Major League Baseball’s efforts to eliminate the grand old game’s most leaden moments have succeeded in melting 31 minutes off the average nine-frame outing, and while we’re only two weeks into the new season, the downstream effects of the pitching clock are already rather notable.
While the twitchy OCD rituals of olde-timers like Mike “The Human Rain Delay” Hargrove and Nomar Garciaparra would not be tolerated in today’s MLB—given that the latter spent roughly 9.4 seconds before each pitch fiddling with his gloves and tapping his toes into the dirt, his every at-bat would have culminated in a strikeout on clock violations—the current crop of Big Leaguers are gamely acclimating themselves to the legislated sense of urgency. Of course, they have no choice other than to play along, but the people who have nothing to gain but their discretionary time already seem pretty stoked by baseball’s clock-crunching initiative.
Since the season began on March 30, overall deliveries across MLB’s five national TV partners are up 14% versus the first two weeks of last year’s campaign. Admittedly, much of that early boost can be chalked up to a scheduling anomaly; Fox, MLB’s top-rated outlet, didn’t air its first regular-season game last year until May 28, 2022. When adjusted accordingly, the national broadcast and cable gains are whittled down to a less mind-boggling plus-4%. Bear in mind that the latter increase was achieved at a time when overall TV usage is down 11% year-over-year.
The TV audiences are also on the rise at the RSN level, for which the comparisons are more similar to a Granny Smith-to-Red Delicious dynamic. (Talk about a marketing coup; hats off to the branding wizard who named the latter variety of apple, a mealy abomination that oxidizes the moment you take your first joyless bite.) Already a big draw at home and abroad, the Yankees are currently cruising to a five-year high on YES Network. Streaming is also way up, as baseball’s out-of-market platform MLB.TV is putting up record numbers.
That the TV numbers have improved since the pitch clock was introduced is an entirely predictable consequence of cutting the fat from baseball. Ratings are derived from the average number of people watching a telecast in any given minute in which it airs; as such, a reduction in duration offers far fewer opportunities for fans to drift away from the games, which in turn leads to higher deliveries. With the average game now clocking in at two hours and 38 minutes, baseball is hurtling along at a pace that hasn’t been seen since the mid-1980s.
If it’s still far too early in the season to gauge how MLB is faring on the viewer-acquisition front—rather than denoting an uptick in additional spectators, ratings gains are often a function of heightened stick-to-itiveness—we’re already starting to see some encouraging signs on the demographic front. Through Tuesday night’s TBS telecast, the composition of baseball’s national TV audience is 12.6% adults 18-34, up from 11.4% a year ago. By way of comparison, the under-35 set account for just 4.3% of the average primetime broadcast deliveries.
Assigning causality to any observed human behavior is to court folly, but the results thus far certainly suggest that younger fans are spending more time with televised baseball. And it’s not just the time bomb rush that’s [presumably] enchanting the youth. The limit on pickoff attempts have led to a 29% jump in stolen-base attempts, and the success rate is a record-high 81%. The MLB batting average is 0.249, up 17% compared to last spring, although there are still far too many strikeouts (and home runs, for that matter).
While the true test of Adderall baseball awaits—the chelonian Red Sox and Yankees aren’t due to meet up until June 9, when they’ll test the mettle of their digital Timelords in a three-game set up in the Bronx—the early results suggest that MLB is finally up for the challenges of programming for our twitchy, eminently distractible future, when attention spans will be measured in zeptoseconds. While we’ve probably got a few years before sports are beamed directly into the cortical goop of our limbic systems, the big challenge baseball fans face in the here and now is what to do with all that recaptured time.
We have a few suggestions.
1. How about reading a baseball bedtime story to the kids? While parents are naturally disposed to favor the players and teams they grew up with, nothing brings a family together—or imparts a valuable lesson about the inadvisability of railway mayhem—like the haunting story of Big Ed Delahanty, a lifetime 0.346 hitter who in 1903 disappeared after causing a ruckus on an eastbound train from Detroit. As recorded in contemporary accounts, the 35-year-old slugger “went on a spree” during a Senators road trip, tossing back numerous whiskies before menacing his teammates with a straight razor. A conductor attempted to deescalate the situation by bouncing Delahanty (who further diminished the air of choo-choo congeniality by “yelling about death”) from the train, whereupon the ballplayer got into a scuffle with a local constable. His body was discovered a week later, at the base of Niagara Falls. Sleep tight!
2. Marvel at Tom Peyer and Hart Seely’s poetry anthology O Holy Cow! The Selected Verse of Phil Rizzuto. Among the Scooter’s most inspirational musings was this sharply observed portrait of Prince, which he debuted during a September 1991 Orioles-Yankees game on WPIX.
Last night I was watching TV.
I was watching Arsenio Hall.
And he had Prince on.
What a character he is.
And he can dance.
He’s a little bitty guy.
He had a weird beard.
I tell ya, it was—
I couldn’t explain it.
3. Make one of those cardboard picket fences on the off chance a friend at the very same moment is fashioning a capital “D” out of an old Amazon box. Have a few belts of whisky. Start hollering about the inevitability of the tomb. You’ve earned it.
4. Call your mom. You shouldn’t have to be told.