SARASOTA, Fla. -- When Major League Baseball dropped experimental pitch clocks into the Arizona Fall League four autumns ago, it made little secret of the way it viewed the advanced prospect league as something of a petri dish. By exposing in-game timers to some of the game's top prospects, baseball saw an opportunity for a whole class of future big leaguers to grow with the technology. Doing so, in theory, would smooth their transition should the clocks ever appear in the Majors.
However you feel about the pitch clock's place in the game, there is little doubt that at least one element of the plan worked. Pitch clocks subsequently spread to the high Minors in 2015, and could graduate to the big leagues as early as next month. The clocks are set to make their Spring Training debuts this week, and it will be in games featuring hordes of players for whom playing on a timer is nothing new.
That may not be truer anywhere than it is at Ed Smith Stadium, where the Orioles are holding one of the game's youngest and least-experienced camps. Eighty percent of the players in O's camp spent time in the Minors last season, including 28 players on the 40-man roster. At least in this sphere, that figures to give them something of a leg up.
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"We're used to the new rhythm and pace," said left-hander Donnie Hart. "Some veterans have been doing the same thing their entire careers, they've never been rushed before. Compared to guys in the Minor Leagues, who have been thrown experiments every year. We're used to it now."
Like many in the Orioles' clubhouse, Hart has consistently been forced to adapt. A 27th-round pick in 2013, he pitched his way into the Fall League by 2015, then spent three years bouncing between Baltimore and the high Minors. With every promotion and demotion, the rules changed.
Last year, Double-A and Triple-A games featured a 15-second clock with the bases empty and 20 seconds with runners on. Allowing the clock to run out resulted in an automatic ball, though several pitchers described a loophole that allowed them to step off and reset it, which they took advantage of in high-leverage situations.
Umpires were also granted the power to call automatic strikes if the batter wasn't in the box with at least 7 seconds remaining. Players will not be penalized for violations during Grapefruit League play, and it's unclear what the exact parameters for regular-season clocks would be.
(For what it's worth, every Orioles hurler averaged more than 20 seconds in between pitches in 2018, according to Fangraphs.)
"There are positives and negatives to it," said reliever Mychal Givens, a four-year veteran who pitched with clocks in the AFL in 2014. "I just think baseball has been around for more than 100 years, so if we're trying to change, I get some things. But having a shot clock on you, trying to rush the game, sometimes that's difficult."
For catcher Martin Cervenka, who played at Double-A and the AFL in 2018, the toughest adjustment came defensively.
"When the pitcher shakes me off, it takes time, especially with a runner on second base when you have to go through multiple sets of signs," Cervenka said. "If we can't agree on a sign or agree on a pitch, you get penalized."
Cervenka said that during his first week playing for the Glendale Desert Dogs, his team "almost tied the Fall League record for violations." Hart said he's "never gotten close" to being penalized at any level. Others said the adjustment, particularly for hitters, came quickly.
"As soon as I saw somebody get a strike called on them, I thought, 'I need as many of those as I can get,'" outfielder Ryan McKenna said. "I'm going to play at the pace they need me to play."