The humble, unexpected beginnings of the pitch clock, which is transforming MLB
The buzz of this year’s MLB spring training has revolved around a pitch clock, adjustments and loopholes.
Newly implemented at the major league level for the 2023 season, the pitch clock’s condensed intervals — 15 seconds between pitches with no runners on base, 20 seconds otherwise — have transformed personal and team strategies.
Mets ace Max Scherzer tried, and was caught, testing the protocol’s boundaries with a quick-pitch. Yankees reliever Jonathan Loaisiga needed to quicken his league-high 19.8 seconds between pitches with the bases empty.
All the adjustments this spring have led to dramatically shorter games, which MLB hopes equates to more eyeballs on its product.
But the clock has roots, and different variations, that stretch deeper into baseball’s past.
Everything dates back to 1990 and the Missouri Valley Conference. In April of that year, according to a New York Times report, the NCAA approved the conference’s one-year request to test a clock that condensed the time between pitches to 20 seconds and the time between innings to 90 seconds.
Then, around 19 years later, the SEC implemented it for its conference tournament in 2010.
The conference cited the tournament’s television needs and lengthy days with several consecutive games — stretching into the 1 a.m. hour — as reasons for the pitch clock.
The tenor was hopeful. The expectation was that it could trim 15-20 minutes per game. The results followed, too.
Most teams in the conference had already trained their pitchers to operate at a quick pace. Head coaches such as Vanderbilt’s Tim Corbin and Florida’s Kevin O’Sullivan, and other assistants, had spent seasons on longtime Clemson coach Jack Leggett’s staff. Leggett would get aggravated at pitchers, and coaches, who tried to slow down the game.
But the crux of that SEC approach has become more relevant with the pitch clock progressing through the collegiate game, the minors and, now, MLB.
“I don’t think they just made it up — in my opinion, it’s too good of a league and it’s too big of a league to just throw something like that on there,” former Alabama pitching coach and current Houston Cougars assistant Kyle Bunn told Sports+ in a recent phone interview. “I mean, some of those coaches … one, they’re great coaches, but two, they’re powerful in our game. They’re the Nick Sabans, they’re the Jimbo Fishers, they’re the Coach Ks, they’re the Coach Caliparis of the baseball world.
“Like, they’re trying to help our sport be better. I don’t think they would’ve just agreed, or something would’ve been thrusted like that on them without somebody kinda talking about it behind the scenes.”
Bunn said he didn’t even process the addition of the pitch clock at the time in 2010. He, like Corbin and O’Sullivan and — at the top of their coaching tree — Leggett, already had ingrained timely deliveries into his pitchers. There wasn’t necessarily as much adjustment needed as MLB pitchers have experienced this spring.
There was a reason for that.
Bunn recalled showing his Clemson or Alabama players an article that described how Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins always remained prepared behind Roy Halladay because the ace tended to work quickly.
“That guy’s getting the ball back and he’s going again,” Bunn recalled Rollins saying.
Bunn took that philosophy with him wherever he went.
It even got to the point where Bunn slowed down bullpen sessions for Alabama’s top pitchers.
Jimmy Nelson, the Crimson Tide’s ace in 2010 who later pitched for the Brewers and Dodgers, would throw pitches every 12 to 15 seconds.
“Not rushing, but you gotta work at that good pace because it keeps your infielders alert,” Bunn said. “It keeps the infielders alive, aware of what’s going on around them.”
At a macro level, most of the reasons from the SEC’s implementation of the clock in 2010 overlapped with the factors in the MLB decision.
The SEC’s argument reportedly cited the Missouri Valley experiment shaving an average of 21 minutes off nine-inning games, “but the NCAA ended the experiment because no other conference was using a clock.”
The viewer, and the television angle, was an underlying factor.
The logistics were still a bit loose. In December 2009, the SEC wasn’t certain of where it would position the pitch clock for those on the field. The conference even theorized that a horn could be used to signal when the time had expired.
It all centered around the broadcast, though, and for the SEC, games in its previous tournament lasted an average of 3:17, according to SBNation.
That was shortened by a half-hour in 2010 with the pitch clock, though Bunn noticed his Alabama staff — which did get the Crimson Tide to the championship game — suffered when they weren’t in the proper rhythm.
“Some of these guys, they get into a rhythm and if they’re pitching well and they can stay in that rhythm and it’s a fast tempo, like they’ll continue to just roll,” Bunn said. “But you get a kid in there who needs to have that little bit of break and can’t … I’ve seen it already happen this year where they’ve gotta work at that same tempo and the bad stuff keeps happening. The negative stuff keeps happening.
“Because I feel like there’s not a chance for them to just step out, catch their breath, and I think it happens on both sides as a hitter and as a pitcher.”
Maybe MLB teams just need to find pitchers from that tournament. From Bunn’s perspective, they were already adjusted.
Today’s back page
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The end of Syracuse basketball as we know it
After years of fielding questions about the subject, Jim Boeheim actually retired. Or did he?
Here’s what’s known about the end of his tenure: Syracuse suffered a season-ending loss to Wake Forest in the ACC tournament Wednesday. Boeheim dodged questions about his future at the university by dropping vague lines like, “I gave my retirement on the court last Saturday, and in the press conference afterwards, and nobody except William Payne figured it out.”
Then, about two hours later, SU Athletics published a release that didn’t mention the word “retire” or “retirement,” and it also didn’t include a quote from Boeheim.
A strange ending for SU’s head coach since 1976.
He coached his two sons, Buddy and Jimmy, in 2021-22, and in an emotional press conference following Syracuse’s season-ending loss to Duke in the ACC tournament — the same one in which Buddy later teared up while describing his suspension for a punch and Jimmy consoled his younger brother by patting his back — Boeheim called it “the best season I’ve ever had in coaching.”
“That says it all,” Boeheim said that day from the Barclays Center. “Sometimes you don’t have to say a lot.”
Boeheim has long faced questions about his future — preseason, in-season and following season-ending losses — since the original succession plan with Mike Hopkins backfired, but he had always been direct, pointed and confrontational while reiterating his plan to keep coaching.
Just this season, Boeheim said retirement would be “his choice” and he “can do whatever I want.”
On Wednesday, though, he was a bit more coy. Perhaps that means something. Perhaps the phrasing of his farewell release means something, too.
Nine steps up, one step back…for now
The Knicks’ winning streak, at some point, was bound to end.
A loss to the Hornets — struggling for any traction near the bottom of the standings — wouldn’t have been the most likely prediction. Not after a thrilling win against the Celtics just two days prior.
But that’s what happens in any sport, at any level, with any average team or any dynasty. The Connecticut women’s basketball team made it all the way to 90 games. The legendary UCLA teams under John Wooden didn’t suffer a loss for 88. Most don’t make it to double digits. The Knicks’ streak just happened to end at nine, but it still tied for the eighth-longest in franchise history. That, in and of itself, was an accomplishment.
The key, though, is what follows. And if what has unfolded across the 2022-23 season can be any gauge for the Knicks, then there could be a cause for concern.
Their three-game winning streak in the first two weeks of the campaign? Immediately followed by a three-game losing streak. An eight-game winning streak in December? All but reversed with a five-game losing streak. Seven wins in eight games? Only to have an encore performance of six losses across eight games.
This edition of the Knicks has been a streaky team — a metric that has been well-documented. Their latest string of victories was a blend of unexpected, shocking and, for those who trust in Tom Thibodeau’s coaching strategies, even rewarding.
But with five of their next nine games coming against teams with .500 records or better, Thibodeau’s group can’t afford losses in the trap games. They’ve started to creep toward the top of an Eastern Conference standings that had already appeared to be solidified in the top few slots with the Bucks, Celtics, 76ers and Cavaliers.
To make any of that recent progress matter, the Knicks can’t afford another drop-off.
Postcard from Tampa
Less than two hours before Gerrit Cole, Aaron Judge and others took the main stage at Steinbrenner Field on Wednesday, a few dozen fans flocked to a nearby backfield to see a more casual spring training ritual.
Nestor Cortes and Deivi Garcia threw three innings each of live batting practice, facing a group of hitters that included Oswaldo Cabrera, Willie Calhoun, Oswald Peraza, Anthony Volpe and Estevan Florial.
For Cortes, the session was his latest time throwing off the mound as he continues to work back from the hamstring strain he suffered shortly before camp.
He threw 40 pitches and did not have to field his position — the Yankees preferred to continue building up his workload in a controlled environment instead of putting him in a Grapefruit League game just yet.
Garcia, meanwhile, may have been working on something in particular on his day to throw. Or it’s possible the Yankees just didn’t have three innings to give the former top prospect in the real game with Cole, Greg Weissert, Clay Holmes and Wandy Peralta each needing to pitch.
Live batting practice can be a practice in patience for pitchers who are itching to get into real games, but for fans, it’s also an up-close look at pitchers and hitters working on their craft against teammates.
— Greg Joyce
Lamar Jackson’s curious numbers
Outside of the Giants’ deal with Daniel Jones and the Jets’ flight to visit Aaron Rodgers in California, the biggest NFL QB news this week centers on the future of Lamar Jackson, who was given the non-exclusive franchise tag by the Ravens after the two sides failed yet again to come to an agreement on a new contract.
Should Jackson sign the offer, he’ll be paid $32.5 million next season. But the Ravens’ decision also opened the door to his departure, which could happen if Baltimore decides not to match any competing offer Jackson, who is serving as his own agent, receives.
Let’s take a look at Jackson’s scenario, which already has some in the NFL confused.
1️⃣: The number of MVP trophies Lamar Jackson has, which is more than any current player in the NFL not named Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes.
2️⃣: The number of first-round draft picks a team would have to surrender to the Ravens if Baltimore decides to not match that other team’s offer sheet to Jackson. That’s it. Just last year, the Broncos gave up five picks (two of them first-rounders) for an aging Russell Wilson after the Browns sent six picks (three of them first-rounders) to Houston for Deshaun Watson.
5️⃣: The number of teams who told media they were not pursuing Jackson within hours of the announcement that the Ravens were slapping the non-exclusive franchise tag on their quarterback. Apparently, the Commanders would rather go with Sam Howell, the Panthers with Sam Darnold, the Raiders with Jarrett Stidham, the Falcons with Desmond Ridder and the Dolphins with Tua Tagavailoa. Of course, it’s also true those teams (outside of Miami) might prefer to draft someone, too.
4️⃣5️⃣: The number of wins Jackson has produced for the Ravens in his five seasons. Some quick math tells us that is nine wins per season (and that includes a rookie season in which he went 6-1 as a starter). Over that same time, Washington has won 32 games, Carolina has won 29 games, the Raiders have won 35, Atlanta has won 32 and Miami has won 40.
2️⃣3️⃣0️⃣,0️⃣0️⃣0️⃣,0️⃣0️⃣0️⃣: The number of dollars Browns owner Jimmy Haslam guaranteed to Deshaun Watson last year to bring the disgraced QB to Cleveland. It’s a number The Post’s Ryan Dunleavy believes is truly driving the impasse between Jackson and the Ravens. Jackson reportedly wants a contract with a similar guarantee; the Ravens (and the rest of the NFL) don’t want that in order to preserve the status-quo salary structure in which contracts have far less guaranteed money than the reported totals.
2️⃣2️⃣8️⃣,0️⃣0️⃣0️⃣,0️⃣0️⃣0️⃣: The amount of money guaranteed to Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo on his current five-year contract. Different sports, different CBAs, but can anyone really argue the Ravens wouldn’t plunge out of playoff contention without Jackson in the same way the Bucks would without Giannis? Long-term guarantees are not part of the NFL contract landscape, but there’s a good argument to be made they should be, especially given the importance of the quarterback position. And while there is no defending Haslam’s willingness to reward a man named in dozens of sexual misconduct lawsuits, maybe there is a defense of rewarding a player such as Jackson, who sells a lot more tickets and merchandise than Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti does.
— Paul Forrester
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