The Phillies Are On The Frontier Of Pitch-Clock Weirdness
1:36 PM EDT on June 11, 2023
Philadelphia Phillies starter Aaron Nola has a habit of requesting fresh baseballs. This is not because he is a stickler for the quality of baseball he is willing to throw. Nola, like many pitchers around MLB, has had a hard time getting comfortable with the game's new pitch clock, and, also like many of his peers, has found that the pause gained by requesting a new ball buys him a little extra break between pitches.
This little exploit requires the participation of the umpires, who use hand signals to indicate to the Field Clock Coordinators (FTCs) when to reset and resume the pitch clock. There is no real deception to it, just the thinnest veneer of plausible deniability: All parties understand that the new ball is being requested in order to buy time for the pitcher. There is not yet a rule limiting how often a pitcher may request a new ball, although umpires are expected to step in when, in their judgment, a player is working to circumvent the pitch clock. As is often the case in baseball, some unwritten customs dictate how strictly the letter of the law is applied. Tigers catcher Eric Haase estimated that Nola threw away at least 15 balls in seven innings of work on June 5, in a game played in Philadelphia, all of them to buy himself some time between pitches. Even that feels like a generously low estimate. For most of this season, umpires have been willing to play along.
The umpires working Nola's start in Philadelphia Saturday evidently ran out of patience. In the sixth inning, with the Phillies down 3–0 to the visiting Dodgers and David Peralta at the plate, Nola was thrown a new ball by catcher J.T. Realmuto. Nola wanted more time, so he tossed the ball and requested another. Third-base umpire and crew chief Bill Miller decided Nola was acting in bad faith, so he and home-plate umpire Roberto Ortiz together indicated that the pitch clock—which was started at 15 seconds when Nola took possession of the first new ball, on the dirt of the pitcher's mound—would not be reset. Nola was pissed; even more pissed was Phillies manager Rob Thomson, who stormed on to the field to give the umpires the business.
Thomson was ejected from the game, and after it was over—the Dodgers blew it open with a six-run seventh inning and won 9–0—he stuck to the script, claiming that Nola had a legitimate, non-delaying reason for rejecting yet another brand new baseball.
"They weren’t going to let Nola switch out the baseball because they thought he was stalling for time,” Thomson said, according to a report from the Philadelphia Inquirer. “And there is part of a rule—part of the rule is that you’re not supposed to delay, or you could have a violation. But it doesn’t specifically talk about throwing baseballs out. Baseballs are all different. They feel different in a pitcher’s hand. And sometimes they get slick in the bags after innings, after six or seven innings. Umpires sweat, too, so, they get a little slick."
But according to Miller, this cannot have been a case of Nola rejecting a baseball unpleasantly slicked with an umpire's pocket sweat, for the simple reason that Nola asked for the second new ball without having touched the first one. "He caught the ball [in his glove], he took two steps, he turned around and said, 'I need a new ball,'" recounted Miller after the game. "He never felt the ball until he [threw] it out and wanted another one." It was Miller's view that Nola started doing this sort of thing in earnest as he worked deeper into the game, in an effort to circumvent the pitch clock in higher leverage situations.
There's some interesting context to this situation. As The Athletic reported earlier this month, the Phillies and certain of their opponents feel that the FTCs in Philadelphia are being stricter and thus quicker in deciding when to start the timer between pitches, with the result that both pitchers and batters feel rushed when playing there. The complaint has some merit and seemingly official support: The Athletic found that there are more pitch violations per game at Phillies home games than at any other stadium in baseball, and the Phillies reportedly had their suspicions of a fast clock validated when MLB told them a league investigation had "found some inconsistencies in how the timer was operated."
There is apparently some ambiguity in pitch clock protocols, in particular following a foul ball. League rules say that the clock shouldn't start after a foul ball until the pitcher has the ball and is on the dirt of the mound, but The Athletic says FTCs around MLB tend to wait until the pitcher is near the rubber. The Phillies suspect that their FTCs are being super literal about this, and are starting the clock the moment a pitcher's cleat makes contact with mound dirt, perceptibly shortening the length of time given to players in that ballpark, versus what they are used to in all other parks. Notably, the sequence that ended with Thomson's ejection Saturday started with a foul ball off of Peralta's bat, on a two-strike pitch. This was a high-leverage situation of exactly the sort where players feel the Philadelphia FTCs are routinely jumping the gun. If Nola didn't bother rubbing up the ball before requesting another, it was because he knew this was a moment when the notorious Philadelphia pitch clock would probably squeeze him for time.
However successful the implementation of the pitch clock has been at shortening average game length and returning some rhythm to the sport, there's some tightening left to do if MLB wants a uniform application across the sport. But who says MLB wants that? Baseball has always invited a certain amount of arbitrary variety and winking gamesmanship into the various negative spaces of its rule book, and this can be more of that. How much theatrical ball-rubbing must a pitcher perform before an umpire will let him pretend to need a fresh ball? What advantages can the Phillies learn to gain from having a faster clock? If the Astros could have Tal's Hill, if creeping afternoon shadows could make hitting in St. Louis occasionally impossible, if alert teammates can swipe signals and hitters can earn HBPs by dangling their limbs into the actual damn strike zone, maybe MLB just rolls with pitch clock oddities and inconsistencies as features of the modern game.