Spring Training took on added importance this year, as the on-field workshop for rule changes announced in February to address place of play.
The early returns are encouraging: In the second half of Spring Training, games were a few minutes shorter, on average, than during the same period in 2017. One reason for that has been the adaptation by players to tighter breaks between innings.
MLB's executive vice president of strategy, technology and innovation Chris Marinak also credited players and coaching staffs for their adjustment to the limit of six mound visits in each nine-inning game.
"We've seen that they are doing a better job of communicating in advance of the game," Marinak said Tuesday in a telephone interview. "They've been meeting to make sure they have all of their sign patterns prepared before the game.
"Players are understandably concerned about the things that impact their jobs. On the flip side, there are reasons why they're world-class athletes. They're very adaptable. When they're presented with a challenge or new set of rules to figure out, they know how to handle it -- otherwise they wouldn't be where they are. That's been a really nice takeaway for us during Spring Training."
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The Commissioner's Office distributed a memo to all 30 teams in early March, in an effort to answer any questions arising during the initial Spring Training games. One key clarification involved the technical definition of a mound visit by the catcher or another position player: Marinak said the player must (a) leave his position and (b) do so for the purpose of conferring with the pitcher.
Marinak was asked about a scenario in which a corner infielder -- playing in -- pursues a bunt that rolls foul, then says a few words to the pitcher as he jogs back to his position.
That would not constitute a mound visit, Marinak said.
"You could argue that he left his position, but he did it for the purpose of fielding the ball -- not conferring with the pitcher," Marinak said. "The same is true if the pitcher runs to cover first base on a ball that rolls foul. They can exchange a couple words afterward without it qualifying as a mound visit, as long as it's not disruptive to the flow of the game. There's an element of judgment in there, from the umpire's standpoint.
"If there's a gray area, I think you're going to find that the umpires will give the players a warning [rather than count it as a visit]. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the players didn't even realize [the communication might be interpreted as a visit], and they'll turn around and run back to their positions. No harm, no foul. We're not looking to play a game of 'gotcha,' where if you take an extra step, it's going to be a mound visit.
"The idea with the restriction is that you can't go out four times in the same batter anymore. We want to stop the excessive mound visits and move on with the game, in the interest of our fans."
The home-plate umpire will indicate when an official mound visit has occurred, and a running tally will be kept on in-stadium scoreboards. Teams are granted one additional mound visit (without changing the pitcher) in every extra inning played.
Marinak said teams won't be charged with mound visits when pitchers speak with teammates during what is already a dead time. Examples he cited include an on-field injury, grounds crew issue or conversations on the mound during an inning break, when the game broadcast already is in commercial. In poor weather, infielders also are permitted to clean their spikes using tools on the mound's back slope.
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One more circumstance that does not count as a visit: A catcher may speak with the pitcher while the batter is rounding the bases after hitting a home run.
Marinak also clarified that teams won't be required to make a pitching change if a player attempts to initiate a seventh mound visit during a nine-inning game.
"In that case, the penalty is that the umpire breaks up your visit," Marinak said. "We're not trying to force the excessive removal of pitchers from games. We would stop the players from going out, if the team has exhausted the six mound visits. If the umpire said, 'Go back,' the players aren't going to disobey the umpire. Or if they do and there's a conflict, it's possible a player could be ejected form the game. But in general, the penalty [for a seventh mound visit] is just a prohibition. You can't do it."
One aspect of the rules governing mound visits will remain unchanged in 2018: The second visit by a manager or coach to the same pitcher, in the same inning, will require a pitching change.
More on-field updates as the new season begins:
• Interestingly, the bullpen cart's return to MLB after a 21-year absence -- thank you, Diamondbacks -- was not precipitated by a rule change. Marinak said MLB rules have permitted bullpen carts in the interim, but the evolution of stadium construction made them impractical in many cases.
The heyday of bullpen carts coincided with the era in which many MLB teams played in circular multipurpose stadiums with multiple field entry points and ample storage beneath the outfield stands (due to football seating needs). Artificial turf fields also allowed carts to drive directly onto the field of play; at Chase Field in Phoenix, carts will remain on the warning track along either base line.
MLB doesn't view bullpen carts as having a discernible impact on pace of play, but the league did remind teams that they are legal after some fans and media advocated for their return last year.
• MLB will continue permitting the use of iPads in the dugout during Major League games, on the condition that they are not connected to Wi-Fi at the time. Video scouting reports and related information can be downloaded to an MLB-approved app on the iPad before each game. The app allows each club to write team-specific code into the program.
• In an effort to combat sign stealing, MLB staff in New York will have access to the telephone line between each team's dugout and video coordinator. Audio on the telephone channel will be recorded and logged, with the possibility of being audited if MLB officials have reason to believe technology was used to steal signs. The possibility of discipline is expected to reduce fears of sign stealing among pitchers and catchers -- thus diminishing the need for mound visits.
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• The league is hopeful that the immediate availability of slow-motion camera angles in all home and away video rooms -- a change this year -- will lead to shorter decision times on instant replay challenges. In the past, teams couldn't view slow-motion replays until after television broadcasters transmitted them. Now, those angles will be routed directly to the teams' replay coordinators.
"We're really optimistic this will be a nice enhancement for the teams," Marinak said. "The slo-mo relay is such a key piece in the decision-making. A lot of times, we've had managers holding up play because they're waiting on the slow-motion shot. In the end, we're hoping that the 20- to 30-second average [for the manager to decide] will become 10 to 15. That's not a huge difference in the grand scope of the game, but it's another elimination of a disruption for fans. Any time we can do that, that's a positive for the fan experience."
• Marinak praised the commitment of players and umpires this spring in adhering to the new time interval between innings. In the regular season, locally televised games will have breaks of two minutes, five seconds, with national television games at two minutes, 25 seconds. In either case, pitchers must throw their final warmup pitch with no fewer than 20 seconds remaining on the clock.
"In aggregate, looking at a summary of all the things we've done, these aren't major changes," Marinak said. "We're not expecting this will result in 20 minutes of game-time savings. But within the construct of how the game is played today, we're trying to eliminate things that are annoying to fans -- the breaks in the action and interruptions.
"If you're watching at home and the game comes back from commercial, you don't want to see another 45 seconds of a pitcher warming up. We want to be sensitive to fans, so they are getting more bang for their buck, in the time they're spending at the ballpark."
Jon Paul Morosi is a reporter for MLB.com and MLB Network.