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Major League Baseball is on the clock

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In 147 years, Major League Baseball has never really concerned itself with clocks - that is, until now. Starting this season, pitchers will typically have 15 seconds to throw to a batter or be charged with a ball. And batters must be ready with eight seconds to go in the countdown, or they will earn a strike. It's only spring training, but the new rules are already making an impact.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: He's out.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: They have called strike three. Wow.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: (Laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: This is mayhem. Oh. Automatic strike three called with the bases loaded in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth. This is baseball in 2023.

CHANG: (Laughter) All right. To help us get ready for baseball 2023, we're joined now by Grant Brisbee. He's a staff writer for The Athletic. Welcome.

GRANT BRISBEE: Thank you for having me on.

CHANG: So I know that you have covered baseball for, like - what? - 20 years professionally, but you've been a fan for a whole lot longer than that. Tell me, how weird is it to see a pitch clock out there after all this time?

BRISBEE: To actually have the physical clock - and it's not a subtle timer just in the - that you have to hunt for. It's right there blinking down. And it's a little bit of a doomsday clock.

CHANG: (Laughter).

BRISBEE: That part is weird. But as far as going back to the time where the games had more of a consistent pace, where the pitchers were getting the ball and throwing it to home, that part doesn't feel so weird because it's happened before.

CHANG: OK. Well, I understand that, like, part of the handwringing here has been because the baseball games have just grown way too long, right? So what do you think so far? Is the pitch clock working to shave off time from these games?

BRISBEE: It is. So back in 2017, I did this project where it was - I watched a game from 1984, and I watched the game from 2014. And I made sure that these games - all the commercial breaks were included. And I sat down completely open to any explanation. And I said, OK, what's the difference? But it really was just time between pitches. That was almost a half an hour by itself.

CHANG: Oh, my God.

BRISBEE: So the pitch clock coming in wasn't a surprise to me 'cause to me, after doing this experiment, it was - that was the answer. That's how you shave a half hour off this game.

CHANG: That's incredible. OK. But it's not just the pitch clock, right? There are other new rules this season. Like, the bases, I understand, are larger. There's also been a crackdown on defensive shifts - that's when a team will sometimes absurdly overload the defense to one side of the field. All of these moves seem designed to help with scoring. And I'm curious - as the regular season starts, which changes are you the most interested in seeing play out?

BRISBEE: The rule that really fascinates me out of all of this is the rules regarding pickoff throws. And so now what pitchers have per baserunner - so if you get a runner on first base, the pitcher gets two pickoff throws. And it's not just pickoff throws, but it's disengagements. What that means is that if they step off the rubber before throwing to first, but they don't throw it, that counts against them. So you're going to have this cat-and-mouse game where if a pitcher makes two pickoff throws to the same baserunner, then they might take a huge lead.

But the wrinkle is if the pitcher throws that third pickoff throw and gets the runner out, that doesn't count. That's an out. But if the pitcher throws and doesn't get the runner, that runner is awarded the next base up on a balk. So it's going to be absolute chaos. And I'm looking forward to seeing how it plays out.

CHANG: Well, what about the purists out there among the fans? Like, how are they handling all of this newness? Newness is not, like, an everyday thing in baseball, right?

BRISBEE: Right. I'm not hearing too much grumbling, but there is the idea of you have a subset of fans that did not think that baseball games were too long. I do think that there's a balance, though. For me, having a little bit more balance - I appreciate the laconic pace of baseball, but it was getting a little too far towards one extreme. So the pitch clock should help a little bit with that.

CHANG: That is Grant Brisbee of The Athletic. Thank you.

BRISBEE: You got it. Thanks so much for having me on.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIKI SONG, "EVERY SUMMERTIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.