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Arizona Fall League experiment with pitch clock could lead to rule changes

Additionally, should MLB try to speed the game up?

Leon Halip/Getty Images

The Arizona Fall League season concluded last weekend. (The team hosting Indians players, the Peoria Javelinas, lost in the championship game.) The AFL is sometimes used a laboratory of sorts by MLB, to test out potential rule changes. Last year expanded replay was used there before being approved by owners and the MLBPA, and adopted for use in MLB games. This fall in Arizona they tested a number of measures to theoretically speed up the pace of play.

Some of the "changes" really just involved a more strict enforcement of rules that are already on the books, such as the time limit between innings and during pitching changes. Others were something new, such as a rule that batters had to keep one foot in the batters' box between pitches in most instances (there were exceptions for foul balls, wild pitches, and a couple other things), and a limit of three mound conferences per game. Intentional walks were made automatic, meaning that the pitching team called for one and the batter immediately went to first base, rather than having the pitcher actually taking the time time to throw the ball four times.

Probably the most dramatic of these experiments though,was a 20-second pitch clock, similar to the shot clock used in the NBA and NCAA basketball games:

If the clock ran out, it was the home plate umpire's job to place blame on either the pitcher (in which case a ball was added to the count) or the batter (in which case a strike was added).

Joe Torre, who is MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations spent some time in Arizona this month and had this to say:

"I wasn't a real fan of clocks. But the players are all informed on what we're doing, and the games have been a lot crisper to watch. From all the evidence we've had in the Fall League, this has been a real positive as far as gathering information. That's what we have to do first before we figure out what's going to work at the major league level."

That last sentence is the one that really matters. Last year I felt like expanded replay was almost certainly coming, and the AFL testing was just an opportunity to see it in practice, recognize a couple potential kinks that might need to be worked out. This year's changes are a different story. I don't think there's any way we see a pitch block at Progressive Field in 2015, nor to I expect intentional walks to change.

MLB games have set a new record for average length (in 9-inning games) in each of the last four years, with that average creeping beyond three hours for the first time in 2014 (primarily due to instant replay). Given that offense was at its lowest level in more than 20 years, games getting longer has more to do with players standing around than it does additional action. (It's somewhat ironic that Torre is sort of the one in charge of this, because when I think of slow baseball, I think of the Yankees teams he managed, which used numerous mound conferences and other stalling tactics, and played some of the longest games in MLB history.)

I'm against the pitch clock, at least in the very visible form it took on in Arizona. It may simply be an aesthetic issue for me, I like that baseball has no clock, but ultimately aesthetics mean a lot in life. I would support having umpires enforce the rules that are already on the book, which include rule 8.04, which states:

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 umpires are capable of enforcing that, MLB just hasn't made it a priority. Before going to as dramatic a change as large clocks counting down the seconds hundreds of times a game, MLB should just ask its umpires to be a bit more strict about a few things.