When it gets late, ditch the clock

Max Scherzer

[I]f everybody’s playing baseball the way it should be, don’t ever let that [pitch] clock determine the outcome of the game. Ever.—Max Scherzer.

Very well, I surrender. I can live with the pitch clock—on one condition. The same condition by which the Mets’ Opening Day starting pitcher, Max Scherzer, can live with it.

“I’m not saying the clock’s not valuable,” Scherzer tells The Athletic’s Spink Award Hall of Fame writer Jayson Stark. “It is. But if everybody’s playing baseball the way it should be, don’t ever let that [pitch] clock determine the outcome of the game. Ever.”

Max the Knife was agreeing with Stark’s own assessment, an agreement with which I agree, too, with one codicil I’ll note shortly:

I’d be thinking seriously about turning the clock off in the eighth and ninth innings of games when the score was within three runs either way. That removes the chances of a game ending on a pitch-clock technicality. Plus, when those at-bats freeze in time, as the tension hangs over the big moment, that doesn’t fit anyone’s definition of “dead time.” Does it?

How is it any kind of problem if the game-turning at-bats late in tight games last a few seconds longer? Isn’t that the lesson of Mike Trout versus Shohei Ohtani, as the most dramatic final at-bat any WBC scriptwriter could ever write?

My codicil: Turn the damn pitch clock off for the eight and the ninth, period, I don’t care what the score happens to be. Not even if the game still looks like a blowout with a mushroom cloud. It’s entirely possible for a team to pick up, dust off, and neutralise or overthrow a blowout in the mid or late innings.

You demand the evidence? You got it. Here are the regular season double-digit deficits that started closing up in the fifth or later across Show history:

Twelve-run deficit5 August 2001: The Guardians (known then as the Indians) down that margin coming into the seventh. Manager Charlie Manuel may or may not have thought it was the impossible deficit when he pulled four regulars out of the lineup. Well, now: Three in the seventh, four in the eighth, five in the ninth—and with two outs, yet—forcing extra innings where a no-name named Jolbert Cabrera sent Kenny Lofton home with a broken-bat single in the eleventh. Final score: 15-14.

15 June 1925: Philadelphia Athletics vs. Cleveland. Down by twelve in the seventh as well, Connie Mack’s men scored once in that inning . . . then sent thirteen runs home in the eighth, an uprising only beginning when Jimmy Dykes slashed a three-run triple. It ended with Hall of Famer Al Simmons hitting a three-run homer. In between, nine of ten reached on seven singles and two walks. Talk about serving the ancient Indians a shit sandwich: they couldn’t push a run across in the top of the ninth. Final: 17-15.

Eleven-run deficit17 April 1976: Phillies vs. Cubs. The Phillies were in the hole 13-2 by the fifth. Oops. Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt hit a two-run homer in the fifth. They scored three in the seventh, five in the eighth (two-run single by should-be Hall of Famer Dick Allen; three-run bomb by Schmidt), three in the ninth for a 15-13 lead, and—after the Cubs tied it in the bottom of the ninth—a third homer from Schmidt (two runs) and a sacrifice fly, answered by only one Cub run in the bottom of the tenth. 18-6 your final from the Friendly Confines.

Ten-run deficit—As it happens, there are five such games:

2 June 2016, Mariners vs. Padres. The Ms down ten in the top of the sixth; came back to win, 16-13. The biggest inning—the seventh, when the Ms sent nine runs home on seven RBI singles.

8 May 2004, Rangers vs. Tigers. Down 14-4 in the fifth, the Rangers marched back to win, 16-15, in ten innings.

21 August 1990, Phillies vs. Dodgers. Down 11-1 in the eighth, the Phillies overthrew the Dodgers, 12-11. The biggest inning—the Phillies’ nine-run top of the ninth, including John Kruk’s one-out, all-runs-unearned grand slam to tie, followed by a base hit and an RBI double to take the lead the Dodgers couldn’t close in the bottom of the ninth.

4 June 1989, Blue Jays vs. Red Sox. Down 10-0 entering the seventh. The biggest inning—none, really: Two in the seventh on a double play grounder and a ground-rule double. Four in the eighth on a two-run single, an RBI double, and an RBI single. Game-tying RBI single in the ninth. Unanswered two-run homer in the top of the twelfth. 13-11, Jays the final.

25 April 1901, Tigers vs. Orioles. OK, that’s a ringer: in 1901, the Orioles were born as the Milwaukee Brewers, before moving and becoming the infamous St. Louis Browns who moved to Baltimore in 1954. The Tigers trailed 13-3 in the eighth. The game log isn’t available, but the line score is: the Tigers scored one in the eighth and ten in the bottom of the ninth. 14-13 your final, and that was four years before a kid named Ty Cobb arrived in Detroit. By the way, that was also Opening Day, folks.

Berra’s Law: It ain’t over till it’s over. Andujar’s Law: In baseball, there’s just one word—you never know. Stark’s Law: In baseball, anything can happen. Kallman’s Amendment: . . . and usually does. Incumbent or newborn, the rules should not make room for another of Professor Yogi’s fabled observations to come sickeningly true: It gets late early out there.

Ugly flamingo

Once and for all. When they began referring to the free cookie on second base to begin each extra half-inning as Manfred man, I cringed. Not just because of the concept itself, but because I did and still do like only one Manfred Mann. And it’s taking every ounce of psychic strength to keep Manfred man from killing Manfred Mann for me.

For the life of me I can’t imagine Commissioner Rube Goldberg writing, never mind singing, the lyric to Manfred Mann’s greatest single and maybe the single prettiest love song of the 1964-66 British Invasion this side of “And I Love Her”:

Some sweet day, I’ll make her mine, pretty Flamingo,
then every guy will envy me, ’cause paradise is where I’ll be.

Because it was anything but some sweet day when Manfred decided it needed to be in the Show. And not every guy envies him for it. His idea of baseball paradise often includes detours into baseball’s Inferno. One of his predecessors began his professional life as a teacher and scholar whose specialty was Dante. We’re lucky if Manfred’s knowledge of Dante goes as far back as Bo Bichette’s one-time slugging father.

Many baseball “traditions” have deserved to go the way of the large stone bases with which the game we know began. Extra inning games without encumbrance or monkey business aren’t one of them.

Seriously. I get the alarm from teams concerned for the issues a long game one day leaves on their rosters for the game the day after. (Such issues are why I favoured the doubleheader of seven-inning games, and still do.) I get relief pitchers concerned for the extra erosion on their arms and shoulders if they’d worked a day or two before and then went into a late, long-lasting marathon.

But I don’t mean to say I don’t care whose arm gets ground down when I say that half the fun of baseball in the first place was the prospect of a tight game going to extra innings. When Astros rookie Jeremy Peña homered to end an eighteen-inning division series marathon and the Mariners’ season at once, it ended an affair that included twelve pitchers used between both sides and grand theater.

They don’t all go as marathon as that, regular or postseason.

They don’t all go 26 innings the way Brooklyn and Boston did in 1920, ending in a one-all tie because of darkness. (This was prehistoric baseball, before the lights went on in Cincinnati and in due course elsewhere.)

They don’t all go 25 the way the White Sox and the Brewers did in 1984 (this was the game that provided Harold Baines his [snort] Hall of Fame credential: he homered to end it), or the way the Cardinals and the Mets did a decade earlier. (This one ended with road running: the Cardinals’ Shake ‘n’ Bake McBride scored all the way from first . . . on a wild pickoff throw. No, they didn’t now dream up the pickoff throw limit the better to keep pitchers from being embarrassed by run-scoring throwing errors in the bottom of the 25th or elsewhere.)

They don’t all go 24 the way the Astros and the Mets did in April 1968, when the game ended on a classic Astroturf hit: a grounder skidding away from Mets shortstop Al Weis, allowing the winning run to score. (Credit to the Astrodome’s scoreboard operators for an inspirational message in the 20th inning: We hope you are enjoying tonight’s third game as much as you enjoyed the first two.)

Or, the way the Giants and the Mets did in a doubleheader nightcap in 1964, the Giants finally winning it and teenage Mets first baseman Ed Kranepool ending his day having played all 33 innings. (The Mets are the only franchise in Show history to play three 23+ inning games in their lifespan. They also lost all three.) In fact, in over a century plus of major league ball as we’ve known it, only eight games have gone 23 or more and only nine have gone exactly 22.

They don’t even all go eighteen, the way the Red Sox and the Dodgers did going eighteen in Game Five of the 2018 World Series, before Nathan Eovaldi’s stout six-inning relief performance was wrecked by Max Muncy with a leadoff launch over the left field fence. And I sure don’t remember anyone kvetching about the length of that one while it was ongoing.

So Manfred man was created first as one way to quicken things up during the pan-damn-ically shortened 2020 season, then kept year-by-year to quicken things up with or without a pan-damn-ic. Now, Manfred man’s been voted permanent by a joint competition committee until or unless voted otherwise by another joint competition committee. But who’s kidding whom?

Too many from Manfred onward complain incessantly about the length of baseball games. How many of those people kvetch about Super Bowl LVII requiring what proved to be three hours and thirty-one minutes to play? (No kvetch except over the halftime shows. I get that, too. For crying out loud, save the mini-concerts for post-game.) The team sport which yields its own singular blend of comedy and drama might take three plus hours—and even those who think Manfred’s as good for the game as a grease puddle to a pedestrian believe too much is more than enough.

“Certainly, everyone working at the game appreciates avoiding twenty-inning marathons,” writes The Athletic‘s Eno Sarris. “But those attending the game might disagree, and cite the fact that, with this rule in place, extra-inning runs have scored at over two times the rate they score in the first nine innings. That’s fundamentally different baseball! Their retort might ask baseball teams to build their rosters with more pitchers capable of going longer in emergency situations.”

The good news, and it’s the only spot of it in this regard, is that Manfred man still won’t show up in the postseason. Yet. The further bad news is that Manfred man won’t necessarily prevent the occasional extra inning games from turning into the equivalent of two games or even a third. There’s no absolute guarantee that Manfred man will turn into a run as swiftly as its advocates love to believe and its opponents per Sarris fear.

Suppose we re-aligned one of the actual key causes of protracted sports contests: broadcast commercials. (Admit it: at the stadium, you’ve seen players lingering before continuing play, the better to accommodate this call to the bullpen, that insertion of the special teams, the other double switch, the kickoff team’s advent yonder.) Imagine how much shorter a baseball game might be with broadcast commercials only between the full, not the half innings.

(Don’t go there: No, the Lords of Baseball don’t want their broadcast revenues cut; but, yes, they might go for negotiating delicious prices on mere full-inning commercials and getting them.)

Maybe that’s the core of the problem. The thinking person’s sport is somewhat overrun with short, shallow thinking. (It makes you wonder about the real objection to analytics/sabermetrics: it requires thought, and lots of it.) Starting with the man who brought to baseball’s extra half innings the ugly flamingo, also known as the ghost runner. (Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters, hopefully.)

Three-batter blues

2019-12-21 RonGardenhire

“At times, it’s about trying to win a ballgame.”—Ron Gardenhire. “At times,” he says . . .

Regardless of their teams’ seasons from beginning to end and all stations in between, today’s managers don’t seem as witty as their historic predecessors. You couldn’t possibly imagine the Pirates’ new manager or the Tigers’ incumbent going to the mound with Casey Stengel’s kind of insouciant wit.

Managing the hapless Original Mets in 1962, Stengel visited Roger Craig at the mound with Hall of Famer Willie McCovey checking in at the plate. “How do you want to pitch him?” the Ol’ Perfesser asked his stout righthander. “Upper deck or lower deck?” Getting his first look at brand-new Shea Stadium in 1964, Casey didn’t miss a beat: “Lovely. Just lovely. The park is lovelier than my team.”

Derek Shelton is the Pirates’ new manager; Ron Gardenhire is the Tigers’ incumbent. They seem like steady, agreeable men, the kind of bosses for whom you wouldn’t reject the chance to play. But they’re not likely to make you forget the former Pirates manager who mused, “You can have money piled to the ceiling, but the size of your funeral is still going to depend on the weather.”

Or, the former Tigers skipper who said about facing a team the day after blowout loss to them, “The only reason I’m coming out here tomorrow is because the schedule says I have to.”

But if you ask them about things like the forthcoming three-batter minimum for relief pitchers, Shelton and Gardenhire aren’t exactly stuck for answers, either. Neither were a few other skippers approached by ESPN during this month’s winter meetings. “The three-batter thing will be interesting,” says Shelton, “and it’s going to be interesting for a couple of reasons for me. Never having managed in the National League, it will be interesting to see how that works out with the pitcher.”

He’s never managed in the American League, either, but Shelton has managed in the Yankees’ system in the recent past. Gardenhire’s managed in the American League. (He managed the Twins to six American League Central titles.) “Can we talk about that after a few cocktails?” he quipped. Then he got as serious as a man who’s had a few belts and is liable to trip over his tongue at least once.

“We’ve got a lot of managers still trying to figure out how it’s going to work out,” Gardenhire said. It’s not one of those favorite things for a manager because it starts taking away a little bit of strategy. I know the game is tough when you walk out there and change a pitcher for every hitter; but at times, it’s about trying to win a ballgame, and I think that’s what we’re all here for. Those are the arguments. But we’re trying to improve the game, so we’ve got to give it a look before day one.”

“At times” it’s about trying to win a ballgame, he says. Good one, Skip. Then you remember Gardenhire’s Tigers won only to break up the monotony in 2019: they lost 114. Maybe he has a little Stengelese potential after all. (Codicil: Gardenhire’s own playing career began in a very different organisation of Mets, in 1979.)

When the idea first seeped forth, the three-batter minimum seemed a salve to those who think that either the games are taking too long or the pitchers are getting too fragile. Now it seems a solvent rather than a solution to . . . who knows?

“I think it can affect how you put a lineup together,” said former Yankees/now Phillies manager Joe Girardi. “Depending how many lefthanders they have, maybe you spread your lefthanders out. So if they have a guy that is efficient in getting left-handed hitters out, you surround him with two beasts that are right-handed hitters. So I think it does change.”

“My take on the whole thing is–I’m all for messing with the pace of the game. I think the pace of the game can be messed with; I’m good,” said Joe Maddon, the new Angels manager. “The thing I would never interfere with is strategy, and to me, that interferes with strategy, and that’s the part I don’t like. Pace and length of the game, I think, are interconnected, but strategy is sacred, I think.”

Argue that the games are “too long” and then suggest you might want to scale back on the broadcast commercials, between innings, during pitching changes, during double switches. (If you consider commercial slots between innings amount to two minutes each, that’s over half an hour you spend watching commercials and not baseball for nine innings.) Watch how fast the owners run from the very idea that something should mean a few million dollars fewer in their kitties, even if it’s for the good of the game and those who love and watch it.

Argue that if you’re going to impose the three-batter minimum you’d better not shout, you’d better not cry when a clever manager decides the game situation demands he reach for his best pitcher even if a) it’s a relief pitcher, and b) it’s, say, the fourth inning. Watch the get-off-my-lawn contingent jump up and down in tantrums, screaming blue murder, that you’re destroying the Sacred Tradition.

Never mind that you’re destroying nothing of the sort. Come to think of it, you wouldn’t be destroying the Sacred Tradition, either, if you do something I’ve suggested before: eliminate the eight warmup pitches from the game mound when you bring a relief pitcher into the game in the middle of an inning. He’s just thrown what might be at extreme the equivalent of a quality start’s worth of pitches while warming up in the pen. He needs eight more warmups? He needs them about as badly as the guy who’s hit two home runs already in that game needs batting practise.

One manager who wasn’t terribly concerned about a three-batter minimum was Red Sox manager Alex Cora. “I don’t think it’s going to affect us that much,” he said. “We don’t mix and match that much. Our lefties, they’re pretty solid. Darwinson [Hernandez] and [Josh] Taylor, they get lefties and righties and do a good job against both of them. So I don’t think to us it’s going to affect us that much.”

Not so fast, Cora. The lefthanded Hernandez did look terrific in his rookie 2019 overall. But the righthanded batters hit for a .934 OPS against him against the lefthanders’ .388. Their batting averages against him? Righthanded: .319; lefthanded: .089. Likewise a 2019 rook, Taylor, another lefthander, didn’t get crunched quite that drastically by righthanded batters (.692 OPS) and the lefthanders didn’t exactly have a simple time with him, either (.559 OPS). But the righthanded hit .243 off him and the lefthanded, .209.  Better not say just yet that a three-batter minimum won’t affect you that much, after all.

Remember: Real pitching talent is rare enough. So is pitching talent that can keep hitters from both sides of the plate in equal check. Most teams would be fortunate enough to have one starter and one reliever who can work to men from both sides of the plate and leave them looking equally futile. Getting the men who can do both is a challenge the sharpest scout or the most intricate of analysts would consider equal to driving the Golden Spike home with a rock hammer.

But not impossible. Casey Stengel won his third straight World Series when he reached for just such a man, an otherwise non-descript lefthanded pitcher named Bob Kuzava, who’d only pitched fifteen times on the regular 1951 season, to face righthanded Hall of Famer Monte Irvin—in the top of the ninth, with the Yankees up 4-1, but with the bases loaded and nobody out.

Kuzava wasn’t even close to responsible for the men on base. And he got three straight fly outs, from Irvin, Bobby Thomson, and pinch-hitter Sal Yvars, which did push two Giants runs home that weren’t quite enough, to save it for Johnny Sain, who’d come in to relieve Vic Raschi in the seventh.

Do-able if you have the guys who can do it. But those guys aren’t as prevalent as the commissioner’s office or its supporters regarding the three-batter minimum think, and they’re not likely to be for a long enough time if ever. Human nature and pitching just don’t work according to a preconceived mechanical formula. Even the analytics people who develop formulae and applications to help players improve know that goes only so far. This is baseball, not engineering.

And don’t even go there about the Good Old Days when pitchers went the distance and relief pitchers were just guys who couldn’t cut it as starters. A little real history: they really went the distance in times when the ball might as well have been twine, hard throwing was as common as the telephone, the number one expectation of pitchers was throwing what batters could hit and hopefully putting fielders to work, and pitchers weren’t expected to throw like illusionists, trick-shot artists, or human howitzers. You could even pitch your way to the Hall of Fame despite surrendering almost nine hits per nine innings and striking out less than four per nine. (Cy Young—I think there’s a pitching award named after him— accomplished that.)

“If we’re gonna win,” husky first baseman George (Boomer) Scott once told then-Brewers chairman Ed Fitzgerald, “the players gotta play better, the coaches gotta coach better, the manager gotta manage better, and the owners gotta own better.” The owners also gotta own the concept that the good of the game isn’t necessarily the same thing as making money for it, or themselves.

And the commissioner gotta commission better. He gotta remember that the better, more viable pace-of-game solutions than a three-batter pitcher’s minimum may mean making a little less money but would mean leaving game tactics and strategies to the men they pay handsomely (and often not enough) to develop and execute them.

But there’s one little problem, still. Too many managers still think there’s no problem with warming pitchers up multiple times before actually bringing them into the games. Too many managers think they’re not really pitching unless they’re out there in the game. As if they’re just playing catch in the bullpen and not heating up with, you know, real pitches.

Too many managers think it’s the reliever’s fault that he came in gassed after he’d been warmed, sat, warmed again, and maybe thrown the aforesaid quality start equivalent’s pitches overall, and that’s before he tosses the customary eight warmups before facing his first batter of the game.

The three-batter minimum won’t solve that issue, either. If anything, such gassed-before-they-come-in pitchers, handled by managers whose brains are gassed, are more liable to get driven into the middle of next month before they even face their third batters. And often as not, the only solution for managers like that isn’t a dubious rule change but, rather, unemployment.