Baseball’s new era arrived as many new eras do. With a lot of intrigue and a little awkwardness. With the excited embrace of some, the miffed objections of others and the ultimate conclusion that the game — and the world — will, indeed, go on.
It’s Spring Training, so — as in that show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” — the games don’t count and the runs don’t matter. What better time, then, for the league at large to acclimate to the most ambitious rules changes in modern history?
The first full slate of games with the pitch timer, defensive shift restrictions and bigger bases arrived Saturday in the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues, and, as promised, games were quick and enforcement was strict.
“You feel the difference,” said Brewers manager Craig Counsell, “no question about it.”
All involved were warned that there would be no grace period with regard to the rules. So it was that a game between the Red Sox and Braves in North Port, Fla., ended in the bottom of the ninth (with the score tied, as there was no intention between the two teams of using extra men to play extra innings) when Braves infielder Cal Conley, who was up to bat with the bases loaded, two outs and the count full, was not alert to the pitcher by the 8-second mark of the pitch timer and was therefore assessed an automatic strike.
“These are the kind of things that tell you why we’re starting this right now,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker, who acknowledged the rule was properly applied. “You never know what might happen. That instance right there shows you what could happen.”
The teachable moments will be many in this exhibition season, with the hope that most of the wrinkles are ironed out come Opening Day. The new rules were experimented in the Minor Leagues last season, and 90% of Minor Leaguers polled said it took them a month or less to adjust. Pitch timer infractions went from 1.73 per game in the first week in which the timer was in place to 0.53 per game by the sixth week.
“Once everyone gets used to it,” said Angels catcher Matt Thaiss, “it’s going to be a little more relaxed and everyone’s going to be kind of back to normal but with a pitch clock.”
If anything, a prevailing opinion after the first two days of games is that some pitchers have been guilty of overcompensating for the timer and working too quickly.
“We felt that the pitchers were rushing, you know, and then they were making pitches at 10 seconds and nine seconds instead of, like, taking your time,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “There’s no rush.”
“In Triple-A, there were plenty of times where I thought the clock was, for whatever reason, started too early or started too late,” Williamson said. “I thought today was really consistent. I hope it’s like that the rest of the year.”
Position players are adjusting, too.
“I don’t know if you guys noticed, but before, I used to walk slow to the plate from the on-deck circle,” Blue Jays superstar Vladimir Guerrero Jr. told reporters. “I’m trying to catch up to time now, though, so I’m walking faster to the plate. That way I have more time to get ready.”
Added Yankees shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa: “For me, a couple of times, I caught myself picking up our coaches for positioning and then I looked up and I was like, ‘Oh, wow, our pitchers are already on the way home.’ The tempo is a lot faster. Infielders, we’re going to love it. We’re always going to be ready now.”
Though each of the rule changes has its own intention and its own application, the ultimate goal of their collective arrival is a sport with more action and a brisker pace.
Time of game itself is not a barometer of entertainment value. A four-hour game with lots of action can be captivating, and a 2 1/2-hour tilt with little action can feel like a slog.
But it’s nonetheless notable that we have seen some brisk ballgames this weekend. There were actually three games just on Saturday — Blue Jays vs. Pirates, Twins vs. Orioles and Royals vs. Rangers — that finished in under three hours despite the two teams combining for 15 runs or more. That happened only 19 times in the entire 2022 regular season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
“The goal is to keep things flowing, keep things going, and not get in our way in any way,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “Just keep the game going. And it did. I think it’s probably the pace and the time you’re hoping for when you’re playing a Major League Baseball game.”
Said Reds manager David Bell: “It was a nice pace. It wasn’t rushed, but it just kept everything moving.”
An estimated 46 percent of players on 40-man rosters have firsthand experience with the new rules in the Minors, so it’s not as if the entire big leagues are flying blind.
But that doesn’t mean we haven’t had — and won’t continue to have — awkward moments in the exhibitions, mostly oriented around the timer.
“You know, the thing I caught myself doing was watching it too much,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said. “And any time you see an umpire pull out 24 pages, you know they are, too. So, we’re all trying to get a feel for it. I’m glad they’re coming in in a couple of days, because we have some questions. I think there are some inconsistencies that we’d like to ask questions about. I do think we’ll adjust. I was even asking umpires, and they were saying the Triple-A umpires that they’ve talked to said they adjusted. We’ll adjust.”
Better to be uncomfortable now than on Opening Day.
That’s what this Spring Training is for.
“You learn something about it every day,” Counsell said. “We’ve got a bunch of stuff written down that we’ll ask questions about. But it was a crisp game, and we felt it. It was better. There was more action. The time between pitches was less.”