‘That’s some bad clock management’: How MLB teams are preparing for new rules
- Jesse joined ESPN Chicago in September 2009 and covers MLB for ESPN.com.
On the first day of live batting practice at Chicago Cubs camp, right-hander Adrian Sampson stood on the mound ready to face his teammates — just as he had done to start preparation for the season in his 11 previous years of professional baseball.
But this time, there was a clock hanging high on the backstop behind the hitter and catcher.
When Sampson received the ball after each pitch, the clock reset to 15 seconds and started counting down. He wasn’t just working on the pitches he was throwing, but how quickly he could throw them. Several times, the clock ran out on him. In the dugout, teammates shook their heads in mock disappointment.
“That’s some bad clock management right there,” catcher Yan Gomes said with a smile.
Welcome to spring training 2023, where a new term has entered the baseball lexicon.
“It will be front and center with everything that we do throughout the spring,” Cubs bench coach Andy Green said. “It needs to get to a point where it doesn’t rattle anyone when the regular season starts. We’ll push those buttons now to get them ready for April.”
During visits to a dozen teams over the opening weeks of camps, it became clear that adjusting to a massive overhaul to the rulebook will make this a spring training like no other. In discussions with players, coaches and executives, it’s easy to see that this isn’t just about getting a pitch off within 15-20 seconds.
“I imagine the conversation around the shot clock in the NBA was similar to the ones we’re having here,” Detroit Tigers president of baseball operations Scott Harris said. “Same with the [football] play clock, in a way. Both of those sports have evolved to the point where players are competing within the new constraints and not thinking about these clocks. We’re going to get there. The goal is to get there as fast as we can.”
From adapting to the pitch clock and shift regulations to using bigger bases on the field, performing at a high level under the new rules is as important as conforming to them. And there is no consensus among players who will have to make the bigger adjustment with a clock ticking down.
“Generally speaking, it will advantage the pitchers more,” Atlanta Braves starter Spencer Strider said. “We can still control the tempo.”
His teammate, standing a few feet away, disagrees: “I’ll stay in the box a pretty good bit,” first baseman Matt Olson said. “I think for pitchers it will be a bigger transition. They may have to take a ball [violation] or just throw a pitch at the last second.”
Players have more than 30 spring training games to prepare for the changes before the bright lights and scrutiny of the regular season arrive.
“The best part of all this is we have a month of games where the results do not matter,” Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “Players can make mistakes and there is no essential penalty for it, in terms of win/loss.
“Let them experience it. That will be a great teacher for all of us and how we have to adjust. And what we’re going to be facing once the season starts.”
Not only are pitchers learning to work with a ticking clock, but for the first time they can call their own games from the mound. PitchCom is now available to communicate both ways between a pitcher and catcher, after being introduced last season with only catchers able to choose pitches.
St. Louis Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright used it on his first day of live BP, telling his catchers what he wanted to throw by clicking them into a device on his own body. And according to the 17-year major league veteran, the new technology could be a key to adhering to the pitch clock.
“As soon as I get the ball back I’m going to be pressing buttons,” he said after his throwing session.
Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy identified a potentially comical snag, though: “We worry about if the catcher is hitting [PitchCom] and the pitcher is hitting it at the same time. They’re going back and forth and time runs out.”
There’s also a greater potential for human error with the advanced technology. If a player clicks the wrong button for a pitch, time could become a factor.
“I had to shake myself off a couple of times,” Chicago White Sox pitcher Lucas Giolito said, laughing. “Was just getting used to the buttons and where everything is. I accidentally called a pickoff with no one on base during a live BP session.”
Streamlining the process will take time and every little tweak to a pitcher’s routine will have an impact, which is why pitch clocks and PitchCom devices are prevalent even on the back fields of training camps.
“The thing that is coming out of this is you can’t be that pitcher that is consistently the same when he releases the ball,” Colorado Rockies manager and former MLB pitcher Bud Black stated. “We’re working on that.”
Pitchers were confident in their early adjustments when pitching with the bases empty at camps. But live batting practice can only prepare them so much, adding importance to spring games as an opportunity to work on what at times can feel like a completely new job description.
“I feel like a QB now. I’m reading the defense, keeping the play clock in mind and making sure I get the ball off in time.” Strider said. “We may have to have a default play [pitch] if time is running down.”
Pitchers appearing in the World Baseball Classic this month face an added challenge. The tournament will not have any of MLB’s new rules, so they’ll have to adapt again when they return to spring training.
“I’m going to enjoy the heck out of no clock,” Rockies and Team USA reliever Daniel Bard said. “I’m going to cherish 40 seconds between pitches. It’s the last time in my whole life I’ll get to pitch without a clock.”
Bard represents the most common anti-clock player: the high-leverage reliever who often has to face another team’s best hitters with the game hanging in the balance.
“Selfishly, I want more time if I’m facing the middle of the Dodgers lineup,” Bard said. “Why would you want to rush through that?”
Teammate Kyle Freeland nodded in agreement but added: “I think we need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. It’s adapt or die.”
Though there have been more pitching violations than hitting ones so far, there’s an equally big change coming for hitters, who are required to be in the batter’s box and alert to the pitcher with eight seconds remaining on the clock.
This became an early talking point of the spring when a Grapefruit League game between the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves ended with the bases loaded and the score tied because strike three was called on a violation against Atlanta’s Cal Conley for not being in ready position.
While live BP didn’t allow hitters much practice in these situations — many teams didn’t have clocks positioned for them to see — spring games will give them plenty of reps, especially as they face one of their toughest new decisions: whether to stay in the box after a pitch, as stepping out might eat up valuable time.
“Maybe taking one step out of the box instead of both feet,” Cardinals outfielder Lars Nootbaar said. “Just do a quick refocus thing. I hope not to change too drastically but these games will help.”
Spring training games are also giving hitters a chance to fine-tune their approaches against another major change that the league hopes will bring more action to the sport: rules governing the shift.
With defenses now having to play two fielders on each side of second base and all four infielders on the dirt, holes are opening where a shifted defender stood in recent seasons. Traditional pull hitters often felt like they had to try to do too much at the plate because defenses were set up to take away their natural tendencies.
In fact, runs and batting average were both up in early games compared to spring training a year ago. Players were hitting .272 through Feb. 28, with an average of 11.9 runs. That’s up from a batting average of .259 and 10.6 runs through the same period in 2022.
Part of the rise can be attributed to being able to replace attempts to go the other way or hit over the shift with a simpler approach.
“Just going to let my natural swing play,” Cubs outfielder Cody Bellinger said. “I don’t have to think about the shift. It’s going to be super interesting. I’m interested to see how it plays out on the dirt. No one [extra] in right field. That takes away so many hits.”
While defenders will have fewer options for where they stand on the field, the rules preventing an extreme shift will actually cause teams to put an even greater emphasis on pregame defensive prep.
“There are a couple positioning dynamics to put our players in [places] that they never really have been in the recent past,” said Green, the Cubs coach. “With runners on base, you might see some infielders closer together than you’ve ever seen them before.”
The positioning of the shortstop and third baseman are impacted the most. With a lefty pull hitter up, the hole at third base can still be open like it has been in the past — the third baseman would fill the shortstop position and the shortstop would play up the middle near second base.
“We have to be even more intentional with how we’re positioning players because second base is an even more difficult position than it has been over the past seven or eight years,” Harris said.
One of the bigger questions that remains unanswered in spring training is if teams will come up with untraditional defenses to get around the shift.
“The only thing we’ve talked about is we could see some teams that could be radical with some outfielders,” Black said of the possibility.
An example that has been mentioned is deploying a left fielder in short right field, potentially leaving a lot of room to cover for the other two outfielders. The Red Sox tried this out against Joey Gallo during a recent game and weren’t any executives, managers or coaches who would commit to using the strategy during the regular season just yet — but no one would rule it out.
“There might be a team that does it,” Green said. “It’s hard to see the value in it. There’s a reason teams haven’t done that. Has to be a unique situation. A really high ground ball guy that pulls it. And you need an outfielder that can stand in that hole and make a play at first base on a hot smash.”
Even though the use of bigger bases has been mentioned more frequently in conversations involving their impact on baserunning, they are another change that fielders will have to get used to this spring.
“There might be a small transition in terms of having more base to work with,” Olson said. “The footwork is second nature so that could be a little different.”
The base stealer
There are two factors in the new rules that lead to a belief that stolen bases will increase: Pitchers can step off the rubber only twice — unless the third time results in an out — and the bases are 3 inches bigger on each side, producing a slightly smaller distance between them and a more enticing target for potential base stealers.
“You have to pay attention to controlling the running game and how the disengagement rule is going to play into it,” Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “You don’t get those tossed over to first base anymore. You need intent. So we’ll stress that.”
The proof has been evident in the minor leagues, where stolen-base rates have spiked as a combination of the new rules has been tested in recent seasons. One of MLB’s elite base stealers, Billy Hamilton, is cautiously optimistic about the impact it could have — but he also sees a potential downside for runners trying to take advantage of the new rules.
“The limit to pickoffs makes it a little bit easier. If he’s used two, you can be aware of that but you still have to be careful,” the White Sox outfielder said. “The clock isn’t behind the pitcher when I’m looking at him so if I take a peek [behind the plate], I might get picked off. Can the dugout count it down so I know what’s going on?”
Since pitchers can no longer vary their timing to the plate to hold runners on base, it will give base stealers an opportunity to time their jumps to when they know the ball has to be thrown to home plate.
“You’re going to have to come set very early or learn side steps and go quickly to the plate.” Strider said of how pitchers can adapt. “Being ready ahead of the hitter is important, so you have several seconds to leverage against the baserunner.”
Whether or not there is a noticeable rise in stolen bases during spring training games, this new pitcher/baserunner dynamic is something teams are expecting to play out throughout the season.
“When guys pick [to run] based on the clock is something we’ll be watching,” Green said. “There’s a lot of smart people looking for edges. It’s a new frontier.”
Between the number of adjustments needed from players across their rosters and new strategies introduced because of the changes, the role of managers will be heightened this season. Never one to miss an edge, New York Mets skipper Buck Showalter has been studying for any advantage since last season.
“I went to the [Arizona] Fall League for that purpose,” Showalter said. “We spent a lot of time talking to our Double- and Triple-A people because those are the ones that have lived it. We have people constantly asking umpires and the replay group a lot of what-ifs. What if we did that, what if we did this? When we get to the point where they say, ‘hmm, we have to think about that,’ then I know I’m onto something.”
But Showalter isn’t about to give away any of his findings until the games start counting.
“If you have an advantage, you don’t want to show it down here,” he said.
Other managers acknowledge that one of the biggest ways to succeed with so many changes occurring at once will be simply by being the team that doesn’t let the inevitable learning curve wear it down.
“Everyone will adjust to the times but the mental side is what we’re talking about. Pitch. Bad result. Get emotional, mad at yourself,” Black said. “Without the clock you have more time to take a breath and gather yourself. Now, you have to get back on the mound and get going. The mental part of this is what we’re talking about.”
Managers agree that the best way to get their teams prepared for the mental side of the new changes is by working on everything so consistently during camps that it becomes second nature by the time the season begins.
“We’re doing a lot on a timed basis. That’s the main thing. Working within the timeframe that we’re allotted. Let’s build our stamina, our mental toughness, the speed in which we work,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “If we get 15 seconds, let’s get everyone within 12 so you never feel rushed. When the game starts, it slows down instead of speeds up.”
As much as teams are using the spring to adapt to MLB’s new rules, they all know there is still some mystery to how a sport that has been hesitant to change will look when the regular season begins and the stakes are that much higher.
“Baseball has not been comfortable with rule changes compared to other sports,” Counsell said. “We have to be OK with a rule change that can improve the game. That’s what we’re stressing. Get comfortable.”
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