Published May 14, 2023
Baseball fans have always prided the game as being outside of time, and the introduction of a leaguewide pitch clock in Major League Baseball this offseason rubbed traditionalists the wrong way.
And I’ll admit it — when I heard fans at Seattle’s T-Mobile Park counting down the seconds to get under the skin of an opposing pitcher, I gritted my teeth at the artificiality of it.
But the sport had been seeing declining attendance, dipping TV ratings and — most worrisome of all — an increase in dead air and a parade of eventless at bats. The change may have irked the purists, but the pitch clock may have not killed baseball, but revived it.
A successful shakeup in America’s favorite pastime should remind conservatives that stasis isn’t synonymous with preservation. Sometimes, shaking up the rulebook is the best way to preserve what really matters. Policymakers should keep that in mind.
Baseball had fallen into a rut in the past decade. Driven by analytics and pitchers throwing harder than ever, the sport had devolved into a festival of what’s known as the “three true outcomes” — home runs, strikeouts and walks. Fans could get up, take a bathroom break, hit the concession stand or pour a drink at home, knowing that, on average, more than four minutes would go by between a batted ball being put in play. Families who went to a MLB game were used to leaving by the seventh-inning stretch, with the average length of game surpassing three hours and 10 minutes in 2021.
That led to fewer fans interested in long, hot hours in the bleachers and a less compelling game to watch, even if it was more “efficient” from a team’s point of view. Instead of the excitement of a stolen base or a runner going from first base to third, games became strikeout marathons punctuated by an occasional home run.
That led Major League Baseball to undertake some revolutionary new changes. Some were unquestionably dumb, like allowing managers to send opposing batters to first base without having to pitch to them or adding additional base runners in extra innings.
But this year’s ban of the shift, which increased the likelihood that balls in play could become singles, and the pitch clock, which was intended to keep pitchers from stalling on the mound, were intended not to change the game, but to restore it. Old baseball games available on YouTube show a game with a heartbeat, rather than one filled with minutes of dead air. The new timer running in between each pitch turns back the clock.
As Theo Epstein, former curse-breaking general manager for the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs and now a special consultant for Major League Baseball, told “The Athletic” earlier this year, the changes are intended to bring the game back toward an older version of itself, not to revolutionize it:
“Nobody would have designed a set of rules and equipment that would lead you to one ball in play every four minutes, or generational lows in stolen bases and doubles and triples. And no one would design a game and say: ‘Let’s limit the amount of athleticism on the field.’ … Really, we’re course-correcting.”
And the on-field results speak for themselves. The average time of game has fallen by a half-hour, and a regular season game dragging into a fourth hour seems to belong firmly to the past. Not all of the promised benefits have yet to pan out, but casual viewers and players alike recognize there’s less “dead time,” with on-field action taking place every 3.2 minutes, down from over four minutes pre-pitch clock.
When it comes to public policy, many conservatives have the same initial response to policy proposals that traditionalist baseball fans had to the pitch clock. The best thing government can do for families, some say, is get out of the way. We are told that policies that aim to support families, like expanding the child tax credit or providing access to paid leave, are heavy-handed interventions that ruin the traditional relationship between parents, the economy and the state.
But like the addition of the pitch clock, sometimes you need to interrogate what, exactly, the rules and strictures are supposed to be upholding. Is it deference to the status quo for tradition’s sake? Or are there ultimate goods underneath the rulebook that need to be preserved by updating the rules?
Just as the “market” of baseball led to gains in efficiency that led to a worse on-field product, a market economy left to its own devices threatens to turn nonmarket institutions into more “efficient” ones; seeing parents at home as “wasted” economic potential, assuming parents are looking for formal child care so they can return to work, and, most notably, being content with marriage and fertility rates dropping year after year.
Understanding the ultimate aims of what we are trying to preserve — strong families, healthy marriages, happy kids — requires revisiting the means of how we get there. Accepting the status quo is not avoiding making a choice; it’s deciding to take our current situation as given. And if our goal is making it more affordable to raise a family, being willing to reform our current tax code and safety programs in a pro-parent direction should be a priority.
After initial skepticism, I’m glad the pitch clock is here. I hope it leads to more action, more fans and a healthier game that looks more like it did in the not-so-distant past. If Salt Lake City ends up getting a MLB team, Utahns will appreciate a more efficient night at the ballpark — which is better for families.
Similarly, more proactive government action on behalf of parents can help create a little more space for families from the pressures of a market economy and expands their available choices when it comes to child care, education, and other household expenses. As baseball is teaching us, sometimes breaking with tradition is the best way to restore what really matters.
Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where his work with the Life and Family Initiative focuses on developing a robust pro-family economic agenda and supporting families as the cornerstone of a healthy and flourishing society.