The Abomination of the Pitch Clock

Major League Baseball has announced rule changes for 2023 that would introduce a pitch clock into the major leagues. This is an abomination; a violation of the metaphysics of the game.

Baseball is a game outside of and separate from time. More precisely, it is a game without measured, clocked time.

There is no game clock or play clock. At-bats, innings, games do not have a set or defined time.

Games have an official time only in the descriptive sense of how long the game took: the official game time has no bearing on the game itself. There is no extra time, injury time, half time, two-minute warning, or even time-outs.

It is true that we often here that “time-out” has been called: in broadcasts, game write-ups, etc. This is, however, just a confused borrowing of the concept of “time-out” from other sports. The rules of the game don’t mention a ‘time-out’. They mention ‘time.’ The umpire can call ‘time’ to suspend play (and players/managers can request ‘time’). Notice the suspension of play, the stoppage of play, is not marked by calling for a time out but instead by calling for ‘time.’ This suggests that time is being introduced, rather than stopped. And then when the umpire calls ‘play’: time ceases and play begins. In baseball, play is outside time: the introduction of time stops play.

 Rule 3.12 When an umpire suspends play, he shall call “Time.” At the umpire-in-chief’s call of “Play,” the suspension is lifted and play resumes. Between the call of “Time” and the call of “Play” the ball is dead.

There are several points in the rules that give the umpire some discretion regarding game-action or, more typically, delay based on “reasonable time” passing. And there is Rule 8.04 which specifies (or rather specified) 20 seconds for the pitcher to pitch. (It was later reduced to 12 seconds and with the recent MLB announcement has changed to some new baroque arrangement). And the basis for rule 8.04 goes back at least to 1910, but probably further (1910 was the earliest reference I found). So, this is no modern fluke. However, the 20 seconds was never measured or clocked. It was always up to the umpire (and rarely enforced).

Pace of Play

Many think baseball needs a pitch clock to increase the pace of play. There is a worry that the games have gotten too long and that has affected viewership and fan interest. I am not sure that’s true, but I also don’t think this is the solution. We can agree pace of play is an issue without introducing time into the game.  There are other ways to incentive faster play that are more consistent with the history and essence of the game.  (See my foul strike proposal for one example.)

Play and Sport

The relationship between play and sport is a complex one, but in all sport, even professional sport, an element of play remains. Johan Huizinga was one of the premier scholars of play and its importance to culture. In his famous work, Homo Ludens, he argues that one key element of play is that it is out of the ordinary: “It is rather a stepping out of “real” life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all of its own” (8). Further on he says that “Play is distinct from “ordinary” life both as to locality and duration” (10). Play is extra-ordinary: it has its own time and space, its own internal boundaries and limitations. It is the carving out of this special time and place that marks something as play; that gives play its magic, so to speak. It either allows us to be entirely absorbed (as we while away the hours unaware, totally enmeshed in a world-building game like Civilization or Minecraft) or creates the tension of the activity: the way in which the last few game-minutes of a timed-game like football or basketball can take much longer in real time, creating the tension of running one last play in the last two seconds—something not possible without the game’s special construct of time.

Baseball utterly and purposely disregards discrete measurement of time. It is measured by other things: strikes, balls, outs, runs. Time is not a factor in any of these. To introduce the discrete and clocked measurement of time, so that batter has 8 seconds to get set, a pitcher 15 seconds to pitch, etc., is to introduce something totally alien to baseball.

Part of the magic of baseball is that there is no time: as long as you have an out to give, you have a chance. It doesn’t matter how many runs you are down by or how long the game has gone on: if your side still has an out, you have life. The battle between pitcher and batter is one of the central games within the game: and it is not limited by time. The pitcher either gets the batter out on strikes, walks the batter, or the batter puts the ball into the play: this might be an out, a hit, or run. But there are no other limits. This makes it purely a contest between the pitcher and batter. And that’s the essence of baseball. Bringing in time undermines this. It introduces an external limitation on the play of the game; one that violates the metaphysics of the game.

As a comparison, consider taking away the discrete measurement of time from American football. The clock runs without stopping: this would fundamentally change the nature of the game: the tactics, the plays, the style of play, etc.  Football is all about the discrete and precise measure of space and time: baseball is the opposite: space and time are not measured or, rather, is rarely measured as part of the play (yes a home run has to go a minimum distance, but that’s kind of secondary to it: once it’s gone that far, it’s a home run). In each sport, these relationships to space and time are essential to the nature and play of the game.

To many this might sound like a cranky baseball purist who doesn’t want to see the game evolve or change. That is to entirely misread the argument here. The point is not that there shouldn’t be rule changes to improve and progress the game. Of course, there should; and there always has been. But there is a difference in kind between changing the mound height or the rules about foul balls as strikes, on one hand, and introducing time into a time-less game. The former are emendations, revisions, or extensions to the game as it is. They might be judged better or worse, for example, at how well they help to create a balance between batting and pitching or even the overall spectacle. The latter kind of change, however, is a fundamental change to the game’s essence.  It might improve the spectacle by some measure but at the cost of the game itself.

That is why the pitch clock is abomination.

2 Comments

Filed under baseball, play

2 responses to “The Abomination of the Pitch Clock

  1. This was a great read, and helpful in my own framing of the issue. There really does seem to be a sort of clashing of worlds here once you introduce a stop watch into a timeless institution. Which is it? Are the seconds ticking down or is it an event happening amidst its own time-plane of sorts? Similar issues arise when you time a tennis player for their serves…the clock is ticking down, anxiety rising, yet amidst an otherwise timeless arena. Plus, for those baseball aficionados, there’s a sense of that old jazz aphorism about much of the music’s beauty happens between the notes…that seeming ‘nothingness’ in baseball (and tennis, and jazz) is really something if you’re really immersed in the activity.

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