From bar to bigs: Wilhelmsen lands spot in M’s bullpen

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I had the opportunity to do a story on Tom Wilhelmsen this spring as part of a seven-part series on players chasing their big-league dreams.

In case you’re still not familiar with his story, the 6-foot-6 pitcher quit the game in 2004 after being suspended for a second failed test for marijuana. He traveled the world and became a bartender, and generally gave up on his childhood dream.

But he eventually decided to get back into the sport, and spent last season in the Seattle Mariners system, topping out a mid-level Class-A ball.

Today the word came down: Seven years after quitting baseball, Wilhelmsen was going to the major leagues, landing a spot in the Mariners bullpen. The Mariners coaches admired the 27-year-old’s poise on the mound, and his 97-mph fastball didn’t hurt, either.

Geoff Baker has a nice story on Wilhelmsen’s big moment over at the Seattle Times, including an emotional interview with Wilhelmsen’s father, John.

“I’m so relieved as a father, because I didn’t want him to be 35 and saying, ‘I shoulda,’ ” his father said. “I didn’t want him to live his life like that. I wanted him to know for himself that, whatever happened, he gave it 100 percent. After that, whatever happens, happens.”

Wilhelmsen made it to the majors, but what about the other players I featured this spring? Let’s take a look:

Hunter and Lewis are, of course, established big leaguers who shared stories of their past struggles. Ackley is a rising star who was chosen No. 2 overall in the 2009 draft. Of the others, only Wilhelmsen is likely to stick in the majors this season, and his cause was aided by playing for a team in transition that entered spring with lots of bullpen questions.

It all just illustrates how difficult it is to play this wonderful game.

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Major League Baseball limits mound visits, puts off pitch clock until 2019

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Major League Baseball just announced its much awaited pace-of-play initiative for 2018. The big news: no pitch clock, with Rob Manfred deciding, in the words of the league’s press release “to defer the implementation of a pitch timer and a between-batter timer in 2018 in order to provide players with an opportunity to speed up the game without the use of those timers.”

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be changes. In rules changes which were reached with the cooperation of the Players’ Union, teams will now be limited to six non-pitching change mound visits per team per game, and one extra visit if the game goes into extra innings. Also, a new rule is being introduced that is designed to reduce the time required for inning breaks and pitching changes.

The mound visit rule is NOT limited to coach or manager mound visits. It also includes position players, including catchers, visiting the mound to confer about signals and the like. It will not count the normal conversations which take place between plays, such as when a pitcher says something to a fielder as they throw the ball around the horn. It likewise does not include things like a first baseman coming to the mound to clean his spikes off with the pitcher’s gear on the back of the mound. Mound visits to check on injuries will not count either.

While six visits may seem like a lot, it really isn’t once you realize that a pitching coach may go out two or three times in a close game and that a catcher, especially in close games, may come out to talk about signs and things seemingly countless times. Heck, they could re-name this the Jorge Posada or Gary Sanchez rule.

There will be one big exception to the rule, which relates to catchers and pitchers truly being crossed up on signals after they have exhausted mound visits. It reads thusly:

3) Cross-Up in Signs. In the event a team has exhausted its allotment of mound visits in a game (or extra inning) and the home plate umpire determines that the catcher and pitcher did not have a shared understanding of the location or type of pitch that had been signaled by the catcher (otherwise referred to as a “cross-up”), the home plate umpire may, upon request of the catcher, allow the catcher to make a brief mound visit. Any mound visit resulting from a cross-up prior to a team exhausting its allotted number of visits shall count against a team’s total number of allotted mound visits.

This makes sense as a matter of safety, if nothing else, as you don’t want a catcher truly not knowing where a pitch is going. It’s also notable as one of the few rules changes in recent years that actually adds in an umpire’s judgment rather than takes a judgment call away from an umpire. It’ll be worth watching, however, to see how easy a touch umpires are about this. Again: if we have a tense September game between Boston and New York and everyone has used up their mound visits, I wonder if the umps will truly enforce the rule.

The big problem here is that there is nothing in the new rule which talks about the penalty for trying to make a seventh mound visit. To that end:

This is gonna lead, at some point, to a pretty big argument. Should be amazing.

As for innings breaks, There will be a timer that counts down from 2:05 for breaks in locally televised regular season games, from 2:25 for breaks in nationally televised regular season games, and from 2:55 for postseason games. The timer shall start on the last out of an inning for an inning break. 

There are set things the players must be doing at certain points on the clock. To wit:

  • When there are 25 seconds left, the umpire will signal to the pitcher to complete his last warm-up pitch;
  • When there are 20 seconds left, the batter will be announced and must leave on-deck circle, his walk-up music shall begin, and the pitcher shall complete last warm-up pitch;
  • When the clock gets to zero, the pitcher must begin his motion for his first pitch of the inning.

There will be “special circumstance” exceptions, such as when other random things are happening on the field that prevents this, such as in-between inning events going too long or something, and an umpire can determine that a pitcher or batter needs more time for safety purposes.

Enforcement of the clock will be handled by umpires directing players to comply. Players who consistently or flagrantly violate the time limits will be subject to progressive discipline by the league. Put differently, no one is issuing automatic balls or strikes here. It’ll be handled by fines.