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Minor league hitters on automatic pitch clock strikes: “unnecessary chaos”

Royals prospect Nick Pratto on the newest rules: “unnecessary chaos”

Nick Pratto reacts to being called out on automatic strikes under the updated pitch clock rules.
Minda Haas Kuhlmann

After an initial grace period to give players a chance to adjust, a new pitch clock format was enforced in minor league baseball starting on Friday.

The new experimental rules at Triple-A allow for just 14 seconds between pitches with the bases empty, and 19 seconds when runners are on. A violation results in an automatic ball, which does mean that the batter is awarded a walk if a violation happens on a 3-ball count.

Walks surrendered on a clock violation don’t show up any differently than standard ones, but a few of the 14 walks issued by Louisville on Friday were due to clock violations, including two of the five walks issued by former Royals pitcher Kyle Zimmer. Omaha and Louisville combined for 10 runs, 20 walks, and 20 strikeouts. Despite those outlandish totals, the game was only 3:09 long.

While the focus of pitch clock discussions is typically on how long it takes the pitcher to throw the next pitch, the rules impose penalties on batters as well. Batters may step out between pitches, but need to be back in the box and “attentive to the pitcher” by the time there are nine seconds left on the clock. Violations result in a strike call.

Nick Pratto was Omaha’s first batter to be “struck out” in this manner, when the home plate umpire called him out on a 2-2 count. Unlike walks, these do show up differently in Gameday: this one was notated as “Nick Pratto strikes out on an automatic strike.”

From my vantage point in the stands, home plate umpire Matthew Brown appeared to be saying something along the lines of “it’s the rule. I had to.” Then, as Pratto’s walking toward the dugout, you can hear him arguing his case - audio NSFW.

While the rule may in fact call for Pratto to be called out there, it’s not clear to everyone why. A source within the organization had this question: If a hitter decides to hop back into the box with five seconds remaining or even one second, what does it matter? The game will still see 14 or 19 seconds pass between one pitch and the next.

A similar situation unfolded on a two-strike count again on Sunday, with Pratto “striking out”, this time to end an inning. Pratto explained what happened in a social media message on Monday: “My head wasn’t up ‘ready to hit’ even though [in] both instances the pitcher wasn’t set up on the rubber.”

Writing for Baseball America, JJ Cooper noted that across the minors, the rules appeared to have the league’s desired effect on Day One:

On their first day of enforcement, the new rules appeared to cut more than 25 minutes from the average game time.

Last night across the minors, the average game time for a nine-inning game was 2:38 and the median game time was 2:34. For the previous week of games, the average game time for a nine-inning game was 3:04 and the median game time was 2:59.

That 3:04 average game time was right in line with last year’s pace. In 2021, Triple-A nine-inning games took 3:04 on average. Double-A games took 2:57. High-A took 3:04 and Low-A took 3:00.

Data on MiLB average time of game goes back to 2005. Last night’s average of 2:38 across the full minors is faster than the average nine-inning game time for any level in any year since measurements began. At the major league level, the last time the average nine-inning game was less than 2:38 was 1985.

While Rob Manfred and company may be pleased with the early returns, Pratto himself isn’t smitten with the rule changes.

“I personally think it’s a very irresponsible adjustment to the game,” he said. “Messing with the processes of hitters and pitchers alike seems to add unnecessary chaos and even if it does speed the game up (which i haven’t seen), the quality of play is going definitely to be affected.”

Pratto continued: “On another hand, if this is the way it’s going to be, there needs to be some accountability on the people who hold the pace of play in their hands to handle it responsibly, instead of putting the ball in play to simply get the clock going and speed the game up.”

Without time to step back and contemplate all the scenarios that might come with the next pitch, will hitters be able to keep up under the new rules?

“There needs to be some aspect of respect for a player’s process in a game that relies heavily on focus and decision making,” Pratto said.

A scout in attendance over the weekend noted that enforcement of previous pace-of-play rules has tended to slide as the season wears on. Cooper noted the same thing in the Baseball America analysis.

One weekend of play is just anecdotes, not data. We will revisit this topic later in the season to see how enforcement efforts hold up, and how that affects game lengths. In the meantime, expect to see more pitch-less balls and strikes.