Abner Doubleday is widely credited with inventing the sport of baseball in Cooperstown, New York in the late 1830s, but you could argue the roots of the game can be traced back even further.
It’s only fitting that baseball was dubbed “America’s Pastime” when you consider how long it’s been a source of entertainment in the United States. However, that moniker has transformed into a misnomer over the past few decades as football (and, to a lesser extent, basketball) have taken center stage.
There may still be an appetite for Major League Baseball, but the league has seen its fanbase get decreasingly hungry in recent years thanks to a confluence of factors that have forced it to do a fair amount of soul-searching.
You can point the finger at a number of issues that have contributed to that decline: a drop in offense in the wake of the Steroid Era, terrible umpires, an inability to properly market the game’s biggest stars, a commissioner who might not even like baseball who gave a team that may have cheated to win a World Series a pathetic slap on the wrist.
However, it’s impossible to talk about the problems plaguing the MLB without discussing one of its most glaring flaws: the pace of play.
Last season, the average nine-inning MLB game took a little over three hours to complete (down slightly from the record-high mark of 3:10 posted over the course of 2021).
While the NFL might not have much trouble convincing people to set aside a similar chunk of time for a football game, it’s a bit easier to get people to do that once a week as opposed to the 162 times a baseball fan would need to do the same to ensure they don’t miss a game over the course of the regular season.
Last year, the MLB revealed its plan to tackle that issue when it announced it would be implementing a pitch clock that would make its grand debut in 2023.
We’ve only gotten a fairly brief glimpse at the impact it’s had, but it seems like the league made a very good call thanks to what’s transpired during the trial run at spring training.
The MLB pitch clock may not save baseball, but it’s probably not going to hurt it
As is the case with literally every deviation from any supposedly sacred tradition, there were plenty of baseball purists out there who objected to the addition of the countdown that gives pitchers 15 seconds to deliver the ball to home plate (a number that rises to 20 if there’s a runner on base).
However, one of the biggest issues the MLB has faced in its quest to cling to relevancy is its inability to adapt to the times; catering to those traditionalists typically isn’t going to result in the league making great strides as it continues to try to grow the game.
In order to do that, it needs to target two key groups: casual fans who have better things to do than routinely devote more than three hours of their life to a game that doesn’t need to be that long, and younger ones who are already grappling with plenty of distractions and the inherently low attention span that tends to come with being born into the digital era.
Only time will tell if the pitch clock is enough to convince members of those key demos to devote more of their time to baseball. With that said, the MLB has undoubtedly taken a step in the right direction based on what’s unfolded since the digital timers debuted at ballparks in Arizona and Flordia.
As of last week, the average spring training game took around two hours and forty minutes to complete—around 25 minutes less than the length of a typical MLB game last season.
The pitch clock has also added an interesting level of intrigue thanks to the runners who can now take the clock into consideration when trying to steal a base and the pitchers who’ve employed various strategies to throw batters off of their rhythm.
With that said, there are some potential downsides.
For example, we’ve already seen one game end on a walk-off strike call after Cal Conley of the Braves failed to get into the batter’s box in his allotted time. It’s safe to assume the pitch clock will be subjected to a fair amount of scrutiny if it ends up being the deciding factor in, say, a situation where a pitcher is dealing with the bases loaded and a full count in the bottom of the ninth.
However, based on what’s transpired so far, it will likely do much more good than harm.