Judging the Royals

Does baseball need a pitch clock?

Royals pitchers from left, Luke Hochevar, Casey Coleman and Jason Frasor practiced pitches during Tuesday's Royals spring training on February 21, 2015, in Surprise, Ariz.
Royals pitchers from left, Luke Hochevar, Casey Coleman and Jason Frasor practiced pitches during Tuesday's Royals spring training on February 21, 2015, in Surprise, Ariz. THE KANSAS CITY STAR

In 1981 the average time of a nine-inning big league baseball game was two hours, 33 minutes. In 2014 the average time was three hours, two minutes, and that’s a problem; to many fans, ballgames seem slow and boring. MLB and the Players Association recently reached an agreement to speed up the game. Here’s part of what ESPN.com had to say about it:

Major League Baseball has implemented significant pace-of-play rule changes for the 2015 season in an effort to speed up the game, it was announced Friday.

The rules include mandating that managers stay in the dugout during replay challenges, that hitters keep at least one foot in the batter’s box during at-bats, a prompt return to play after TV commercial breaks and timed pitching changes.

Speed-up rules in the major leagues required the OK of the players’ union, and baseball officials had said a pitch clock was ruled out for this season. 

The “pitch clock” refers to an idea that would require a pitcher to deliver a pitch within 20 seconds. But baseball already has a rule that requires pitchers to work quickly:

8.04 When the bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives the ball. Each time the pitcher delays the game by violating this rule, the umpire shall call “Ball.”

The 12-second timing starts when the pitcher is in possession of the ball and the batter is in the box, alert to the pitcher. The timing stops when the pitcher releases the ball.

The intent of this rule is to avoid unnecessary delays. The umpire shall insist that the catcher return the ball promptly to the pitcher, and that the pitcher take his position on the rubber promptly. Obvious delay by the pitcher should instantly be penalized by the umpire.

Anyone who has to cover 162 games a year (me included) probably thinks this is an excellent rule. Baseball already has the rule it needs, but when’s the last time anyone saw it enforced? Put a stopwatch on pitchers (I have) and it’s not unusual to see some of them take more than 20 seconds to a deliver a pitch — and it’s murder on their defense. Royals coach and former outfielder Rusty Kuntz described what it’s like to play behind a slow-working pitcher:

“They throw a ball…”

“Then they walk off the mound…”

“Then they adjust their cap…”

“Then they catch the ball…”

“Then they rub up the ball…”

“Then they walk around the mound…”

“Then they walk up the back of the mound…”

“Then they stare in…”

“Then they get the sign…”

“Then they do a big, slow windup…”

“Then they deliver the pitch…”

“Ball two.”

When a pitcher was working that slowly, Rusty admits he’d lose focus and was mentally doing a whole lot of things in the outfield: “And none of it pertained to baseball.” So you’ve got players with ADD standing around bored stiff and then wonder why they make mental mistakes like trying to leave the field with less than three outs. But despite the fact that their defense suffers, some pitchers persist in working slowly because that’s the way they’ve always worked.

Hitters are also to blame

I’ve read that Ty Cobb didn’t like Babe Ruth, and one of the reasons Ty didn’t like him is he thought Ruth ruined baseball. Ruth showed what home runs could do, and teams started standing around waiting for a fat guy to hit one out. Cobb thought baseball should be a game of speed and strategy and Ruth had made it boring.

More recently on-base plus slugging percentage became a popular stat, and once again the game slowed down; guys were looking to work walks, play station-to-station baseball and hope someone hit a three-run bomb. Pitch counts are another factor; when Tim Bogar was bench coach of the Boston Red Sox he told me the Sox goal was to get the other team’s starting pitcher out of the game after five innings. They did that by taking pitches. Make the starter work, get him out early and then attack the weakest part of any bullpen — middle relief. It might take four hours, but a win’s a win.

A couple years ago former Royals base-running coach Doug Sisson told me that once they got PEDs out of the game, speed and the stolen base would return, and Doug was right. The 2014 Kansas City Royals — last in walks and home runs — made it all the way to game seven of the World Series. Turns out Dayton Moore was on the cutting edge of the latest baseball philosophy. During the Royals’ playoff run I heard a lot of complimentary comments about the Royals from ex-players and coaches; they thought Kansas City was once again bringing “real” baseball back into vogue.

Why hitters step out

Ballplayers are incredibly superstitious; if they’re going good they might drive to the park the same way every day or eat the same pregame meal. Former Royal Mike Aviles told me a new pair of batting gloves got a CG (complete game), but if he didn’t get a hit that night he’d change gloves before the next game. If Mike got a hit the gloves got another CG.

And some hitters have rituals they do between every pitch. If they adjusted their batting gloves and then got a hit, they’ll probably adjust those batting gloves before every pitch in their next at bat.

And sometimes stepping out is strategy.

If a pitcher is known as a hothead a hitter might intentionally step out, adjust his gloves or call for time just to screw around with the pitcher’s head. If the pitcher’s the kind of guy who gets hot under the collar the hitter might throw him off his game or get a predictable fastball when he tries to blow one past you just to show you who’s boss.

So does baseball need a shot clock?

Baseball does have a problem. If your team’s strategy is to take a lot of pitches and the pitcher has to stand behind the mound and ponder the meaning of life before every pitch, games are going to move slowly and fans are going to get bored.

But that doesn’t mean baseball needs a pitch clock. If MLB really wants to speed up the game all they really need to do is enforce the rules they already have — and they can start by enforcing rule 8.04.

Please. I’ve got to watch another 162 games this summer.

To reach Lee Judge, call 816-234-4482 or send email to ljudge@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @leejudge8.