What to watch for in tonight’s All-Star Game

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Tonight’s 83rd Major League Baseball All-Star Game will officially open with Detroit’s Justin Verlander throwing to Colorado’s Carlos Gonzalez. Still, my favorite part will take place before that. The Midsummer Classic isn’t the must-see event it was before Baseball Tonight, MLB Extra Innings and MLB.tv made seeing the league’s stars in action so much easier. But I don’t think anything beats seeing the 60-some-odd players line up on the field before the game in their array of uniforms, smiling and waving to the crowd. It’s old hat for some, but for the rookies and the first-time veterans in the midst of career years, it’s a standout moment.

Of course, what happens after they say “play ball” should be interesting to. Here’s what to watch for…

– The much-anticipated All-Star debuts of Bryce Harper and Mike Trout.

Harper was a late selection, only getting on to the NL team because a couple of outfielders had to drop out. Even then, one can argue he’s not really worthy based on his performance this year. I say “so what?” Harper is the next big thing, and he’s plenty good already. Who wouldn’t want to see him come up to the plate in the ninth inning tonight? At 19, he’s the youngest position player in All-Star Game history. He’s actually younger than all but one of the players to take part in Sunday’s Futures Game (the Rangers’ Jurickson Profar was the younger player, in case you’re wondering).

As for Trout, well, there was no doubt he was going to be picked for the AL roster. The 20-year-old isn’t only the AL Rookie of the Year favorite, but he’s right in the MVP mix with his .341/.397/.562 line and league-leading 26 steals to date. A rare combination of speed and power, he rates as the most exciting player in the league right now.

– Chipper Jones’s final All-Star appearance

With a .318/.396/.580 line in 173 at-bats, Atlanta’s elder statesman is putting together a nice last hurrah after announcing his retirement this spring. Barring a playoff run by the Braves, this will be the future Hall of Famer’s last time on the national stage. It will be interesting to see how manager Tony La Russa works him in given that he has four third basemen on the roster (Chipper, starter Pablo Sandoval, David Wright and David Freese). The plan will probably be to have him pinch-hit.

– R.A. Dickey’s darting knuckler and Carlos Ruiz’s attempt to catch it.

Not to mention that AL team’s attempts to hit it.

Dickey deserved to start for the NL squad, but since Buster Posey has never caught a knuckler and the Giants really didn’t want him trying it for the first time tonight, Matt Cain will get the ball instead. The plan is for Dickey and Ruiz to enter the game at the same time, as the Philadelphia catcher was more up for the challenge. Dickey throws a much harder knuckler than what we’ve come to expect from Tim Wakefield and others, and it’s helped him rack up 123 strikeouts, good for second in the NL.

– Four first-time All-Stars in the starting lineup

Here’s the full list of first-time All-Stars

American League
C Mike Napoli (Tex) – starter
OF Mike Trout (LAA) – rookie
OF Mark Trumbo (LAA)
DH Billy Butler (KC)
RP Ryan Cook (Oak) – rookie
SP Yu Darvish (Tex) – rookie
SP Matt Harrison (Tex)
RP Jim Johnson (Bal)
RP Fernando Rodney (TB)
SP Chris Sale (CWS)

National League
C Buster Posey (SF) – starter
OF Melky Cabrera (SF) – starter
DH Carlos Gonzalez (Col) – starter
C Carlos Ruiz (Phi)
1B Bryan LaHair (CHC)
2B Jose Altuve (Hou)
3B David Freese (StL)
SS Ian Desmond (Was) – injured, won’t participate
OF Bryce Harper (Was) – rookie
OF Giancarlo Stanton (Mia) – injured, won’t participate
RP Aroldis Chapman (Cin)
SP R.A. Dickey (NYM)
SP Lance Lynn (StL)
SP Wade Miley (Ari) – rookie
SP Stephen Strasburg (Was)
SP Huston Street (SD)

As for your veteran All-Stars, well, Derek Jeter laps the field there. This is his 13th nod. Next are David Ortiz and Jones with eight apiece.

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.