How MLB pitch clock would impact famous baseball moments

ByDavid Schoenfield ESPN logo
Friday, February 17, 2023

Kirk Gibson's at-bat in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, from the moment he hobbles out of the dugout to Vin Scully exclaiming, "She is gone!" as the ball sails into the right-field bleachers, lasts 6 minutes and 48 seconds.

Not that anyone was putting a timer on it 35 years ago.

Gibson, fighting an injured left hamstring and ailing right knee, delivered perhaps the most dramatic home run in World Series history with his game-winning pinch-hit blast off Dennis Eckersley, slowly circling the bases with his iconic celebration.

But how would it and other famous moments packed with postseason drama have played out now that we will be timing every pitch with the new pitch clock rules coming to MLB in 2023?

The new rules are intended to speed up the game and create a more constant pace of action. With no runners on base, pitchers will have 15 seconds to throw a pitch after receiving the ball from the catcher. With runners on base, the timer moves to 20 seconds. Pitchers will also be allowed only two "disengagements" per plate appearance (pickoff attempts or stepping off the rubber). These changes had a significant effect in the minors, shortening games by 25 minutes, and having attended a few minor league games myself in 2022, the quicker pace was certainly noticeable and is a necessary change for the game.

These changes will also require major adjustments for major league pitchers who are used to stalking behind the mound to regroup after every pitch, and hitters who step out and adjust their batting gloves after every foul ball. I thought of the potential impact of the pitch clock while watching the Gibson game this winter and realized how slowly that moment builds to its climax -- Gibson on his two bad legs, trying to collect himself between pitches and somehow deliver the impossible.

Starting with Gibson's epic home run, let's take a look back at a few moments from baseball history and consider how a pitch clock might have changed them.

1988 World Series: Gibson homers off Eckersley

The dramatic stage of this moment begins as soon as Gibson steps out of the dugout to pinch hit and Vin Scully pronounces "And look who's coming up" as Dodgers fans rise to their feet. It concludes when the eighth pitch from Eckersley lands in the right-field bleachers and Scully exclaims, "She is gone!"

The moment unfolds over the nerves of postseason baseball, over the hope of unexpected elation. Gibson takes his practice swings in the on-deck circle to loosen up as Eckersley paws at the pitching rubber and A's manager Tony La Russa paces in front of the bench. Gibson limps to the plate, digs a foothold, steps back out of the box to take another swing and adjusts his helmet, finally ready. It's 1 minute and 17 seconds from the first sighting of Gibson until Eckersley goes into his stretch for the first pitch, with the A's leading the Dodgers 4-3 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and Mike Davis on first base.

During the course of the at-bat, Eckersley would throw four times to first base and his catcher Ron Hassey would also try a back-pick on Davis on the fourth pitch. Gibson also fouled off four pitches, including a little dribbler down the first-base line. Finally, on the eighth pitch of the at-bat, nearly seven minutes after he first took the ball, Eckersley tried to beat Gibson with a backdoor slider. Gibson swings. And the rest is history.

Let's clock the elapsed time from when Eckersley receives the ball until he starts his motion between each pitch to see what would -- and wouldn't -- be allowable with baseball's new 2023 rules.

Pitch No. 1: It takes 1:17 from the time Gibson steps out of the dugout until Eckersley begins his delivery. Foul ball.

Of note here: The rules set a 30-second timer between batters, so Gibson's measured approach to getting ready would be a violation of the rules, although we'll have see what kind of leniency is given to pinch-hitters, especially ones who aren't already on the on-deck circle, as was the case with Gibson.

Pickoff throw to first base: 25.3 seconds.

Gibson stepped out of the box after the foul ball. Under the new rules, batters must be in the batter's box and ready to hit with at least eight seconds on the timer. They are allowed one timeout per plate appearance.

Pitch No. 2: 18.5 seconds after Eckersley got the ball back from the first baseman. Foul ball.

Gibson had stepped out again, but this pitch got in just under the clock.

Pickoff throw to first base: 19.5 seconds.

Gibson steps out again, Eckersley throws to first base.

Pickoff throw to first base: 18.9 seconds

A third disengagement. Violation! This will be allowed if the pickoff is successful; otherwise, it will be considered a balk.

Pitch No. 3: 12.4 seconds. Foul ball

The little dribbler down the first-base line."It had to be an effort to run that far," Scully declares as Gibson walks back to retrieve his bat, informing us that Gibson was too banged up to even come on the field for pregame introductions.

Pitch No. 4: 34.4 seconds. Ball.

On the broadcast, we don't see exactly when Eckersley gets a new ball from the umpire, but I estimate 34-35 seconds between pitches, as Eckersley waits for Gibson to hobble back to the batter's box and get ready. Hassey attempts the back-pick on this pitch.

Pitch No. 5: 21.3 seconds. Foul ball.

Most of the delays here are coming from Gibson, not Eckersley. A reminder that the timer doesn't affect just the pitchers.

Pitch No. 6: 23.2 seconds. Ball.

Davis was running on the previous pitch, so there's a slight delay as he returns to first base and Gibson steps out to shake his left leg, "making it quiver like a horse," as Scully tells us.

Throw to first base: 17.5 seconds.

Another violation! A fourth disengagement.

Pitch No. 7: 17.7 seconds. Ball.

Davis steals second base. Hassey goes out to the mound, which does not count as a disengagement (if a team has used up all five of its mound visits prior to the ninth inning, it will be allowed a sixth visit).

Pitch No. 8: 1:03.6 seconds. Home run.

That's over a minute between pitches thanks to the Hassey-Eckersley meeting. Hassey goes back and squats down, and then Gibson again steps out of the box. It's 28 seconds from the time Hassey squats until Eckersley throws his pitch.

The 2023 rules takeaway: So let's see here, under 2023 rules: Multiple clock violations ... Gibson steps out too many times ... Eckersley throws over to first base too many times. While there is no doubt that the game does need to speed up, there will also understandably be calls to eliminate the pitch clock for the postseason.

Indeed, agent Scott Boras already made that declaration earlier this winter. "In the postseason, there clearly should be no pitch clock," he told reporters. "It's the moment, the big moment. They need to reflect, they need more time, it's a different scenario than the regular season, and we do not want their performances rushed."

2022 NLCS: Bryce Harper homers off Robert Suarez

Let's go to a more recent moment. The signature home run of the 2022 postseason was Harper's go-ahead blast in the eighth inning of Game 5 of the NLCS to send the Philadelphia Phillies to the World Series. The fans had been electric and loud all day despite a light drizzle that fell throughout most of the game, knowing a win would mean clinching the pennant in Philadelphia and a loss would send the series back to San Diego. Harper had already hit four home runs in the postseason, and it just felt like something big was going to happen. Even John Smoltz, calling the game, sensed it: "You don't think when Bryce Harper signed that megadeal he had visions of having a chance to send his team to the World Series?"

Pitch No. 1: 1:17. Swing and a miss.

With a runner on base and the Phillies down 3-2, Harper takes his time, wiping down his bat in the on-deck circle. Adjusts his batting gloves. A couple swipes of dirt. Steps out. Looks out at Suarez. More dirt. Suarez steps off. More dirt. Finally, Harper taps the plate with his bat and he's ready. It took him longer than 30 seconds.

Pitch No. 2: 25.9 seconds. Ball.

Pitch No. 3: 22.7 seconds. Foul ball.

Pitch No. 4: 23.1 seconds. Foul ball.

Pitch No. 5: 25.5 seconds. Foul ball.

Pitch No. 6: 28.9 seconds. Ball.

Pitch No. 7: 23.1 seconds. Home run.

Seven pitches. None delivered within the 20-second rule or even particularly close to within 20 seconds before Harper hits his NLCS-winning home run.

The 2023 rules takeaway: How does this play out in 2023, without Harper adjusting his gloves and Suarez taking his very deep breaths between every pitch?

Watching Harper take his time to wipe his bat in the rain, tap the plate and adjust his batting gloves is a good example of why the pitch clock isn't just about pitchers. In fact, it's possible the biggest adjustments here will have to come from batters. MLB reported that the average fastball velocity in the minors remained the same in 2022 as in 2021 -- 93.0 mph -- so perhaps pitcher velocity won't be affected as some have surmised (we'll see about command).

Hitters who constantly step out to adjust their batting gloves and contemplate the next pitch will have to speed up their approach.

The Baseball Savant website tracks a number for each pitcher called pitch tempo, which is the time between pitches.It's not exactly the same thing as a pitch timer as it measures the overall time between pitch releases. We can subtract about six seconds from that number to use as a proxy for the pitch timer.

They also have pitch tempo listed for 378 batters. The three slowest with the bases empty in 2022 were Christian Vazquez, J.D. Martinez and Mark Canha. Harper, Pete Alonso and Kyle Tucker are three stars near the bottom. Overall, however, only nine batters averaged 15 seconds or more between pitches using our adjusted methodology. With runners on base, it's worth noting that four of the eight slowest were Mets: Jeff McNeil, Brandon Nimmo, Alonso and Canha.

2001 World Series: Arizona Diamondbacks rally against Mariano Rivera

The most dominant reliever of all time, Rivera, was closing out what would have been the New York Yankees' fifth World Series title in six years in the bottom of the ninth in 2001, holding a 2-1 lead over the Diamondbacks. I won't go through every pitch, but it's clear Rivera was not the reason the Yankees of that era -- or, really, the Yankees of the past three decades -- were notorious for long games.

The entire two-run rally for the Diamondbacks took just under 10 minutes from Rivera's first pitch to Mark Grace to the moment Luis Gonzalez's blooper dropped just beyond the infield dirt. Rivera threw 14 pitches and faced six different batters, but there were also two pinch-runners, one pinch-hitter, two conferences at the mound and one quick visit by the trainer after Derek Jeter got tangled up at second base on Rivera's wide throw on a sacrifice bunt.

Rivera worked very quickly. When he faced Tony Womack with two runners on, his times between pitches were 13.3 seconds, 12.4, 13.5 and 18.7. After Gonzalez fouled off the first pitch from Rivera, he dug in the batter's box and then stepped out, leaving 29.7 seconds between pitches. I guess he picked the right pitch to think about, and we can only wonder what the result would have been had he not been able to take that much time to collect himself mid-at-bat.

The 2023 rules takeaway: Watching this inning, Rivera looks like Michael Phelps compared to most of today's relievers, who pitch with the urgency of the old guy swimming laps at the YMCA. So maybe there is hope for today's relievers: If the greatest closer of all time can pitch fast, why can't even the slowest workers in today's game?

2020 World Series: Tampa Bay Rays beat Kenley Jansen in Game 4

Speaking of which, I'm going to pick on Jansen, one of the game's current notorious slow workers. Going back to Baseball Savant's pitch tempo: Jansen's tempo with the bases empty in 2022 was 25.8 seconds, which ranked 397th out of 399 pitchers listed. His tempo with runners on base was 31.4 seconds -- slowest of all. Take six seconds off those numbers and we get 19.8 and 25.4 seconds -- still well above the allotted times of 15 and 20 seconds.

Let's examine the ninth inning of Game 4 of the 2020 World Series, which ended with a wild Brett Phillips walk-off single that scored two runs for the Rays with the help of a couple of Dodgers miscues. Jansen would face five batters and throw 21 pitches -- a half-inning (or two outs, actually) that would last 14 minutes and 38 seconds until Randy Arozarena stumbled home with the winning run.

The time between pitches, starting with the second pitch to Yoshi Tsutsugo:

Pitch No. 2: 17.4 seconds. Ball.

Pitch No. 3: 21.3 seconds. Foul ball.

Pitch No. 4: 22.1 seconds. Swinging strike.

Pitch No. 5: 21.5 seconds. Swinging strike.

Tsutsugo strikes out, and Kevin Kiermaier comes up.

Pitch No. 6: 31.4 seconds. Base hit.

Kiermaier was in the box at a reasonable 21 seconds after Tsutsugo's strikeout, no delays here to adjust his batting gloves or wipe extra pine tar on the bat. Joey Wendle's at-bat begins with Kiermaier on first.

Throw to first: 30.8 seconds.

Pitch No. 7: 22.5 seconds. Ball.

Throw to first: 21.4 seconds.

Pitch No. 8: 18.3 seconds. Foul ball.

Pitch No. 9: 28.5 seconds. Ball.

Pitch No. 10: 25.0 seconds. Lineout to left.

Arozarena steps in, and the Dodgers hold a meeting at the mound with the pitching coach.

Pitch No. 11: 1 minute, 19 seconds. Strike.

Jansen steps off: 18.8 seconds.

Pitch No. 12: 15.1 seconds. Ball.

Throw to first: 23.6 seconds.

Pitch No. 13: 16.9 seconds. Foul ball.

Pitch No. 14: 33.4 seconds. Ball.

Pitch No. 15: 28.4 seconds. Ball.

Pitch No. 16: 26.0 seconds. Foul ball.

Pitch No. 17: 35.5 seconds. Ball four.

Following Arozarena's walk, Phillips comes up with runners on first and second.

Pitch No. 18: 55.8 seconds. Ball.

Phillips and Jansen took a lot longer to get ready compared to Kiermaier and Wendle (it appeared it was mostly Jansen, who might have tossed out one ball to get a different one).

Pitch No. 19: 19.1 seconds. Strike.

Pitch No. 20: 38.3 seconds. Strike.

Pitch No. 21: 26.9 seconds. Base hit.

The 2023 rules takeaway: Most of these delays were on Jansen. He often walks behind the rubber after getting the return throw from the catcher and loves to hold the ball before delivering the pitch. He has since added that goofy little hip jerk he does that delays things even further. Foul balls certainly slow things down -- and there are more foul balls than ever -- but Jansen's slow beat is a prime example of what MLB is trying to fix.

1978 World Series: Bob Welch fans Reggie Jackson

OK, let's do one more -- a reminder that even decades ago, when the game was generally pitched at a quicker pace, there were still moments when time slowed down.

Welch, the Dodgers' 21-year-old rookie, faced Mr. October in the bottom of the ninth with two runners on and two outs in Game 2. In a nine-pitch battle for the ages, Welch threw one 100 mph fastball after another before finally striking out Jackson.

The timer:

Pitch No. 1: 16.1 seconds. Swinging strike. (We don't see the entire sequence of Jackson stepping into the box.)

Pitch No. 2: 24.7 seconds. Ball.

Jackson gets knocked down and takes time to regroup.

Pitch No. 3: 37.0 seconds. Foul ball.

Pitch No. 4: 36.2 seconds. Foul ball.

Pitch No. 5: 22.5 seconds. Foul ball.

Pitch No. 6: 30.9 seconds. Ball.

Pitch No. 7: 32.6 seconds. Foul ball.

Pitch No. 8: 29.0 seconds. Ball.

Pitch No. 9: Swinging strike.

Jackson, wiping his brow between pitches, took swings so mighty he nearly twisted himself into the ground. One fastball after another, Jackson certainly was not interested in hitting a puny little single. Jackson would smash his bat in the dugout in frustration. "The kid beat me," he said after the game.

The 2023 rules takeaway: Most of the delays here came from Jackson stepping out of the box to gear up for another Herculean swing. Even though this at-bat came more than four decades ago, it signifies much of what big postseason moments are about in today's game. You have the home run-hitting slugger at the plate taking a big swing against a power pitcher's best 100 mph heater. And then he steps out, regroups and heads back in to do it at all again. We will soon find out how different that dramatic sequence really feels with a clock dictating the pace.

Roger Angell once wrote, "Since baseball time is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly; keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young." This is true: It's the game without a clock. Except, as Bill James has pointed out, early baseball did have a clock. In the first half of the 20th century, before lights and night games became de rigueur, games started in the late afternoon to accommodate workers and had to be played at a brisk pace to finish before nightfall. The sun was the clock. Now we have an official one.

After watching all of these classic moments again, I do feel the pitch clock is needed. For one thing: Many of these playoff moments now happen at the end of games that are approaching four hours in length and nearing midnight on the East Coast. We can all agree that speeding up games in the middle of a long regular season will be a positive. Even the players, some of whom will initially complain about the adjustments they need to make, will come around and appreciate the faster pace. Yet, it's hard to deny how the drama builds throughout the rally or the one critical at-bat, the pitcher trying to breathe.

Now we just have to figure out what the ruling will be whenEdwin Diaz is facing Julio Rodriguezin the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 2023 World Series with the Citi Field crowd screaming so loud that Diaz can't hear the PitchCom device as the clock is counting down, and he has to motion to his catcher while Rodriguez steps out for the second time right as the timer hits zero.

Related Video