One month after pitch clocks were introduced at the highest level of minor league baseball, two things have become clear.
The new rules work. And the players don't like them.
In fact, an informal survey of nearly every current Twins player who has suited up for the St. Paul Saints since the rules went into effect found unanimity over whether umpires should begin regulating the seconds between pitches at the major league level. To a man, they don't think so — some more pointedly than others.
"My honest opinion? It's the dumbest thing they've ever done," lefthander Devin Smeltzer said. "I mean, it's destroying the game."
It's certainly shortening it. According to Baseball America's research, the pitch clock has shaved 24 minutes off the average minor league game, reducing them from 2:59 per nine-inning game before April 15, when the new rules went into effect, to 2:34 now. The data shows that the number of plate appearances or pitches thrown have remained steady, but games are simply taking 13.4 percent less time to play.
That change has intrigued MLB, where the average time of game has risen steadily and this year averages 3:05. Commissioner Rob Manfred said in April the sport is still studying the issue, but a pitch clock "remains high on the priority list of ownership."
Manfred added that he intends to "get complete input from the players." He might not like what he hears.
"I do think the game actually could use some speeding up," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. "But from listening a lot to the people that have experienced it firsthand, I think it works, but I do think there is some amending that needs to be done, as far as the specifics of how it would work at the major-league level."
Hurry, hurry, hurry
At Class AAA, the rules state that pitchers deliver a pitch within 14 seconds of the previous pitch, or within 19 seconds if a runner is on base. Batters must be in the box, bat in his hands and ready for a pitch with at least nine seconds remaining on the clock. There's no time to step out of the box or walk around the mound, because if the clock runs out, umpires are empowered to call an automatic ball if the pitcher was at fault, and an automatic strike if the batter wasn't ready in time.
"Every pitch, it's on your mind — hurry up, hurry up," said Royce Lewis, who rejoined the Saints on Thursday after being optioned back to Class AAA earlier in the week. "It's like the umpires are controlling the game. It's in your head, every pitch."
Jose Miranda agreed: "I don't like to be rushed. It's too fast. I was OK with it at first, but in big games, in big moments, you need time to think, to make sure you're ready."
But beyond the broad strokes of abiding by the large countdown clock, it's the ancillary rules that players particularly object to. Hitters are allowed to ask for time only once per at-bat. Pitchers can throw only two pickoff throws, and the clock begins counting down again immediately after.
That's what worries most players in particular — that the game isn't just being sped up, it's being fundamentally altered. Some said that empowering umpires to routinely add balls and strikes to the count gives them too much power to alter the outcome of each at-bat, especially if it's strictly enforced, regardless of circumstance. (The MLB rulebook actually calls for a 12-second limit between pitches already — beginning "when the batter is ready" — but has never been enforced.)
One Saints player, first baseman Curtis Terry, was even ejected last month for arguing when an umpire called a strike for Terry not being ready quickly enough.
"Once you get used to it, I wouldn't say it's uncomfortable, it's just odd. There's always been a reset period after a pitch, between the pitcher and hitter, and I think it's necessary," said outfielder Trevor Larnach. "But if something happens and a guy calls time real quick because something's in his eye, that's a problem. That's a big deal for a hitter. If your contacts [lenses] are messed up or you have a gnat in your face, that has a big impact."
Both sides object
Larnach also noted that the clocks in some stadiums are almost directly behind the pitcher, from a hitter's viewpoint, interfering with his vision of the pitch being released.
It's not just hitters who object, of course.
"It puts starting pitchers at an extreme advantage, until somebody gets on. Hitters have to be ready by nine seconds, and then I can just hold it and they can't call time," Smeltzer explained. "But then, when guys get on, they can pretty much just [steal] whenever they want because of the pickoff rules. You can't hold the ball, and you also can't pick off more than twice. Honestly, I think it's absolutely ridiculous."
The result, Smeltzer said, is that "In the minor leagues, you're scared to [throw a] pickoff, because once you do, and then you have something wrong with the signs, you've just got to wear it. I hadn't thrown a pickoff in a month. My last start [for the Twins], it felt so good to be able to hold base runners on again."
Some players objected to making such a drastic change just to penalize the worst offenders, and a few offered alternate ideas — cutting the time between innings in half, partly by allowing broadcasters to use picture-in-picture commercials as soccer telecasts do. Or increasing the amount of time to 25 seconds or so, a more gradual step.
"If they want to speed up baseball, just make it seven innings," Larnach suggested sarcastically. "Then you'll have shorter games."