Over the past few years, Major League Baseball has adopted several controversial rule changes, from efforts to greatly reduce the number of takeout slides and home-plate collisions to the introduction of a lengthy, ever-expanding replay review system. One change you won't hear many people griping about, however, are pace-of-game rules designed to speed up play.
MLB announced the program in 2015 and has since already expanded upon its initial offerings for this season. The length of time between innings and pitching changes was reduced, manager and coach visits to the pitcher's mound are limited to 30 seconds and technically players aren't even supposed to exit the batter's box during their at bat — although you don't really see that last one being enforced too much. Anyway, the league boasts game times dropped an average of six minutes in the program's first year alone, which is just fine by me.
Meanwhile in the minor leagues, they've taken these changes a step further with the additional use of a 20-second pitch timer at the Double A and Triple A levels, something MLB has also experimented with and could still eventually make its way to the show. It's fairly self-explanatory. Not unlike the shot clock in basketball, a pitcher gets 20 seconds from the time the ball reaches their glove to begin their wind-up or motion. Easy.
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The rule works. Games are a lot faster. Pete Kandianis, whose official title with the Phillies affiliate Lehigh Valley Ironpigs is field timing coordinator, says the average length of a contest in the Triple A International League was down 16 minutes last year, 10 more than they were able to shave off in the majors, and again, I'm all for it.
What tends to go overlooked with this type of thing though is somebody, an actual human being — Kandianis in the Ironpigs' case — has to operate said clock. And while it may seem like a fairly simple and straightforward task, it's actually as involved as any timekeeper job in sports.
And depending on your perspective, boring as hell too.
"The biggest challenge is staring at the field for three hours straight," said Kandianis, a personable, funny gent who enjoys the work far more than that response would let on.
"I've been doing it so much that now what I see just translates to what I do with the timer, so that part's not challenging, but there's variations I have to watch for that people don't pick up on. I wouldn't say it's a tough challenge, but you have to be accurate and you have to pay attention."
Just try to envision it. As soon as the pitcher receives the ball, the clock begins. As soon he starts his delivery, the clock is shut off. As soon as the ball hits the catcher's mit, the clock is reset. And as soon as the catcher throws the ball back to the pitcher, the clock begins again. A person has to sit and do that, over and over and over.
Now picture how many times per game, per inning, heck, per at bat that the clock must be set and reset. It's actually quite the undertaking.
Not every pitch during the course of a game is timed, but too many to be bothered to keep track.
"I couldn't count," Kandianis says. "I would say probably two-thirds of the pitches are timed.
"Foul balls, you don't time them. After a home run, you don't time that pitch. Any time there's a dead ball, you don't time it. A lot of times people who are just watching in the stands will see pitch after pitch not being timed. Well, foul ball, ball in the dirt, catcher goes out to give defensive signals — all those things can happen pitch after pitch, and sometimes there will be an entire at bat where you don't time a pitch.
"The umpires want it to run smoothly though. Even though they don't enforce it rigorously, they do notice when it's not correct."
In short, it's a serious job. In fact, when the rule was passed in 2015, the Ironpigs had to hire somebody. Here's the original posting.
The Field Timing Coordinator will have two main responsibilities during the game: To start the break clock when either a pitching change or inning break occurs and to start a pitch timing clock after each pitch in the game.
In order to perform these roles, the FTC must be attentive to all game action for the duration of the game. In addition, the FTC must have good baseball knowledge so that he or she can understand how the clock should behave in various game situations. The FTC should have good interpersonal skills and be able to communicate with representatives of the team and the umpiring crew as necessary. FTCs must take an impartial role in operating the clock on behalf of both teams during the game.
"Duration of the game" seems like an important note, because baseball games are wildly unpredictable in length, particularly if they go into extra innings. I've covered three Ironpigs games this season, and all three have gone long, one of which was a 15-frame, almost five-hour marathon.
I finally tapped out sometime during the 13th. Kandianis was still there, setting and resetting the clock, in a game I'm certain nobody in the booth or either dugout wanted to see last a minute longer than it needed to at that point. The field timing coordinator can never stray too far from his post, lest it occur in the two minutes and 25 seconds that are allowed between innings.
"Understand various game situations" is an interesting distinction as well. You may think you know baseball, down to its most obscure rules. Yet things happen during the course of a game that don't necessarily pertain to the rules of play, but can impact the pace of game.
For example, the pitching-change timer is supposed to begin as soon as the relief pitcher crosses the warning track to make his trip to the mound. Sounds simple in theory — except those times when it isn't.
"You just have to concentrate and watch what's going on on the field," said Kandianis. "Sometimes, the bullpen door will open and three players will come out. Two of them are warming up, one's running something to the dugout and one's the relief pitcher. I'm getting better at recognizing now when that's about to happen than I was in the past, but sometimes it will catch you by surprise.
"Something as small as the umpire taking a ball out of his bag and handing it to the pitcher, that's now designated a dead ball, that pitch is not timed. But you have to see that. You have to be looking for that because the umpire does not want you timing that pitch because he's changing the balls out."
And while the umpires don't necessarily enforce the rules strictly, they still expect the field timing coordinator to be on point.
"A lot of times, they don't go by what the clock says, but when you make mistakes, they do notice it," said Kandianis. "I've had umpires tell me, 'Hey, you were a little slow the other night on this,' or, 'Make sure you do this in the future.' The umpires keep an eye on it."
Kandianis admits it becomes more difficult to stay attentive as the game gets late, but he finds ways to stay loose. Simply doing the job accurately, without making a mistake or an umpire asking for a reset, can become a little game in itself. During the 15-inning session, Kandianis bragged on more than one occasion he had a perfect game going, clearly unconcerned he might jinx it.
"I like to joke around," said Kandianis. "If I make an error, I can usually tell, but if everything goes smoothly, yeah, I timed a perfect game."
I haven't come across too many baseball fans who are upset the league is actively looking into methods to shorten games, and a pitch timer may be the best tool yet to achieve that end. Just remember that it comes at a very human cost.