SARASOTA, Fla. — As one of the game’s top prospects, Grayson Rodriguez will probably make his debut for the Baltimore Orioles pretty soon, and then the 23-year-old right-hander can begin adjusting to the big leagues.
In one respect, he has a critical head start: Rodriguez has plenty of experience with the pitch clock that was tested in the minors and will now be used in the majors.
“I was a big fan of it,” he said. “Obviously, it speeds up the game. As a pitcher, it’s kind of what you want. Big league hitters take a long time to get to the plate. That drives me crazy, so this pitch clock kind of expediting the process, I like it a lot.”
Not everyone is as sanguine about the new timers – and whether you’re a pitcher, a catcher, a hitter or a baserunner, there’s no hiding from this rule change. Of all of baseball’s tweaks under Commissioner Rob Manfred, the pitch clock might be the one that affects the most players.
The clocks will be positioned behind the plate and beyond the outfield, where pitchers and hitters can easily see them. They’ll count down from 30 seconds between batters. Between pitches, it will be 15 seconds with nobody on and 20 if there’s a baserunner. The pitcher must start his delivery before the clock expires. After a pitch, the clock starts again when the pitcher has the ball back, the catcher and batter are in the circle around home plate, and play is otherwise ready to resume.
So efficient communication between the pitcher and catcher is important, because the clock is ticking. The batter has a responsibility, too. He needs to be in the box and alert to the pitcher with at least eight seconds on the clock. Batters can call time once per plate appearance, stopping the countdown.
“You kind of have to shorten your routine up to the plate, while I guess cleaning out the box or talking to the umpire or the catcher,” said Atlanta outfielder Michael Harris II, last year’s National League Rookie of the Year. “I kind of went through it in Double-A, so I kind of know how that works and how it can speed up the game, but I guess it takes some getting used to.”
The goal is indeed to speed up play, specifically by limiting the parts of the game fans find particularly tedious.
According to Major League Baseball, the pitch timer reduced nine-inning games by a whopping 25 minutes last year in the minors, from 3 hours, 3 minutes in 2021 to 2:38. And other stats like runs per game, batting average and the rate of hit batters were essentially unchanged.
“The games were shortened, but not at the expense of game play,” said Joe Martinez, a former big league pitcher who is now MLB’s vice president for on-field strategy. “What was really removed from the game was that dead time – pitchers walking around the mound, batters fixing their batting gloves, taking extra pitches in the bullpen, walking in from there.”
Games early in the season, in the second week, included an average of 1.73 violations. By week 24, that figure was down to 0.41. When surveyed, about 90% of both pitchers and position players said they adjusted to the pitch timer within about a month. If big leaguers get used to it that quickly, they should be ready around the end of spring training.
Still, there’s a difference between compliant minor leaguers and big league veterans who are used to a certain routine – and the amount of information available to major leaguers can make pitcher-batter showdowns a mental battle in addition to a physical one.
“In this game, it’s all about strategizing and really finding ways to get guys out. I think that’s the unique thing about baseball nowadays,” Pittsburgh right-hander Vince Velasquez said. “There’s tons of talent that’s spread around the league, and hitters are doing their homework just as much as we’re doing ours, but I think it takes a little bit more time to kind of strategize and find ways to incorporate those things.”
Velasquez doesn’t like the pitch clock, and his teammate, catcher Kevin Plawecki, has concerns about the punishments.
“I feel like when you start doing automatic strikes, automatic balls, automatic runners advancing to bases, automatic runs scoring possibly, just based off of a step off, or a pickoff, to me I think that just changes the integrity of the game,” Plawecki said.
When a pitcher fails to throw a pitch in time, the penalty is an automatic ball. When a batter isn’t ready in time, it’s an automatic strike. The clock would be easy to circumvent if the pitcher could simply step off the rubber or throw a pickoff to stall for time. To eliminate that loophole, pitchers are only allowed two disengagements per plate appearance. Pickoff attempts count toward that limit.
The clock resets on a disengagement. After a pitcher has used his two disengagements, he can still attempt a pickoff, but it better be successful. If the baserunner gets back safely, a balk is assessed and the runner advances.
The restriction on pickoff throws serves two purposes. It limits a tedious aspect of the game – fans sure are quick to boo pickoff attempts – and it encourages aggressive baserunning in a sport that’s increasingly defined by home runs and strikeouts.
In the minor league test run, stolen base attempts went up from 2.23 per game in 2019 to 2.81 last year. The success rate improved from 68% to 78%.
“Any time they implement a new rule or something, you think you know what’s going to happen, and then people kind of weaponize it to their advantage,” said Philadelphia shortstop Trea Turner, who has 230 career steals with an 85% success rate. “Hopefully it’s more stolen bases for everybody – just makes it more exciting.”
MLB has made other changes in recent years to reduce the time fans spend waiting – limiting mound visits, for example, or sending the batter to first base immediately on an intentional walk.
Those rules, however, affect a limited number of situations. Even the automatic runner on second base – a drastic invention, to be sure – only comes into play in extra innings. The pitch clock, on the other hand, will be in effect from start to finish every game.
The hope is that players can adjust well enough that obeying the clock becomes second nature. Perhaps some of the more skeptical voices will even start to appreciate it.
“Maybe I’ll like it, maybe it won’t be as big of a change as I think,” Plawecki said. “I don’t anticipate it really being a huge issue, but it’s something we’re all going to have to be obviously cognizant of.”