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Tests in AFL improve pace, shorten game times

Pitch clock, other experimental rules receive positive feedback
MLB.com

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Arizona Fall League not only serves as a developmental league for baseball's top prospects, but also as a testing ground for new baseball initiatives.

In 2013, Major League Baseball used the Fall League to test expanded instant replay, which was then implemented for the 2014 regular season. This year, MLB utilized the AFL as it looks for ways to improve the pace of play.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Arizona Fall League not only serves as a developmental league for baseball's top prospects, but also as a testing ground for new baseball initiatives.

In 2013, Major League Baseball used the Fall League to test expanded instant replay, which was then implemented for the 2014 regular season. This year, MLB utilized the AFL as it looks for ways to improve the pace of play.

Several measures -- most notably, a 20-second pitch clock -- were used during the Fall League's six-week season, lowering the average game time and receiving positive feedback.

"We've been really pleased with the fact that we've tried to take some initiatives to measure, at least, to analyze, the flow of the game, the pace of the game, the rhythm of the game," John Schuerholz, chairman of Major League Baseball's Pace of Game committee said. "Not just the pace of game by itself, but how it all blends together. And we've been able to do some things, of course, in the Arizona Fall League that can't be done ordinarily because it's a development league."

Video: MSS@SSR: Sherfy is given a ball after clock expires

Joe Torre, Major League Baseball's executive vice president of baseball operations, addressed the tests at the General Managers Meetings in Phoenix last week, also saying the results were positive, but a timetable for possible implementation on the Major League level had not be established.

"As far as being able to implement it, you have to understand that this has to be in conjunction with the Players Association, as it was with our collision play," Torre said. "Trying to implement that so close to the season last year was really tough. Maybe as much as we suggest it, but understand that players have a certain habit of doing things. But this has been, just from all the evidence we've had from the Fall League, a real positive as far as gathering information. That's what we have to do first before we figure out what will work at the Major League level."

Salt River Fields at Talking Stick was the only Fall League venue where clocks were utilized. In addition to the 20-second pitch clock, games at Salt River employed two-minute, 30-second time limits on breaks between innings and between pitching changes. And each team was limited to three "time out" conferences per game, inclusive of meetings between pitchers and catchers, coaches and pitchers, and coaches and batters.

The average game time of the 16 games played at Salt River, in which the clocks were enforced, was two hours and 42 minutes -- a full 10 minutes quicker than the Fall League average in 2013. A closer look at the numbers shows that extrapolating the average time per plate appearance from the MLB average of 77 plate appearances per game would equate to an even brisker average game time of two hours and 39 minutes.

Non-clock games at other Fall League venues employed a rule that required players to keep at least one foot in the batter's box throughout plate appearances, unless one of a few exceptions, such as a foul ball, occurred. And the automatic intentional walk was in play at every venue. When a manager called for an intentional walk, the batter automatically took first base instead of standing in for four pitchouts.

With those rules, the average time in games played outside of Salt River was two hours and 46 minutes, or two hours and 43 minutes when calculating the time based on the average plate appearance.

"I can definitely notice a difference that the pace is a lot swifter," MLB umpire supervisor Cris Jones said. "Even between innings you can notice the players are hustling."

Video: GDD@SRR: Burgos beats pitch clock after it resets

The sample size may be limited, but the numbers are clear. The new measures make a difference.

The use of pitch clocks -- five of which were located throughout the field, with two behind home plate, one on the corner of each dugout and one above the wall in left-center field -- was the biggest, most noticeable difference in the AFL, and the players are understandably cautious about how these pace of play initiatives could affect their performance.

"It's new. I guess that's all I can really say about it right now," Marlins prospect Chad Wallach said. "It is making the games quicker, but it's alright."

Arizona Diamondbacks prospect Peter O'Brien agreed.

"I know I've been talking to some guys and they feel rushed," O'Brien said. "It's going to be interesting to see how things play out. When things are going good you don't really notice the clocks, but when the wheels start coming off a little bit, you start worrying about the clock."

Although there was a period of adjustment for players and coaches, they acknowledge a faster game and appreciate Major League Baseball's effort to improve the game.

"I admire and respect the initiative they took trying to do it," Marlins Triple-A New Orleans manager Andy Haines said. "You certainly don't want to experiment in a Major League stadium. This is the place to do it. So, I respect the effort and the initiative, and I think the players and umpires are handling it great, and hopefully Major League Baseball gets out of it what they need out of it."

When the rules were announced, there were questions as to whether the offense or defense would gain an advantage.

"It's tough," O'Brien said. "I wouldn't say it favors one or the other more … As a hitter, you pretty much have to keep one foot in the whole time and you don't have much time to think between pitches, which could be a bad thing or a good thing."

The AFL games moved at a more rapid pace, and although that goal has been met, it is going to take some more time and analysis for everyone to fully adapt.

"Our game is a unique game," Schuerholz said. "The game is played not in any other way, but who gets 27 outs and has more runs wins the game. However long that takes. But we understand everybody's view of doing what we can to economize the time we have in our game, to make it more impactful, to make the pace of the game more attractive and more appealing to not only our longstanding baseball fans, but to the new fans we hope to attract to our game."

The positive reviews are encouraging for Major League Baseball, but it remains to be seen if new rules will be implemented. And if they are, how soon might we see pitch clocks in Major League stadiums?

"We understand from both Commissioner Selig and Commissioner-elect Manfred that there is great interest in this matter for the well-being of our game and for the well-being of our industry," Schuerholz said. "I know how important it is. And it's important to the well-being of our game. Not just because Commissioner Selig and Commissioner-elect Manfred care about it and want some good analysis and evaluation done on it. But because it likely will be good for the health and well-being of our game."

By the numbers:

Average game time:
2:53 - 2013, all AFL games
2:42 - 2014, AFL games at Salt River utilizing clocks
2:46 - 2014, AFL games at other venues utilizing batter's box rule
2:45 - 2014, all AFL games
2:39 - 2014, AFL game time based on plate appearances, extrapolated from MLB avg. of 77 per game

Number of automatic intentional walks in the AFL:
2014 - 8
2013 - 3
2012 - 4
2011 - 1
2010 - 4

Games played at Salt River in 2014:
10/14 - 2:14
10/16 - 2:28
10/17 - 3:12 (11 innings)
10/21 - 2:20
10/23 - 2:19
10:25 - 2:26
10/27 - 3:19 (11 innings)
10/28 - 2:56
10/30 - 2:28
10/31 - 3:06
11/04 - 2:45
11/06 - 3:04 (10 innings)
11/08 - 2:22
11/10 - 2:21
11/11 - 3:04 (11 innings)
11/12 - 2:43
AVG. - 2:42

Paul Hagen and William Boor are reporters for MLB.com.