I’m conservative. Radical policy changes in established institutions naturally concern me.
And so, as a skeptic, I made my semi-frequent sojourn to Jupiter, Florida, to judge my beloved St. Louis Cardinals as they began another spring training session. I was suspicious, not because of the team – no, the Redbirds are in great shape, and I beg you to learn the name Jordan Walker — but rather because of the new rules of the game under which the Cardinals and their major league brethren will operate this season.
Chief among these is a pitch clock, which forces a pitcher to begin his move to the plate within 15 seconds of the ball returning to him, 20 seconds with at least one runner on base, or 30 seconds between batters. Failure to throw a pitch before time runs out results in an automatic ball.
Similarly, if a batter fails to get into the batter’s box before 8 seconds remain on the pitching clock, he is assessed a strike.
In either case, a trip to the board can be fundamentally changed if you break the rules.
Major League Baseball has been considering a pitch clock for years, as game times stretch to three hours and beyond. To a baseball purist like me, the idea was initially anathema. The national pastime was about the only major sport that existed without a clock (even the PGA penalizes golfers for slow play these days) because baseball wasn’t meant to be rushed, it was meant to be enjoyed.
But after a week of immersing myself in the new world order, I have to admit: I love it.
I watched six games, all under three hours. The shortest was 2 hours and 25 minutes and the longest was 2 hours and 59 minutes. And this was spring training, where lineup and pitching changes are much more numerous than regular season changes.
No more hassle on the hill. No more getting in and out of the box to adjust gloves and body armor. No more pacing in the last innings by replacement pitchers who until now treated every pitch like a State of the Union speech, whether it was 1-1 or 12-0.
They just played ball, and at a pace that reminded you of the baseball of your youth. Though I bet there are more than a few stadium operations directors calculating how many $7 less hot dogs they will sell this season.
I kept my eyes on the clock regularly, although it became less important to me as the week progressed. I saw a handful of violations, but not many. This will eventually function as the game clock in football, which is rarely violated but has potential consequences if it is. On most pitches, you get a sense of whether the pitcher will make it within the first few seconds of receiving the ball. The clock created a rhythm that was easy to feel throughout the game.
Parents will love the new rules. I have four children – 13, 9, 7 and 5. Have you ever taken four small children to a baseball game? More than three hours seemed like a trip to Mars and back as we shuttled back and forth between the concession stands, merry-go-rounds, and playground equipment. Was there a game going on somewhere?
But kids can handle anything under three hours, and you don’t feel like you spent $300 on tickets to see half a game.
I like the play clock so much that I’ve started daydreaming about other areas of my life that could use it. Place one over the creamer station in the coffee shop. Put one on airplanes to get dillydally passengers in their seats. Put one in our minibus to get my kids out of the car in time.
The other new rule that is important is a ban on ‘the service’. In recent years, major league teams have overloaded one side of the diamond with several fielders, playing the odds that a particular batter would draw the ball. The game’s beautifully symmetrical field and associated defenses had turned into a computer-controlled, lopsided mess.
Forcing teams to keep two infield players on opposite sides of second base with everyone on the dirt when a pitch is thrown should increase the league’s overall batting average, which fell to .243 last season, the worst in 54 years. More hard grounders become hits, which means more runners and more action. All this serves the game better than letting computers turn it into an algorithmic eyesore.
The bases are a little bigger this year, but that’s a change you won’t notice, and MLB also has limited pick-off attempts with runners on base, which will also speed up the game a bit.
So far, the new rules surrounding the competition delivered the intended results – the overall batting average has increased. Scoring is over. And the playing times have dropped to around 22 minutes.
The game itself – with its steady pace and perfectly conceived symmetry recently restored – is actually enhanced for casual and hardcore fans alike.
Add the new rules to the National League’s recent adoption of the designated hitter (which puts more runs on the board and extends the life of some of the experienced hitters of the game) and you have the makings of a baseball renaissance.
Just don’t get me started on the ghost runner at second base in extra innings.
Scott Jennings is a former Special Assistant to President George W. Bush and a CNN senior political commentator. @ScottJenningsKY