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Spokane Indians

Dave Nichols: Pitch clock in minor leagues ushering in new era of reasonably paced baseball games

Pitch clocks have been installed and enforced in the minor leagues this season, including at Avista Stadium. Game times have shrunk by an average of more than 20 minutes so far.  (James Snook/Spokane Indians)

If you’re planning on going to Avista Stadium to catch a Spokane Indians game this spring or summer, you better plan to arrive on time.

For Saturday’s game, a 5:09 p.m. start, a fan arrived around 6:30 hoping to catch the second half of the game. Instead, he was informed the game was headed into the eighth inning.

It’s not just the Indians who are playing quicker games this season. It’s happening all across the minor leagues – to almost universal acclaim.

In an effort to pick up the pace of games, MLB instituted pitch clocks across the minor leagues this season. The effect has been dramatic with the times of games shrinking by an average of more than 20 minutes per game.

The pitch clock is just one of several changes brought about by MLB to standardize the game from the big leagues down to the lowest level of the minors. But it’s the one bringing about the most dramatic change.

The Indians couldn’t find within their records the fastest game time in team history, but Saturday’s game – which ended in 1 hour, 53 minutes – was played at a pace not often seen before at Avista Stadium.

“I’m fine with it. I like it,” Indians veteran manager Scott Little said. “I mean, it moves the game along, we get into play and I have no problem with it.”

The average nine-inning MLB game in the 2021 regular season lasted 3:10 – the longest in history. For playoff games, it was an astounding 3:42.

Indians games averaged longer than three hours in 2019 and 2021 and have hovered around the three-hour mark over the past decade.

As it loses casual viewers and younger fans to the length (and drudgery) of the modern game, MLB is doing everything it can to devise ways to shave time off the commitment required to watch a game without sacrificing the things that make baseball appealing or dramatically alter traditional results achieved during the game.

Last season, a couple of minor leagues enforced the pitch clock to good effect, so this season MLB made it mandatory across the entirety of the minors. Pitchers and hitters get 14 seconds with the bases empty, 18 if there are runners on and 30 seconds for a new plate appearance. There is 2 minutes, 15 seconds between innings.

If a batter fails to get in the box and be ready to hit quickly enough he will be assessed an automatic strike; if a pitcher fails to deliver a pitch within the allotted time, he will be assessed a ball. Over the six-game series this week at Avista Stadium, we witnessed a handful of both – with very little complaining from players or coaches.

“I like it so far,” catcher Drew Romo said. “I think with nobody on base it’s a little bit too quick, and I feel a little rushed (as a hitter) sometimes. But when there’s people on base, we have enough time to get ready. Our game (Saturday) was under two hours, which is crazy. I’ve never seen that before.”

Starting pitcher Joe Rock said he likes to work quickly and likes the pitch clock, but had a question on which he needed clarification from an umpire regarding a new ball after a foul out of play.

“We’re getting one straight out of the baseball bag where I haven’t put my hands on it yet,” he said. “Whereas after a pitch I just threw I just had that baseball. So I was trying to clear that up – how much time do I have because it was fouled off.”

Romo said as a catcher it helps his pitchers that he can plan ahead a few pitches at a time.

“It’s very important for some guys to get into a rhythm,” he said. “I just think sometimes it can speed you up a little bit, so you’ve got to really slow the game down.”

Things aren’t uniform yet, though. Players and coaches have noticed different ballparks vary on when the clock will start in certain situations .

“I think we’re still working out the kinks a little bit,” Indians pitching coach Ryan Kibler said. “It’s a concern a little bit, but I think we know how to iron it out. There’s a learning curve for all of us. And umpires included, and that’s understandable.”

There are several benefits to moving the game along, other than simply shortening the time of the game.

First, it addresses the “pace of play” issue dramatically. Batters can’t continually step out to adjust their batting gloves, pitchers can’t take 30 seconds to recover from a previous max-effort pitch.

There isn’t more action, but there’s significantly less nonaction.

“I’ll tell you why I like it as a coaching staff: We’ve got to move faster,” Kibler said. “It keeps you sharp, keeps you moving. You got to make decisions in a hurry. We’ve got to be on it.”

Second, it helps pitchers to get into a groove without overthinking or overanalyzing every single pitch. For the most part they get on the rubber, get the sign and go. It’s something every pitching coach in the country preaches anyway.

“I have to say, I think it has proven to be an advantage for the pitcher. So how dare I complain?” Kibler said. “We’re working fast. Games are quicker. I think it’s an advantage for pitchers and we’re going to use it, and like I said, I don’t feel like I’m cheating because I like my guys to work fast anyway.”

Lastly, playing with tempo forces fielders to be alert at all times and not get complacent during long at-bats or innings. In theory, engaged fielders should lead to better defensive effort.

“That’s exactly why our pitchers work fast,” Kibler said. “Don’t let those defenders on their heels – they’re gonna boot one for you. You get some errors behind you. Throw strikes, work fast, keep your defense on their toes and they’re going to make every play for you.”

Rich Burk, a Hillsboro Hops’ play-by-play broadcaster, did some sleuthing, and game times across the Northwest League have dropped dramatically since April 15, the first day the league enforced the pitch clock.

Per his research, in the first four days of the new program in the NWL the average time of nine-inning games was 2:21. Last year, during the season’s second Friday through Tuesday span, the average time was an even 3 hours – and that was with omitting a 3:49 game where 23 runs were scored.

That’s 39 minutes off the average game time – a dramatic reduction in the time it takes to play a game.

Since then, the Indians have played games that have taken 2:02, 2:14 and Saturday’s 1:53 sprint. Even Sunday’s game, which featured 21 runs, 26 hits, eight pitching changes, 19 strikeouts and six walks, only took 2:37.

Players and coaches in leagues that used the pitch clock last year, including the Low-A California League where many of the current Indians played last season with the Fresno Grizzlies, have indicated that as the season went along, umpires were more lax with enforcement.

But with MLB placing more emphasis on the length of games – and the obvious success with the pitch clock thus far – expect enforcement to continue all season as MLB tries to collect as much data as possible.

Maybe then they’ll bring it to the big leagues and MLB fans won’t have to watch fidgety batters, relief pitchers standing around behind the mound after every pitch, or stay up past midnight to find out who won the World Series.