SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — It will be baseball like we’ve never seen it in the last 146 years.
There will be pitch clocks in a sport that used to pride itself on having no clock.
There will be bases the sizes of empty pizza boxes.
There will be position players who actually are playing in their natural positions.
There will be screaming, outbursts, temper tantrums, and enough complaints to fill newspapers and talk shows from coast to coast.
Oh, boy, is this going to be fun.
“This is going to be the biggest change in baseball,’’ Major League Baseball executive vice president Morgan Sword said, “that we’ve seen in our lifetimes.’’
Major League Baseball spent two hours showcasing the new rules before the media on Tuesday, complete with on-field demonstrations, while also explaining just why they’re convinced it will be a great idea.
The truth is that MLB realized their game was starting to bore their own fans.
The average game time of games last season was 3 hours, 7 minutes, about the length of a TV series, and more than 30 minutes longer than games played in the 70’s.
There were 3.9 minutes between pitches put in play, which was longer than the time it takes Chick-fil-A to bring your order.
There were 60,765 infield shifts last year, with players standing closer than if they were lining up to board a Southwest Airlines flight.
“Fans want a crisper place, they want shorter games, they want more action,’’ says Chris Marinak, MLB chief operations and strategy officer.
MLB believes the pitch clock will reduce game times by 25 minutes.
MLB believes that the enlarged bases, increasing from 15 inches to 18 inches, and shortening the distance by 4½ inches from first to second and second to third, will encourage more base stealing and reduce injuries.
MLB believes that the ban of shifts will showcase more defensive prowess.
And, yes, MLB believes that there will be a whole lot of complaints all spring, figuring it will take about a month for their players to get accustomed to all of the changes.
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So, MLB is delivering what the fans want, according to their surveys.
Certainly, it will be a massive adjustment to the veteran players, but 47% of players have experienced the new rules in the minor leagues, including rehab assignments.
“The one benefit the big-league players are going to have that the minor league players did not,’’ Sword says, “is that they had full off-seasons that they were aware what was coming, giving them time to prepare.’’
While MLB is convinced the pitch clock will definitely shorten the time of games, they have no idea whether it will it make the slightest difference to change the dormant offenses in the game. There was a league-wide batting average of .243 last season —lowest since 1968.
MLB is hoping offenses will improve, but in the minor leagues, the rule changes provided only a mild upgrade.
There were 5.13 runs scored a game in the minors last year, compared to 5.11 runs a game before the shift ban.
The league-wide batting average increased from .247 to .249.
Really, the biggest difference was the number of stolen base attempts with pitchers limited to three disengagements (stepping off the rubber or pickoffs) with a balk called if unsuccessful on the third attempt. Stolen base attempts increased from 2.23 to 2.81 per game in the minors. It was just 0.51 in the big leagues last season.
“We have guesses, but anybody who tells you they’re confident what’s going to happen on the shift restrictions,’’ Sword says, “is not telling you the truth. What we’d like to see is more balls in play that become hits.
“But I can’t tell you how confident we’ll be.’’
Well, if nothing else, the mundane spring training games will certainly become more entertaining with pitchers complaining about being charged with a ball without throwing a pitch, hitters moaning about strikeouts without seeing a pitch, and managers ejected for arguing about a pitch-clock violation.
Yep, it’s in the rules. If you come out to argue about a pitch clock violation, you’re out of the game.
It’s going to be a sight to see with MLB’s research in minor league games showing that 90% of the infractions occurred in the first month of the season as players slowly got used to it.
MLB even pulled out a quote from veteran infielder Matt Carpenter, who spent time in the minors before joining the New York Yankees last season, saying: “Initially, I hated it. I grew into liking it a lot.’’
MLB expects that quote to reverberate in every ballpark in the country this spring.
Certainly, the fans will have to get accustomed to the change, too. MLB plans to educate fans with public service announcements before each game at the outset, including a rules special on their network.
Fans will see pitch clocks on each side of the batter’s eye at each ballpark. There will be pitch clocks on each side behind home plate. Umpires will be wearing belts with electronic buzzers that will alert them if time has expired.
The home plate umpire may be responsible for calling out the violations, with a buzzer on his belt, but all four umpires will also have a hand buzzer, and can equally call any infraction.
If a hitter isn’t in the batter’s box and staring directly ahead at the pitcher within eight seconds, Strike 1.
If a pitcher hasn’t begun his motion within 15 seconds with no one on base, and 20 seconds with a runner on base, Ball 1.
If a catcher isn’t in the box with at least nine seconds remaining, Ball 1.
If an infielder lines up on the wrong side of second base, or is in the outfield grass, or even starts running while the pitch is being thrown, Ball 1.
If a violation happens when the batter makes an out, such as hitting a sacrifice fly, laying down a sacrifice bunt, or even moving the runners over, a manager can decide whether to accept or decline the penalty. Think of it as an NFL coach trying to decide on a third-down holding play whether his defense should accept the 10-yard penalty or force a fourth down.
Managers will be permitted to challenge illegal shift violations, but sorry, not the pitch clock.
You can rest assured there will be loopholes to all of the new rules, with MLB intently watching.
Will pitchers keep asking for new baseballs to reset the clock? It’s perfectly legal as long as there are at least eight seconds on the pitch clock.
Will hitters, who are permitted one timeout per plate appearance, fake as if something is in their eye and get a free timeout.
Will pitchers pretend they have a sudden injury too?
Will we suddenly see an influx of two-man outfields? Remember, while infielders have to be in the dirt or infield grass — with two on each side of second base and no position switches during an at-bat — managers will be permitted to place an outfielder anywhere he chooses in the infield.
“Spring training will be valuable for us,’’ Sword said, “to close any loopholes.’’
So, buckle up, and get ready for a wacky, crazy, explosive spring with tempers rising like the desert heat before opening day.
And, oh, a little friendly advice:
You might want to line up at your friendly beer stand early.
These games could be over before you know it.
Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter @Bnightengale.
Story Credit: usatoday.com