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Clock watching in baseball has got to go

It is time to stop giving this abomination the benefit of the doubt and call it what it is: a failed experiment. Clocks have no place in baseball, at all.

Jeffrey May
ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 13: Kenley Jansen #74 of the Atlanta Braves pitches during the ninth inning of an MLB game against the Washington Nationals at Truist Park on April 13, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)
Todd KirklandGetty

There have been several important changes over the past few years to baseball. The standardization of the designated hitter in both leagues has gotten a lot of notice as a character-altering change for the sport. But it pales in comparison to the use of clocks, in any form whatsoever, in baseball. This is the most insidious alteration to the very fabric of baseball’s being that has occurred in over a century.

Adopted in some form by most NCAA conferences and the minor leagues, this has now been bought into by MLB. Most fans were inclined to give the idea the benefit of the doubt and see how things went before passing judgement. Recent weeks have shown the folly of this approach in glaring neon. Clocks, of all variety, must be removed from baseball immediately.

There are numerous, and vociferous, proponents of these sorts of measure in all quarters, arguing that the games take too long and that speeding up play is the only way to “save” baseball. Nonsense, I say, on both fronts. The length of the game is not a single thread that can be removed without ripping the fabric of the game apart. The only thing that baseball needs to be saved from is clock watchers.

Don’t get me wrong, it is not an unreasonable act for people to complain about the length of games. People have been complaining about that for quite some time, now. Typically, a baseball game takes around three hours. Fifty years ago, it generally took two and a half. Fifty years before that, an average game took two hours. Way back in 1952, a Sporting News fan poll found that 60% of respondents thought that the game took too long to play, with 15% in favor of enforcing time limits.

So this isn’t a new idea. Neither was Prohibition. Banning alcohol consumption in the US was an idea that had gained traction since the Civil War, and was overwhelmingly popular when enacted. Eventually, however, even the fiercest tee-totalers had to admit the truth staring them in the face: the experiment was an abysmal failure. Prohibition resulted in the opposite of its intended goal. Alcohol consumption became more popular than ever. Just because an idea has been around for a long time and has popular support, doesn’t mean that it is right or even sensible.

Baseball has tried clocks. Everything from time limits between pitches, to stepping out of the batter’s box, to inter-inning time limits, and all have proven to be fundamentally flawed. Not slightly off, not needing fine tuning. Rotten at the core. They have one effect, and it is not the intended one. They reduce competitiveness.

In college ball, Florida had a batter called out for stepping out of the batter’s box. During their game against Florida State, Deric Fabian stepped out of the box between pitches, was ordered by plate umpire Scott Klein to get back into the box and then called out for not getting back in the box. The time delay between the warning and the out? Two seconds.

Over the weekend, LSU’s Brayden Jobert was called out during their game against Arkansas, again by Scott Kline, for the same offense. This time, perhaps feeling the heat from the abysmal decision in Gainsville, he was backed up by third base umpire Jeff Head and his stopwatch. Yes, his stopwatch.

The Tigers had just scored one on a two-out double and had men on first and second. The pitch count was 0-2 and the batter needed to take a breath and get his focus for the next pitch. Any batter in the world, from little league to Babe Ruth, would have done the same.

During the lockout negotiations, when the spectre of clocks was raised, 8-Time All-Star, 3-Time Cy Young winner, and shoe-in future hall-of-fame pitcher Max Scherzer said, “I don’t think there’s negotiation here. As players, it just shouldn’t be in the game. Having a pitch clock, if you have ball-strike implications, that’s messing with the fabric of the game. There’s no clock in baseball, and there’s no clock in baseball for a reason.

He’s right. This is affecting the fabric of the game. This isn’t a question of purists vs modernists. This isn’t arguing about JJ Abrams destroying Star Trek by turning it into Star Wars. This is about altering a beautiful game, perhaps the only one left that is truly beautiful, so that it can fit nicely into a television schedule spreadsheet.

On Sunday, the Atlanta Braves brought on Kenley Jansen to close out the Padres in the ninth. On his way in from center field, he was stopped and checked for sticky substances, putting him over his allotted warmup time. After three pitches, he was stopped by plate umpire Bill Miller and not allowed to warm up further.

It is impossible to overstate exactly how diabolical this sham is. A relief pitcher, any time in the game, but certainly in the ninth inning, should be allowed to warm up properly. This has gone from annoyance to now potentially dangerous. Jansen was furious, and rightly so.

The length of the game has stretched steadily over the past century because of changes in the way the game is played and managed. There was a time when players would go out and do their best. A pitcher would go as long as he could and then someone would take over for an inning or two. Hitters had to hit and pitchers took their place at the plate when their spot came around.

By teams bringing in designated hitters to gain an advantage, then balancing this by working their bullpens harder, the substitutions added to the time needed. As the quality level raised steadily, so did the preparation time by hitters and pitchers in a game where doing your best is no longer good enough. Our demand to see, not great players but the greatest players, not amazing pitching but dominant pitching, is what has driven up game length.

In forcing pitchers to throw quicker than they want to, in forcing batters to step into the box, ready or not, we are ensuring that the very thing that we demand is unattainable. We will have to content ourselves to see, not the greatest pitch that Jansen can throw, but the best that he can throw in the next 20 seconds. And that is exactly the sort of idea that baseball needs to be saved from.