JUPITER — Picking up the pace has long been a priority for Major League Baseball, and now the league is doing something about it.
For the first time in history, MLB has implemented a pitch timer in an attempt to increase action and shorten the length of the games. The timer is a revolutionary change for a sport that has prided itself on not playing with a clock.
There are several new rules MLB has implemented for the 2023 season, but giving pitchers a specific amount of time to throw the ball is the most drastic. And, with clocks counting down to :00 at Grapefruit and Cactus league stadiums this spring, it’s also the most obvious.Spring Training games in Florida and Arizona have become the testing grounds for teams to adjust to the rules.
“We’re trying to make the adjustments in Spring Training,” said Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker, whose team trains and plays in West Palm Beach. “For the pitchers, they’re a little bit more conscious of the [pitch] clock than they are concentrating on making the pitch. That is to be expected. That’s why we’re having this period.”
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The pitch timer is one of three major rules changes aimed at increasing the pace of games, as well as players’ safety.
The new rules are as follows:
- Pitch timer: Pitchers, with the bases empty, have 15 seconds to throw a pitch, and 20 seconds with runners on base. If not, an automatic ball will be called. Hitters have one time out per at-bat, and must be in the box with at least eight seconds left. If not, the violation is an automatic strike. With runners on base, the pitcher gets two disengagements (pickoff attempts or step offs), per batter. The penalty is a balk.
- Shift restrictions: No longer are clubs allowed to defensively overload one side of the infield. Now, two infielders much be on either side of second base when the pitch is released. All infielders also must have both feet on the infield dirt.
- Bigger bases: The sizes of first base, second base and third base are now 18 square inches, instead of 15. This has reduced the distance from home to first base by three inches. The distances between first and second base, and second and third base, are decreased by 4.5 inches.
Do these changes work? These changes were implemented by the Minor Leagues in 2022 and games were shorter by 25 minutes, and stolen base attempts increased by 26 percent, per MLB. The larger bases also reduced injury events near the bases by more than 13 percent. The average time for a MLB game last season was 3 hours, 6 minutes.
In the early part of Spring Training in Florida and Arizona, dealing with the pitch timer has been the most noticeable adjustment.
“The pitch clock was something I wanted to get used to,” Mets right-hander Justin Verlander said after his first Grapefruit League start. “There might be a couple of little adjustments I need to make there. There’s just maybe one or two things, but nothing major. So that’s good.”
With a focus on throwing the next pitch in an set amount of time, Verlander noted something as seemingly menial as walking around the mound between batters is now an issue.
“The first part of the inning is something I want to speed up just a tick,” the Cy Young Award-winning right-hander said. “Specifically, I kind of walk around the back of the mound. I almost walk in between the pitcher’s mound and second base.”
Early in spring, many pitchers are trying to establish an edge, so they’re experimenting when to execute the pitch in their allotted time. They’re doing so to throw off the timing of the batters.
“I really never want to throw a pitch without conviction behind it,” Verlander said. “I don’t want to just throw something because we ran out of time.”
Marlins’ pitcher Jesus Luzardo experimenting this spring
Marlins left-hander Jesus Luzardo noted after a recent start that he was trying to throw off hitters by varying if he threw more quickly or waited until the clock was closer to zero.
“I feel like one of my biggest issues was I was worrying too much about the timer and trying to mess with the hitters’ timing, and that was kind of taking away from what I do,” Luzardo said. “We have plenty of time. I feel like I don’t need to look at the timer anymore. I feel like the need to mess with the hitters, some guys can do it, some guys can’t. I feel like I was a little too focused on trying to mess with the hitters, instead of just pitching.”
Astros left-hander Framber Valdez, one of the top pitchers in the American League last year, admitted to feeling a bit rushed in a recent start.
“I think that’s something I’m going to get accustomed to and I’m going to be able to control those moments,” Valdez said through an interpreter.
Savvy veteran Max Scherzer of the Mets is testing the bounds of the clock to see what works. In one game against the Washington Nationals, Scherzer deliberately held the ball for a prolonged period and then rushed the pitch.
“You’ve got to push the limits on what you can and can’t do with this,” Scherzer told reporters after that game. “I pressed it today.”
Scherzer’s tactic prompted MLB to send an e-mail to all 30 clubs that stressed a “quick pitch” is illegal.
“I know guys like Scherzer are going to try to take advantage of this clock,” Baker said. “Some guys are going to try to hold you [still for several seconds], and you can’t call time out. We were taught, you can only hold concentration for about three seconds, and you’ve got to step out, look down and then refocus. It’s hard to hold that concentration.”
Mets manager Buck Showalter gives advantage to pitchers under timer rule
Many of the rules are designed to promote more offense, and stolen bases.
But Mets manager Buck Showalter said the timer gives an advantage to the pitcher, “Because they can get the [next] pitch from the rubber.”
Pitchers wear an electronic communications device in their caps. So they already know what they’re going to throw when the clock resets. The hitters, meanwhile, have little time to process what might be coming, and they don’t have the luxury of stepping out of the box to adjust their gloves before stepping back in to hit.
“I was fine,” Marlins center fielder Jazz Chisholm Jr. said. “It doesn’t take me long to get ready. I think it was pretty cool.”
Already this spring, All-Star and Hall of Fame-caliber hitters have had automatic strikes called against them because they weren’t set by the eight-seconds mark. Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers, who commonly fraternizes with catchers, and even umpires, was slapped with an automatic strike before a pitch was actually thrown.
“That’s the rule,” Marlins manager Skip Schumaker said. “People can complain all they want about it, but it’s the rule. I remember, I took my batting gloves on and off like every pitch. This is what you’ve done your whole career. But this is the rule now. You’ve got to change.
“We get five weeks to do this. The more you complain about it, you’re going to get affected by it. People will adapt. I think we’ll be fine.”
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