Fort Myers, Fla. — Riley Greene on Sunday lashed a double to left field against the Twins at Hammond Stadium. As the ball came back into the infield and play was stopped, just like every other time Greene gets on base, the bat boy ran out to get Greene’s shin guard.
Unless the kid stumbles, nobody much notices.
But, these are different days in Major League Baseball. The bat boy hustled off the field, but he had just stepped over the foul line when home-plate umpire Erich Bacchus called a one-strike violation on the next hitter, Javier Baez.
Because he was waiting for the bat boy to get off the field, Baez wasn’t in the batter’s box with eight seconds left on the pitch clock.
Some pitchers are learning to use that eight-second mark as a weapon. Former Tiger Max Scherzer was the first to use it as a “quick-pitch”, delivering the ball as soon as the hitter looked up at him.
“Don’t call it a quick-pitch,” Tigers manage AJ Hinch said Monday after the Tigers’ 7-1 spring loss to the Red Sox. “That’s illegal. There is no quick-pitch. But when the batter is ready and it’s eight seconds, you are allowed to throw whenever you want.
“Even if you lock in with the batter before that, you can pitch.”
The Tigers, though, stole two strikes on Monday on pitches that Boston hitters thought were quick-pitches. Starter Matt Manning got a free strike one on Rafael Devers in the second inning. Devers was looking down and never got himself set for the pitch.
No matter, he swatted the next one into right field for a single.
In the bottom of the eighth, reliever Kervin Castro got strike one on former Tiger Niko Goodrum before Goodrum was ready. Goodrum was visibly upset, turning to the umpire to complain. He never got back into the at-bat, striking out on four pitches.
“I don’t know if it was on purpose or just the nature of the game and where the clock was,” Hinch said. “But, both sides (hitter and pitcher) are feeling each other out.”
As we watch players, umpires, managers, coaches, fans and clock operators all try to adjust to the new pitch-timer rules early in spring training, a few of these anomalies are popping up.
“I think there are some things we will try to sort out,” Hinch said. “I think that is what spring is for. Nobody expected that 10 games into this everything would be perfect.”
When to start the pitch clock after balls have been in play and there’s been action on the field seems to be a gray area right now. The rule states there are 30 seconds between pitches. Once the pitcher gets the ball, he has 15 seconds to throw a pitch with bases empty, and 20 with runners on.
But, when do the 30 seconds start?
There have been several occasions already where outfielders, after running down a ball in the gap or to the wall, have had to scramble and sprint back to their positions as the pitch clock was winding down.
“The clock is the rule; the ruler of the day is the clock,” Hinch said. “Whether you are looking down, whether you are late, whether you have to run into the gap to make a catch and you have to hustle back to your position — the clock will be on.”
Reliever Matt Wisler was assessed a violation in Dunedin for not completing his warm-up pitches within 40 seconds. He and catcher Donny Sands were trying to work some things out. On Sunday against the Twins, Jake Rogers hit a two-run home run, but cut his dugout celebration short to make sure he was behind the plate in time to start lefty Joey Wentz’s between-inning warmups.
“It’s OK for guys to be uncomfortable in the spring and get penalized for it,” Hinch said. “It’s the only way to learn.”
The run game
It’s far too early to tell how the pitch timer and limited throw-overs and step-offs will impact the running game, and whether it will be an advantage to the runner.
“I don’t think anyone is going to tip their hand too much on what they’re going to do during the season,” Hinch said.
The Yankees have been the most active team the Tigers have faced, in terms of trying to bait pitchers into throwing over. Right-hander Michael Lorenzen countered that by varying his times to the plate, even holding the ball and letting the clock run inside of three seconds before throwing.
It had the effect of freezing Aaron Judge.
At one point Sunday, the Twins had runners at first and third — the dreaded situation for managers with the pitch clock. The runner at first was clearly trying to draw throws, extending his lead, fake-breaking toward second.
So far, the defensive strategy has been to use one throw-over and never the second one. That will certainly change once the season starts.
“The timer allows for another strategy,” Hinch said. “It allows you to literally time up when you’re going to put pressure on the pitcher and catcher. But, these are exhibition games early in camp, where you aren’t going to see a ton of in-season maneuvering.
“It’s easy to start runners in spring when you don’t really care if you run into an out or not. But, there’s only 27 of them in a regular-season game. It’ll be interesting to see if teams still try to exploit that at the risk of giving an out away.”
So long, Javy
The Tigers said so long to Javier Baez after the game Monday, as he reports to Team Puerto Rico for the World Baseball Classic.
He didn’t have to go far. Puerto Rico is set up in Fort Myers, working out at JetBlue Stadium.
“Pretty much all of Puerto Rico is in Fort Myers right now,” Baez said, laughing.
The WBC is serious business for Baez. He helped his country get to the championship game before losing to Jim Leyland’s Team USA in 2017.
“It’s incredible, to be honest,” he said. “It’s an honor just to play for my country. Just the way we get connected. That little island gets together to watch us and support us. It’s incredible.”
Baez, a shortstop-only option for the Tigers, will play second base for Puerto Rico, moving over for Francisco Lindor. Hinch helped Baez prepare by playing him at second in the back half of the last three games.
“I wanted to see the ball off the bat, but I don’t take one ground ball,” he said. “I either wanted to get a ground ball or have someone try to steal a second so I could make a tag from that side. I got neither.”
The hard part, though, is coming back, going from playing high-intensity games back to the end of spring training.
“The last Baseball Classic, we put everything into it,” he said. “And then when we finished, it was kind of like we had to go back and slow everything down and get it back to the level that you want it going into the season.
“It was hard. But, I’ve got a lot of energy and I love to play. It’ll be good.”