They say the only thing that is guaranteed in life is change. No matter how wonderful or terrible something is, it likely won’t stay that way forever. For fans of a sport that has existed for over 160 years, “change” might as well be a curse word. Baseball has undergone slow, minute progress over the decades and centuries, but these days it seems like fans need to re-read the rule book every season. Many baseball diehards are not happy about that. All you have to do to turn any sports bar into a war zone is walk in during a big baseball game and proclaim “I sure am glad MLB banned the infield shift.” You’ll get death stares, start arguments, end friendships, ruin marriages, and probably get banned from the respective establishment. Of course, it’s not just the professional ranks of baseball that have undergone some alterations. Amateur baseball is following suit.
If you’ve seen more than a couple college baseball games this year, you’ve likely seen an automatic ball or strike called due to a “clock violation.” If a pitcher fails to deliver a pitch within 15 seconds of receiving the ball with the bases empty, or 20 seconds with runners on, the batter is awarded an automatic ball no matter the count. The batter cannot dilly dally outside the batter’s box either. Failure to face the pitcher in a batting stance with 7 seconds or more on the pitch clock will result in an automatic strike. These clocks aren’t entirely new, but the vigor with which they’re enforced has certainly increased. And there’s now no warning before a strike or ball is called. We’ve already seen entire college baseball games end on such violations, much to the chagrin of college baseball purists. Rules experts and those monetarily invested in the growth of the sport suspect that these measures will speed up the game, thus making it easier for fledgling fans to adopt the sport we already love. They say that quicker games and faster game action will make taking in an afternoon at the ballpark easier for those of us that are too busy or have too short of an attention span to watch a 3 & ½ hour game. Not everyone is thrilled about the changes, but they’re here to stay (for the foreseeable future at least).
Now that we’re four weeks into the season, with conference play kicking off soon for most teams, how has the pitch clock affected gameplay? Has the pace of play quickened? Have the games been shortened? What about secondary effects—how does the pitch clock effect offense and defense in college baseball?
In case you were just dying to know—yes, the pitch clock has apparently shortened the length of nine-inning college baseball games. The average game run time in 2022 was 3 hours and 2 minutes. In 2023, that number is down to 2 hours and 51 minutes (value excludes extra-inning games and shortened games). The early returns on these pace-of-play measures is that they’ve trimmed about 11 minutes off of game times. Does 11 minutes make enough of a difference to bring more fans to the game? That’s for the fans and the NCAA to decide; it’s still too early to tell at this point in the season.
Game length isn't the only aspect of baseball that rule changes may have affected. According to D1 Baseball, home runs across the sport are up from 1.69 per game in 2022 to 2.08 per game in 2023. That's surprising to see early in the season, when weather is colder and wetter and the air around the country is a bit heavier most days than in late spring. Baseball aficionados will tell you that pitching is ahead of hitting this time of year. If the old wisdom is true, you could see the home run disparity between the two seasons grow even more as the weather and the bats heat up. Why such an increase? If you’ll check your juiced-balls and hot-bats conspiracy theories at the door, its plausible to suggest that any huge changes in statistics from this season to last season lie in the rule changes. Give pitchers one more thing to worry about, and it’s no wonder they might groove a few more meat balls down the middle than they usually do.
In addition to the pitch clock and increase in home runs, bases on balls have become the second pandemic that college baseball has dealt with in recent seasons. If hurried pitchers are more prone to mistakes in the strike zone, they’re probably more likely to miss the zone entirely when they feel rushed as well. The early numbers support this conclusion. Using data from thirteen different conferences (five “major” conferences and eight randomly selected ones), we found that each conference is averaging an increase of 0.64 walks per game. Again, if pitching is ahead of hitting at this stage, one would expect walks to be higher over the course of an entire season compared to early on in any season. Yet, the increase is still there. Even more interesting, we found that every single conference among those measured is walking more times per game in 2023 than they were in 2022. The SEC is walking nearly two more times per game than they did a year ago. Some of this disparity comes from the fact that major conference teams play a weaker schedule in February and March compared to April and May, but the inclusion of eight minor conferences in the figures likely balances that out. The data is shown below. These numbers reflect how many times per game hitters from each conference have been walked.
These figures are intriguing because as walks increase, so does the length of games. A few plate appearances with at least four pitches that don’t yield any outs are the easiest way to ensure a long nine innings. Yet despite these inflated BB numbers, we are still enjoying an eleven-minute shorter game on average this season compared to 2022.
Whether you’re in favor of the rule changes or cursing rule makers and umpires every weekend, it’s difficult for anyone to deny the fact that the changes are impacting the game. Regardless of anyone’s feelings about the pitch clock, we are just going to have to get used to it. Viewership, engagement, and ticket sales are up to above pre-Covid levels. It’s difficult to say whether the new rules have done anything to contribute to that. But nobody that loves college baseball is turned off enough by the new rules to turn off their television when their favorite teams are playing. And if the shorter games and increased offense draw in even a tiny number of new viewers, the changes will be seen as a success by the movers and shakers.