For the past 150 years, baseball has sold the timeless nature of the sport. How long will today’s game take? However long it takes. But recently, the caretakers of the sport at its highest level — Major League Baseball — have seemed to fret that their game might need saving.
To that end, baseball, a game marketed largely on tradition and tension, is suddenly joining the other major sports in pivoting from its century-old rhythms to a future that was once unthinkable: Starting this year, the sport will let a clock dictate the pace of its action.
In September, when addressing the creation of a pitch clock, along with a series of other new rules, Commissioner Rob Manfred said the goal was to “bring back the best form of baseball.”
For baseball fans, many of them nostalgic for the days of shorter games, higher batting averages and more stolen bases, the changes might feel like a throwback. But to the pitching coaches who work to get their players ready, the changes to the game represent some of the biggest in MLB history — and a giant leap into an unknown future.
“Whether you like it or not, it really doesn’t matter,” said Carl Willis, the pitching coach of the Cleveland Guardians. “It’s our job to help our pitchers make those adjustments.”
The pitch clock will make its regular-season debut on March 30, and the lead-up in spring training has spawned something of an idea factory inside every pitching staff. Players and coaches are theorizing, hypothesizing and planning for seemingly every ripple effect that the changes could instigate. They’re gleaning intelligence from minor league coaches and players, who have used pitch clocks in the past. And they are indulging their inner inventors as they try to cultivate ways to, quite literally, bring their pitchers up to speed.
Tommy Hottovy, the pitching coach of the Chicago Cubs, identified which of his pitchers had a natural cadence last season that fell outside of the 15-second limit now allowed between pitches (20 seconds with runners on base). Pete Maki of the Minnesota Twins began setting up timers in his bullpen on the first day of spring training. Kyle Snyder of the Tampa Bay Rays purchased more stopwatches than he could recall and invited minor league empires, who have experience with the clock, to help advise his team during live batting practice.
But the pitching coaches are stuck on myriad questions that will hang in the air until real games are played. For example, pitchers who shake off too many pitches could end up taking too much time, which is hard to simulate in spring training games where nothing is on the line. “Pitchers and catchers being on the same page has always mattered,” Maki said. “It’s not like it wasn’t important and now it is, but now there’s more of a spotlight.”
Other coaches are concerned that relief pitchers may need to improve their conditioning, with an emphasis from some on doing more cardiovascular workouts. That may seem a bit ridiculous for a group of athletes who typically work for about 10 minutes a game, but relievers will need to get themselves from the bullpen to the mound, warm up and be ready to face their first batter all within 1 minute 45 seconds — effectively needing to win a foot race against the clock just to enter the game.
In stadiums like Detroit’s Comerica Park and Denver’s Coors Field, where the bullpens are beyond the center field wall, that short window will be a big ask, even with the clock not starting until they have reached the warning track.
The whole setup was enough for Mets Manager Buck Showalter to ponder if baseball might need to reintroduce carts to shuttle pitchers to the mound from the bullpen.
An emphasis on fitness could be necessary for other reasons beyond getting relievers to the mound on time.
“I’ve heard from Triple-A coaches that guys can get gassed when they start to have long inners because there’s never much opportunity to step off, collect and compose yourself,” Willis said. “The last thing any of us want is to put a guy at physical risk, and when a guy fatigues, that’s when they get in danger. Obviously, we’re all here to win, and to do that you’ve got to keep them healthy.”
Since PitchCom devices can be programmed to say almost anything, some coaches have envisioned ways they could help with the new rules. With a clock ticking, runners on base, mound visits limited, only two pickoffs attempts allowed and a big pitch coming up, pitching coaches might consider adding other messages to PitchCom — perhaps one reminding the pitcher not to step off the rubber again or to be aware of the hitter looking to bunt.
Depending on which pitching coach you ask, the pitch clock and restrictions on mound visits might also radically alter a coach’s job duties.
“I think it is going to speed up the internal clock in the dugout,” Hottovy said when discussing how things will work between him and Manager David Ross. “In the past, if Rossy and I are talking about a potential move, you have a visit to the mound and do all those things that help your reliever get warmed up. Now, you won’t have that time. The time it took to make that call and get a guy up might have been two to three minutes. But two to three minutes in a game now is nine to 10 pitches.
“You’ll just have to be on top of your game with preparation,” he said.
Pitching coaches are also busy honing the art of holding runners. It is widely speculated that limiting pickoff attempts could lead to an explosion in stolen bases. So, Snyder and others are working on shortening their pitchers’ lead leg times — far from a simple change with veteran players who have been developing their craft for decades — in hopes of getting them to deliver the ball more quickly to home plate. They also hope to utilize those precious few seconds gained by PitchCom in order to hold the ball a little longer and mess with a base runner’s timing.
Ron Villone, who went through all of this last year as the Cubs’ minor league pitching coach, said the first month was a huge adjustment. But once the team went through it, the clock became a nonfactor.
“You have to adapt,” Villone said. “Rome wasn’t built in a day — but the pitch clock was, and you just have to figure things out.”
The pitching coaches seemed to expect an eventful period as pitchers, batters, coaches and empires become acquired with a new concept added to an old sport. But while there are some seasoned baseball traditionalists rolling their eyes at the new rules, the coaches re most read to roll with a period of change.
“I do not think this is going to be the apocalypse,” Snyder said. “We work in entertainment, man. It’s part of what we expect to some degree. This is going to be good for fans and good for baseball.”
And maybe, if things work out right, the clock can bring some urgency to a game that has been accused of lacking it in the past.
“Time pressure is motivating,” Maki said. “Who doesn’t work better with time pressure? When I have a deadline, I work really well.”