'll admit, I was always a guy who liked to step out, collect my thoughts, take a breath and get back in. Think about my approach, what [pitch] I'm looking for, what his pitches are, the count, the game situation. It just becomes habit."
Spread out over nine innings and nearly every at-bat, that habit added to a lot of dead time. The average major league game took 3 hours, 11 minutes in 2021, a record for a sport that in 1978 took only 2 ½ hours.
Moving things along
Manfred — whose previous attempts at cutting game times included limiting mound visits, requiring relief pitchers to face at least three batters and allowing intentional walks to be granted without throwing a pitch — decided more drastic action was needed.
Over the objections of the players' union, the Playing Rules Committee decided a pitcher must be winding up to deliver a pitch within 15 seconds of receiving the ball, or 20 seconds if a runner is on base; an automatic ball is called if he is not. A batter must be in the box and looking at the pitcher when the clock reaches eight, or an automatic strike is assessed. Pitchers can step off the rubber, whether to attempt a pickoff or simply reset the clock, only twice per at-bat; a third time is a balk, unless the pickoff throw is successful. Hitters can call time only once.
Clocks have been installed behind home plate and in center field in every stadium, and umpires are strictly enforcing the new limits.
And the players, as Baldelli predicted, have seemingly adapted to the rules — and even appreciated them.
"It takes some getting used to. But it's good. It's going to be fun," outfielder Joey Gallo said. "When you're out on the field, when you're in the box, when you're on the bases, you just have to constantly remember there's a clock. You can't stop, you can't just stand around. But over time, it will become normal for everybody. Seems like a lot of guys like it."
Same goes for the ban on defensive shifts and the larger bases, changes that are intended to create offense, not diminish the time it takes.
"I like that it's rewarding athleticism," infielder Kyle Farmer said. "You need players with range, some speed, strong arms, instead of just stacking one side of the field with three gloves."
It also figures to benefit those players with pronounced habits of pulling the ball. Twins outfielder Max Kepler, for instance, has been affected by extreme shifts; of the 964 ground balls he's hit during his eight-year career, only 57 of them, or 5.9%, have been hit toward left field. Gallo's numbers are even more pull-heavy; just 11 grounders, a mere 2.8%, were hit the opposite way.
"I don't mind having a little more room over there," Gallo said. "When you hit the ball hard, you should be rewarded."
The new rules, and in particular the pitch clock, might have an unexpected positive effect on the game, Baldelli theorized.
It might make the players play better.
"Focusing on anything for three and a half hours is not easy to do, I don't care what it is. Show me a movie that's going to keep your attention for three and a half hours. It's not easy," Baldelli said.
"When you start making these games more like two and a half hours, guys will be able to really home in on what they need to do, and maybe do their jobs even better than before."