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Cards get creative adapting to mound visit rules

Matheny details more expansive sign system, strict guidelines for players
MLB.com @JoeTrezz

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Before the first game, six didn't seem like a lot.

Four days after Major League Baseball announced that the pace of play initiatives for 2018 would include limits on mound visits, the Cardinals opened up their Grapefruit League schedule against the Marlins. An adjustment period was expected for everybody -- players, coaches and umpires alike. But St. Louis didn't anticipate the new rules would affect much just yet, not in exhibition games where most pitchers are typically removed after an inning or so regardless of performance.

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Before the first game, six didn't seem like a lot.

Four days after Major League Baseball announced that the pace of play initiatives for 2018 would include limits on mound visits, the Cardinals opened up their Grapefruit League schedule against the Marlins. An adjustment period was expected for everybody -- players, coaches and umpires alike. But St. Louis didn't anticipate the new rules would affect much just yet, not in exhibition games where most pitchers are typically removed after an inning or so regardless of performance.

Then shortstop Yairo Munoz jogged toward the mound to hand the ball off after a leadoff double. Later, third baseman Patrick Wisdom walked the ball in after it was whipped around the infield following a strikeout. A pitcher got into trouble. And before they knew it …

"We used up four [visits] in a very quick time," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "With no strategy involved."

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Consider it a learning curve teams have about six weeks to complete. Beginning Opening Day, teams will be limited to six visits per nine innings (with one additional visit for each extra inning). On the seventh visit, the pitcher must be removed. Visits are defined as any trip to the bump by a coach or player that doesn't result in the pitcher's removal from the game.

It's that last part that's forcing the Cardinals to adjust their communication strategies, curb their infielders' instincts and more strictly regulate player actions once considered benign.

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A catcher going out to switch signs? That's a visit. A second baseman swinging by to shake up the rosin bag? Visit. A first baseman dropping by to just say hey. Visit.

The managerial nightmare is not being able to make a much-needed late-inning visit at the fault of an earlier, accidental one.

"We have to be more judicious," said Matheny, the former catcher. "Our guys go when they have a purpose. It'll be more coordination. Before we have a middle infielder or a catcher go out, they'll check with us. It'll be something we have to keep close track of. We'll have to do things where they're communicating from their position. Doing that with 43,000 in the stands will be challenging, but its just another way we'll have to figure out how to communicate a little differently."

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For the Cardinals, that means leaning heavily on a more elaborate and complex system of signs. The club has spent weeks this spring mapping out its new sound-free strategies with the hope of devising a scheme that covers the team's needs but doesn't overburden its players. Keeping track of it all figures to make Yadier Molina's on-field management skills more valuable than ever.

Here are some of the changes the Cardinals are making to that side of their game this season.

Mix it up
Each pitcher will have two sets of pitch signs he's responsible for knowing. On top of that, a separate "universal" set of signs, relayed by the catcher, will be used to switch the order of those pitch signs based on the game situation.

These will be consistent across the top three developmental levels of the Cardinals' system, that way pitchers promoted from and optioned to Double-A Springfield and Triple-A Memphis won't have to constantly relearn and unlearn new signals.

"We're not worried about [other teams] cracking them," Matheny said. "They can crack all they want. But it's just not worth their time. As soon as they get it, we have it changed."

Don't go on your own
From here on, Cardinals infielders are prohibited from visiting the mound without dugout direction. And for the most part, that direction won't come. Matheny prefers for signs relating to pickoffs, pitchouts, bunt plays and shifting to go through the catcher or from positional coaches straight to the fielders.

Communicate without a visit
The Cardinals are in the process of implementing new signs for various situations that would have previously prompted a visit. A pitcher needs to be told to fix something mechanically? There is a sign for that. The pitcher needs a breather? There is a sign for that now, directing him to step off.

Eliminate the unnecessary
It's almost natural for a third baseman or first baseman to run the ball in to the pitcher after putouts, Matheny said. But that won't be allowed anymore. Instead, they'll be told to stay back and toss the ball in.

Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz.

St. Louis Cardinals