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Imagining a Better 2022 MLB Season with Pitch Clocks, Shift Bans and Robot Umps

Zachary D. RymerJuly 1, 2022

Rich Schultz/Getty Images

As the 2022 Major League Baseball season pushes onward, Commissioner Rob Manfred is once again sharing his ideas for how to make the game better.

Don't groan. They're actually good.

There's much to take away from the recent profile on Manfred by Don Van Natta Jr. of ESPN. But for simplicity's sake, let's focus on this part:

"[Manfred] tells me, in terms far more certain than he has laid out publicly before, that he fully supports revamping the game with pitch clocks, the elimination of the shift and, in 2024, some form of robo-umpires."

So, there it is. Manfred isn't simply thinking about these things or interested in studying them. Pitch clocks, a shift ban and an automated strike zone are exactly what he wants.

Not that this is surprising, of course. These things have been creeping out of the realm of the conceptual for years, and they've never been more real than they are now in 2022. There are pitch clocks at all levels of the minor leagues, with regulations on shifts at three levels and so-called "robot umpires" at two levels.

There's more than a little room for distrust here, if for no other reason than this is Rob Manfred we're talking about. He wasn't particularly well liked by either fans or MLB's hundreds-strong player base even before the 99-day lockout of this past winter, and that event didn't do his reputation any favors.

On the topic of these rule changes, though, Manfred's heart and mind are in the right place. They would bring baseball forward while also ushering it back to better days.

To help make sense of this paradox, let's imagine how the 2022 season would be different if it had time limitations between pitches, restrictions on shifts and a computer to call balls and strikes.


The 2022 MLB Season with Pitch Clocks

Jeffrey Dean/MLB Photos via Getty Images

With pace of play, it's by no means a secret anymore that the action has slowed way the heck down in the majors. Whereas a typical game was played in under two hours a century ago, it now takes over three hours on average to complete a game in 2022.

There's more than one reason for the ever-lengthening time of games, but the biggest problem has been clear for years: It's the lollygagging, stupid.

Perhaps the most telling document for this field of study is an article that Grant Brisbee wrote for SB Nation in 2014. In it, he stacked up two games from 1984 and 2014 that had the exact same number of runs scored, plate appearances and pitches thrown. The one in 2014 took 35 more minutes to complete, though, because "it took nine seconds longer for a pitcher to get rid of the ball in 2014."

In theory, this is what the pitch clock is for. In reality, here's how it works in the minors:

  • Bases Empty: 14-second limit
  • Runners On: 18/19-second limit

With these figures in mind, let's have some fun with Statcast's new Pitch Tempo tool.

Mike Petriello @mike_petriello

At long last, a fun new tool at Baseball Savant. Pitch tempo; compare how much time your favorite pitcher takes between pitches with men on vs bases empty. <br><br>Yes, historically, Mark Buehrle and Pedro Báez rank just where you'd think.<a href="https://t.co/Jbw9cqT8tR">https://t.co/Jbw9cqT8tR</a> <a href="https://t.co/jOJrIsOWg5">pic.twitter.com/jOJrIsOWg5</a>

Among pitchers who've thrown 100 pitches this season, Chicago Cubs left-hander Wade Miley is the fastest with the bases empty at 11.6 seconds between pitches. At the other end is St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Giovanny Gallegos, who takes an eternal 26.7 seconds between pitches with nobody on.

As for the averages for all pitches, well, here you go:

  • Bases Empty: 18 seconds
  • Runners On: 23 seconds

Either way, a pitch clock would decrease the standard time between each pitch by roughly four seconds. There are about 290 pitches per game, so the quick and dirty math suggests that pitch clocks would thus shave about 20 minutes off the average game time.

This isn't perfect math, mind you, but it lines up with what's happening in the minors. As Anthony Castrovince of MLB.com reported on May 19, minor league games played without a clock within the first two weeks of the 2022 season averaged two hours, 59 minutes. Once the clock was in play on April 15, the average time per game went down by 24 minutes.

A similar reduction at the major league level would bring the average time of game down from three hours, seven minutes to two hours, 43 minutes. Still long, sure, but short enough to put games on the same pace level as 1980s games.

Put another way: If you start watching a game with a pitch clock at 7 p.m., you could plan on actually getting to bed by 10 p.m.

This alone is arguably reason enough to want a pitch clock in the major leagues as soon as possible, and then there are the potential periphery perks. Per Castrovince, those include more action on the bases. With stolen bases having dropped precipitously from 0.67 per game in 2011 to 0.51 per game in 2022, this would be another welcome change.


The 2022 MLB Season with a Shift Ban

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Beyond the fact that they're taking forever, the other less-than-awesome thing about major league games in 2022 is that they don't feature many hits.

The hits have lately been coming more consistently than they did in April, wherein the league hit just .232. The leaguewide average has nonetheless plateaued at .246 in each of the last two months, and it stands at just .242 on the whole. That's the lowest mark since the late 1960s.

As with the time per game problem, there's no one reason for the hit problem. The new ball and universal usage of humidors loom large, but ever-increasing fastball velocity and ever-decreasing fastball usage make for clear explanations for why contact is still hard to come by even though teams in both leagues now have the benefit of the designated hitter.

Likewise, the effect of defensive shifts is as hard to downplay as it is to ignore.

Since 2015, teams have gone from shifting their infields on 9.6 to 36.3 percent of all pitches. As shifts are typically designed to overload defenders to hitters' pull sides—i.e., three infielders on one side of second base, often with one set up in the outfield grass—it's little wonder that the leaguewide average on 95-plus mph ground balls to the pull side is lower than ever at .303.

Though that's for all batters, it barely scratches the surface of how screwed left-handed batters are getting. They now face shifts almost 60 percent of the time and their hits on hard-hit pulled grounders have all but dried up:

Graph via Google Sheets

Simply to this end, putting regulations on shifts could restore hits to left-handed batters that they rightfully deserve.

There's also some thinking that such regulations could bring athleticism back to the forefront of infield defense. Harder to prove, perhaps, but turning batted balls like this one, this one and this one into outs surely should require more than minimal-to-no effort.

Put another way, let's bring things back to a time when plays like this were possible:

This is precisely the idea with the regulations that the league is testing in the minors.

At both Single-A levels and Double-A, teams must have at least four defenders on the infield, with two on either side of second base. Per ESPN's Jesse Rogers, the league is also likely to experiment with a "dead zone" behind second base that will keep both the shortstop and the second baseman a certain distance from the bag.

Basically, what you think of when you think of infielders playing the infield. What a concept.


The 2022 MLB Season with an Automated Strike Zone

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Look, we know what you're thinking: "But with an automated strike zone, how are players supposed to blow up at Angel Hernandez when he misses a call?"

We're assuming "you" are Philadelphia Phillies slugger Kyle Schwarber, who treated everyone to a delightful spectacle when he lost his crud at Hernandez during a Sunday night game in April:

ESPN @espn

Kyle Schwarber was not happy with this called third strike. <a href="https://t.co/WSjs5LyYDQ">pic.twitter.com/WSjs5LyYDQ</a>

Amusing? You bet.

But indicative of how umpires are calling the strike zone in 2022? You bet not.

Umpires have actually gotten better at calling balls and strikes since the introduction of pitch-tracking technology in the early 2000s. Simply going off publicly available data that dates back to 2008, the percentages of correctly called strikes and balls have gone up:

Graph via Google Sheets

As such, it's conceivable that both figures will eventually reach 100 percent even without any technological help. Especially considering that, as noted in the latest from Foolish Baseball, younger umpires tend to have more accurate zones than their more experienced peers.

But while 100 percent accuracy sans robo-umpires is at least conceivable, Didi and Gogo probably have better odds of meeting up with Godot. Time itself is just never going to cure the human element of umpiring, particularly knowing that all the velocity in the game today is making pitches increasingly hard to actually see.

For his part, Manfred thinks the robo-umps are ready to help. "We have an automated strike zone system that works," he told Van Natta of the system in place in the minors right now.

As outlined by Mike Persak of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, this system sets up a strike zone that's 20 inches wide (17 inches for the plate and half a baseball on either side) with length that's tailored to the individual hitter. The top of the zone is placed at 52.5 percent of the player's height, with the bottom at 27 percent of his height.

The journey to this stage of the experiment has been perilous. There are horror stories (some complete with video) aplenty of robo-umps ruling in mysterious ways over seemingly obvious calls. They typically involve balls just barely ticking the zone. Strikes by the letter of the law, sure, but not exactly in tune with the intuitions of either hitters or pitchers.

"I wish there was more of, you have to have X percentage of the ball that crosses the zone for it to be a strike," Colorado Rockies outfielder Kris Bryant, who experienced the automated zone while on a rehab assignment, told reporters. "Because the ones that just nick the corner, that's the gray area. As a pitcher you're like, 'Maybe it's a strike?' And as a hitter you're like, 'I don't know either.'"

Even still, the automated zone might actually benefit hitters more than pitchers. Though the caveat is that robo-umps didn't debut in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League until May 17, the league's walk rate is up to 10.7 in 2022 from 9.7 percent in 2021. The strikeout rate has barely budged, going from 23.2 percent to 23.3 percent.

In any case, Single-A Bradenton Marauders manager Jonathan Johnston credited "consistency" as the best thing about the automated zone. It thus has the one thing that hardcore observers of baseball are increasingly impatient that human umpires don't have.

There's a whole subculture of Twitter accounts committed to either mocking or auditing umpires. The foremost example of the latter is @Umpscorecards, which doesn't miss a thing:

Umpire Scorecards @UmpScorecards

Umpire: Doug Eddings<br>Final in 12: Blue Jays 6, White Sox 7<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/NextLevel?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#NextLevel</a> // <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/ChangeTheGame?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#ChangeTheGame</a><a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/TORvsCWS?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#TORvsCWS</a> // <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/CWSvsTOR?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#CWSvsTOR</a> <a href="https://t.co/xF7KTGcGQi">pic.twitter.com/xF7KTGcGQi</a>

If it feels like human umpires have gotten worse at calling balls and strikes in 2022, it's more so because of accounts like this than anything else. A valuable resource, to be sure, but they effectively grease the wheels for bad umpiring to go more viral than is perhaps deserved.

Though shifting the responsibility of balls and strikes onto robo-umps wouldn't end griping about the strike zone altogether, the gripers would only be able to rage against the machine. Concerning actual humans, there would be less focus on umpires and more on the guys who should be at the center of attention when there's a ballgame on.

That is, the players.


Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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