MLB’s pitch clock is a triumph because it catapults baseball into a form from its past

“Baseball’s era is seamless and invisible, a bubble in which players move at exactly the same pace and rhythm as all of their predecessors.”

The venerable and inimitable baseball author Roger Angell, who died in 2022, published those words at this time of year in 1971. In a hymn to the sport’s penchant for creating space for memory and reflection, Angell called baseball’s lack of a ticking clock “unique, immutable characteristic”.

But of course that will change this spring.

MLB implements a pitch timer to speed up the pace of play and, based on testing in the minor leagues, is likely to bring the average playing time down from about three hours to two and a half hours last observed in 1985. The timer, or pitch clock, has been the focus of team briefings, live batting practices and spring training games in Florida and Arizona as the season nears. In these early days at least, the watch inspires intriguing tactical discussions, some novel learning moments, and debates about how exactly to present the game’s newest structural character.

Should the countdown be visible to TV viewers at all times? I would vote yes.

Shall we call Violations that end a game “Time” or something else? Still accepting submissions there.

Fans tuning in to their first shows or attending their first games of 2023 over the next few months will soon decide how they feel about these questions and the overall effects of the timer – many of which are still very little known. But for now, early returns are overwhelmingly positive.

I am choosing to embrace it wholeheartedly, and I urge even the most traditional of you to give it a try.

I will make no attempt to speculate as to how Angell might have obtained the pitch timer, except to say that as with all wisdom and guidance delivered in another era, we should seek intent. In this case, the pitch timer feels like a welcome addition, not because it speeds baseball into the future, but because it deftly brings it back into its own familiar, accessible form from the recent past.

Mets broadcaster Gary Cohen — whose lighthearted banter with Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez may have provided the best argument against the clock — eloquently noted, noting that the newly set pace is such how the game should be played and indeed like it was played when a huge crowd of fans originally fell in love with baseball.

The players of the last decade didn’t move at the same pace and rhythm as their predecessors. But we’re reminded they’re capable of putting in some full innings in two brisk, attention-grabbing minutes of real-time. There is also almost never an actual need to use two midinning minutes to come up with a single pitch.

“Inside the stadium time moves differently,” Angell wrote in 1971, “marked by no clock except the events of the game.”

That part, the crucial part, remains true. You can’t take an early lead and then run out against the Yankees. Just as the Yankees were unable to carve out a commanding three-game lead and then sail to another win over the 2004 Red Sox.

The best parts of this game, the parts that keep us up late into the night, are still there. With a little digital assistance to keep the action rolling, the kids awake and the crowd engaged, they might even be more present than before. MLB’s pitch clock is a triumph because it catapults baseball into a form from its past

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