This year, Spring Training will not just be about players showing up in the “best shape of their lives” and “getting their work in” and uttering all of our other favorite camp clichés.
We are about to embark upon a spring exhibition season unlike any other in baseball’s history. Because this year, it’s about everybody involved in the sport -- players, managers, coaches, execs, broadcasters, even us fans -- becoming acquainted with some of the most ambitious rules changes the sport has ever seen.
The arrival of the pitch timer, the restrictions on extreme defensive shifts in the infield and the bigger bases combine for perhaps the most substantial, non-pandemic-related alteration to the rulebook in the modern era.
“Spring Training is going to be very, very important for the guys to really lock in on this,” Rockies manager Bud Black said. “We'll have a whole month of games and daily discussions about this.”
This will all be worth it assuming the rule changes have a similar effect in the Majors that they have during 8,000-plus games of Minor League testing, and help return the sport to its old rhythms while increasing the amount of action on the field and on the basepaths. Perhaps they'll even keep players healthier and more productive.
But first, everyone involved has some adapting to do. Because there won’t be a grace period with regard to enforcement in the regular season.
The ones with the most on their plate right now are the umpires. After all, they are the ones who must be intimately familiar with all the nuances of these novel rules.
In controlling the flow of the game by policing the pitch timer (with the help of direct, in-game communication to the Field Timing Coordinators running the timer) and ensuring the infielders are properly positioned before each pitch, their already difficult job is suddenly much more consuming.
“There is no more downtime for us,” newly promoted crew chief Todd Tichenor said in a statement of fact, not frustration. “There’s not going to be conversations with coaches anymore between pitches, you know? ‘Hey, where are you from? Where’d you eat yesterday?’ Because we’re working in-between pitches now.”
Adrian Johnson, another newly promoted crew chief, asked to have extra exhibition games added to his spring slate (22, instead of the usual 15) so that he can get a better feel for his responsibilities before the season starts in earnest.
“Being on the field and getting those reps is important,” he said.
A benefit to an inordinately young umpiring staff this year, in which 10 rookies have been promoted to crews, is that the newbies all have intimate knowledge of the new rules, which were experimented extensively in the Minors, from their time in Triple-A last year. Additionally, an estimated 547 of the 1,193 40-man roster players (46%) have first-hand experience with the new pitch timer rules.
In that regard, the lessons of learned experience that are so vital in baseball development are, for once, being passed on in a different direction than usual.
“I've talked to a lot of people in the Minor Leagues who picked up some really good strategies,” Reds manager David Bell said. “I think you try to create an advantage, in a way, by practicing those during workouts in Spring Training and just talking about it and making sure our players really understand what the rules are and doing different type of presentations and having some fun with it. It’s kind of fun to think about how you can make a difference in that way.”
There is evidence that the players will adapt quickly, with 90% of Minor Leaguers polled saying it took about a month to adjust to the rules (i.e. a single Spring Training), and game data supports that. For example, in the second week in which the pitch timer was in place in the Minor Leagues last year, there were 1.73 total violations per game. By the sixth week, there were just 0.53 violations per game.
“They adapt to everything,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “It's not exciting to talk about that as a storyline, but players figure things out. That's kind of why they're here.”
But that doesn’t mean the adaptation will be easy.
In an unscientific survey of managers at the Winter Meetings, the two aspects of the new rules that they felt would be most difficult for the players were:
1. The timer’s effect on hitters.
Yes, hitters, not pitchers. Because it is called the “pitch timer,” we tend to think of the pitcher being sped up. And indeed, there are routines and lessons the sport’s slower workers can and should learn from those already accustomed to a quick pace.
But pitchers are the ones in control of the at-bat. Their job is proactive, while a hitter’s job is reactive. And with hitters required to be in the batter’s box and alert to the pitcher with eight seconds remaining on the timer (or else be charged with an automatic strike), there won’t be much time to guess what’s coming. They only get one timeout per plate appearance.
“All that time out of the box, fixing gloves and kicking cleats and looking at the third-base coach,” said Black, “that's going to speed up on them.”
And let’s not forget: Hitters are making this adjustment while also seeing more traditional infield alignments, which will impact their approaches at the plate.
2. The disengagement limits placed on pitchers.
Because pitchers have the ability to reset the clock by stepping off the mound or making a pickoff attempt, they will be limited to just two such disengagements per plate appearance without penalty. (The limit resets if a runner advances.) Subsequent disengagements result in a balk, unless an out is recorded on a runner.
The pickoff limits are a necessary part of the pitch timer, because without them the pitchers could just step off the rubber and reset the clock whenever they want, which is what happened when Triple-A experimented with a pitch timer a few years ago to minimal effect. These disengagement limits (and, to a lesser extent, the bigger bases) should lead to more stolen-base attempts and more daring leads.
“[Pitchers] have got to be able to control the running game with only a limited amount of step-offs or pickoffs,” A’s manager Mark Kotsay said. “That's going to be a challenge for them to be able to deliver the baseball.”
Added Brewers manager Craig Counsell: “Being quick enough to home matters [more] in this new world, to conserve your pickoff attempts. So I think that could be the place where some pitchers get uncomfortable the most.”
This whole thing will be a bit uncomfortable, at first.
Though MLB has had the timer running for between-innings breaks, mound visits and pitching changes in the past, a timer for each pitch is, obviously, an entirely new phenomenon at the big league level. It will change the way camps look.
“Whether it be shot clocks in the bullpen or during their live BPs,” said Royals manager Matt Quatraro, “we’ll have things to simulate it as they get ramped up.”
“They’ll [develop] that inner clock,” added Phillies skipper Rob Thomson, “of how much time they have to reset their mind, reset their focus.”
Some are viewing these new rules and this important adjustment period not as a nuisance or challenge but as an opportunity.
“So much of the conversation, at least that I saw during the season, when players were asked about these changes, was about, ‘What are they going to do to you? How are these going to make life harder?’” Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said. “I’m not saying those issues aren’t real. But we need to take the mindset of, ‘How are we going to win with these rules? How are we going to take the bull by the horns, use these rules to our advantage and outcompete the other teams within the rules?’”
Ask around, and you’ll get gripes about certain aspects of the rules. Such is the nature of change. Especially big change like this.
But the prevailing thought, as we embark upon one of the most interesting Spring Trainings ever, is that the adjustment will be worth it.
“We really owe it to the game,” said Counsell, “to continue to try to do it.”
So that’s what they’ll do. In a Spring Training unlike any other.