The calendar here in 2023 now says June. That's a good benchmark in the Major League Baseball season. There's still plenty of time for change (look at teams like the Braves, Phillies, Mariners and Guardians last season, for example), but we've also seen enough for some meaningful data to have emerged in the more than two months since Opening Day.
The 2023 season for MLB saw the implementation of some radical rule changes that proved controversial, especially early in spring training. The biggest one that crosses over into mainstream America would be the pitch clock. Even people who haven't followed the sport in decades ask me about it. It's very polarizing. Many love it. A good number of die-hard baseball fans are staunchly against it. Let's see how it's working so far.
All data is through May 31 unless otherwise noted.
Average time of a nine-inning game
2019: Three hours, 10 minutes
2020: Three hours, six minutes
2021: Three hours, 11 minutes
2022: Three hours, six minutes
2023: Two hours, thirty-nine minutes
This is despite runs per game having risen to 9.15 from last season's 8.57.
Past even just the time of an average game, the most significant goal of the implementation of a pitch clock was to cut out excessive dead time and move the pace of the game along. There isn't a way to judge this in numbers. I'd say it's been a remarkable success, but I've seen others who believe the games looked rushed now. This is always going to be the eye of the beholder.
Overall, as with any change this radical, there are bound to be complaints and there have been. Let's look at some of the key points.
The game moves too fast!
The only major complaint I've seen on a regular basis is some form of this. The game moves too fast and the players are rushed. Personally, I disagree with both of these subjective assertions but I'm always open to hearing other opinions.
The crux of the argument seems to be that many baseball fans, especially die-hards, enjoyed the leisurely pace before that allowed people to have bathroom/fridge breaks while watching the game at home or restroom/concessions breaks while at the ballpark without missing a lot of the action.
Here is where I've found the biggest negative. If someone buys a ticket to a game and then encounters a restroom line, there really is a chance of missing a decent chunk of the game now. I'd argue that happens in other major professional sports, but we don't have a halftime or intermission in baseball. In many cases, there isn't enough time between half-innings to hit the restroom and get back without missing a pitch and the seventh-inning stretch isn't an extended break.
Perhaps this will lead to more time on the clock in future seasons? I do wonder if the biggest item of significance here will be concession sales. If there's a noticeable dip, that carves into ownership profits and they'll want to fix that swiftly.
Added pitcher injury risk?
The biggest complaint of substance is that rushing pitchers through their pitches means extra injuries. Kenley Jansen, a very well-respected veteran, expressed this concern recently on the Baseball Isn't Boring podcast, with these lines standing out.
People are getting worn out.
You're playing with somebody's career and basically might blow out.
He's not alone. Another long-time and well-respected veteran Max Scherzer predicted pitcher injuries would rise.
But have they? The Score published a report on May 22 detailing pitcher injuries this season. As of that date, the number of pitchers to hit the injured list was up to 72 from 69 while the days spent on the IL had gone down from 1,138 to 1,132. In looking at those numbers, they are close enough both ways to account for normal variance within the season. More succinctly, it's not a meaningful change.
Through the end of May, we're roughly 1/3 of the way through the season and, using Spotrac's injured list tracker, have had roughly 1/3 of the number of days missed by pitchers as we had all season last year.
I'm sure it feels like there will be more pitcher injuries and maybe once it's hotter in the middle of the summer, there will be. Up to this point, though, there hasn't been any real difference.
You get paid to be there!
If it sounds like I'm pro-pitch clock above, that's because I am. I'm not trying to be secretive, only fair. Invariably, when fans who hate the pitch clock hear that I like it, I'm immediately told it's only because I'm paid to be at the game instead of being a paid customer.
This seems like a weak argument that's only thrown out when there's nothing else of substance to use, but I'll bite. I've been to one regular-season game this season in person and I was a paying customer for that one.
Still, if I ever mention on social media that I like the pitch clock, the quicker pace of play and how much faster games are concluded this season, I'm met with an onslaught of other comments about how I either don't care about the game itself -- only getting my work done as soon as possible -- how I thought it was boring before the clock and how I actually don't even want to be at the ballpark. Or, to go all out, I apparently hate being there. It's all laughable nonsense, but I guess it makes the anti-clockers feel like their side's arguments should count more or something.
It shouldn't need to be said, but there are many different ways to enjoy a product. There isn't actually a "right" way to love watching baseball. Major League Baseball's goal is to try and balance everything and get the largest number of people interested.
Bringing in new fans
And here's where, more than anything else, the old guard complaints don't move me. The die-hard fans who are vehemently against the pitch clock are still watching the game, and they're doing it alongside new fans. Attendance per game is up this season, albeit modestly, and there hasn't been a raise on this front -- with full crowds allowed -- since 2015. If we tossed out 2020-22, the attendance per game is still the lowest it has been since 1996, so by no means is this a blowout victory, but going up is good and it'll take time before growing the audience is felt in a major way.
Plus, we haven't even gotten to the summer months with kids out of school and increased ticket demand due to some other major sports wrapping up their seasons. The attendance spikes in those months every year and that'll obviously bring up the average.
On that note, MLB has reported that the May 19-21 weekend (yes, MLB weekends are Friday through Sunday) had its best collective attendance in either April or May since April 7-9, 2017. That same weekend saw the highest attendance for a 45-game schedule since June 21-23, 2019. Sunday, May 21, had the highest single-day attendance (excluding Opening Day) before June since May 19, 2018.
I'm sure those look cherry-picked, but it's a good illustration that even if gains are modest, they are happening and upward movement is great.
Of course, if there is a residual effect down the road of people not feeling they like they got their money's worth on attending a game in person, an adjustment will need to be made.
Another thing has stuck with me from conversations I've had with Major League Baseball personnel is internal polling and surveys. Let's circle back to the above point about how MLB is trying to please the highest number of potential fans possible. They are always looking at what fans are asking for and trying to, so to speak, thread many needles at once.
Independent polls show the pitch clock is working on garnering more interest just as MLB says all of its internal polling says it is wildly popular.
A Seton Hall Sports Poll from May 23 found that of MLB fans, 65% agree with having a pitch clock, 20% neither agree nor disagree and 15% disagree. When they polled the general population, 46% agreed with having a clock but only 13% disagreed. Among self-proclaimed "avid" sports fans, 70% agreed with having the pitch clock while only 11% disagreed.
A Gaming Today poll found that 62% of fans are in favor of the pitch clock and that 45% plan to attend more games this season specifically because of it. If that one is accurate at all, and comes even close to fruition, it's a huge victory for MLB to have that many more people interested in hitting the ballpark.
Now, I mentioned the term "cherry-picking" earlier and I'm sure the naysayers might believe I am doing so again. Quite the contrary. I've looked everywhere that I could and have yet to find any sort of poll with a decent sample that shows a majority of fans are against the clock. It's almost always overwhelming support while those vocally against the pitch clock are in the vast minority.
I also mentioned earlier the accusation that I'm only in favor of the pitch clock so I can get my work over with as soon as possible. Even if you wanted to neglect my fandom -- which is still on the die-hard level -- and act like this is only a job for me, it still doesn't make sense. I love my job and want to keep it until I'm able to retire. If Major League Baseball wanes in popularity, that task becomes much more difficult. If the game thrives, I've got a fighting chance. This is to say that if I have an angle here, it's for MLB to become as popular as possible.
As things are shaping up, the pitch clock is directly moving the needle that way.