LOS ANGELES – Major League Baseball is about to change, in a massive way, in ways that will rattle tradition-loving fans and routine-committed players.
How, then, to stave off a full-fledged revolt? Easy.
Just train the incoming generation on the new reality you wish to impose.
Saturday, 53 of the game’s greatest young talents gathered at Dodger Stadium for the Futures Game, a group that will help usher in a new era of baseball that will move quicker, be legislated differently and present far differently than the traditional game the nation loved, and the more deliberate, time-sucking version that has the league concerned about its long-term viability.
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A pitch clock is coming, next year. An automated strike zone could follow in 2024, along with other changes that have been workshopped in the minor leagues.
Now, those minor-league test tube bonus babies are nearly ready for the bigs. And when they arrive, they may be far more acclimated to modern realities than the veterans against whom they’ll compete.
“I love the pitch clock. It’s great,” says Milwaukee Brewers pitching prospect Antoine Kelly. “It makes the games fly by.
“They’re, like, two and a half hours.”
He’s not wrong. With a pitch clock implemented at all levels, the average minor league baseball game gets completed in 2 hours, 36 minutes, according to data provided by MLB for games played through June. That’s nearly a half-hour reduction from the average game time of 3:04 a year ago.
Batters are required to get back in the box no more than nine seconds from the last pitch. Hurlers must deliver within 14 seconds, or 18 seconds with runners on base (it’s 19 seconds at Class AAA). The timeless game is going on the clock, and a generation gap may soon be coming to the major leagues.
“We’re learning at a younger age and it’s becoming more comfortable for us,” says Rays pitcher Taj Bradley, who may make it to Tampa Bay by year’s end. “I know in the big leagues it hasn’t been implemented yet.
“When it does, it will probably be a shell-shock for them and more comfortable for us.”
Even those on the come-up can see that coming.
‘Life is an evolution’
Jack Leiter, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 draft, is not thrilled by the concept of the pitch clock, even as he realizes it may provide a more viable future for the league once he completes the ascension from Class AA to the Texas Rangers. Leiter, the son of 162-game winner Al Leiter, says he suspects the current rank and file will feel similarly.
“That old-school, prior generation still in the game, I don’t think they’re going to like it very much at all,” says Leiter. “I don’t think this generation likes it either, but it’s being pushed onto this generation and it’s what we’re going to know.
“Those older pitchers, I don’t think they’re going to like it.”
We may find out about it soon.
Commissioner Rob Manfred, per the recently agreed-upon collective bargaining agreement, is expected to enact a pitch clock at the big league level in 2023, needing just 45 days notice. Manfred’s contention that the clock will energize the game and cut down on a time of game that ballooned to a record 3:11 last year – it’s 3:07 this year – has been backed up by the data from minor league games.
The older guard may accept it kicking and screaming.
“The one thing about old-school dudes, they’re going to be more vocal about it,” says Edwin Jackson, who pitched for 17 seasons, retiring after 2019, and served as pitching coach for the American League’s Futures Game. “We’re stuck in our ways, you know? But you adapt to the game.
“Life is an evolution. Nothing is going to stay the same that it was. It’s always an adjustment, and we’re paid to make adjustments.”
And in many ways, the pitch clock will be little adjustment at all. Leiter acknowledges the clock is no bother when he’s mowing down batters, but would appreciate a little more leeway when things get hot.
But a couple of errant pitches, he says, may require a reset, a chance for a deep breath the pitch clock may not afford.
Leiter envisions scenarios at the major league level that would play out similarly.
“I understand it’s speeding up games, but in some ways, it takes away what makes baseball so great. If it’s ever installed in the big leagues, I don’t know if this is the way to go about it.
“Let’s say bases loaded, it’s a late-game situation in the big leagues, and Mike Trout is up and Gerrit Cole is on the mound and it’s the seventh inning. That’s not a time when the fan is like, I wish this game would speed up. This is what you go to the game for. To have the pitcher rushing in those moments is not what the game’s about. Gerrit Cole might want a reset, put his priority into each pitch, every pitch is super-important that time of the game.
“But I do understand what they’re trying to do.”
Another key experiment is drawing less than rave reviews.
‘There’s no nonsense’
A recent sampling of major league players by USA TODAY Sports indicated many were wary of an automated strike zone, and largely supportive of umpires who often are pilloried on social media when borderline calls gone awry are highlighted.
Manfred recently indicated he’d like an automated ball-strike system – robot umps, as some call them – by 2024.
Not so fast, say many future stars.
“I don’t like it. Sometimes, it was horrible,” says Detroit Tigers pitching prospect Wilmer Flores, who experienced the system in low Class A ball. “Sometimes, it wasn’t making any sense.”
The minor-leaguers echo many of the concerns the big leaguers did – that the system works well east-west but not north-south – in other words, it does well calling pitches on the corners but struggles with the varying heights and strike zone sizes of hitters.
And breaking pitches at the bottom of the zone can sometimes earn a strike call even if the pitch nearly struck the dirt. A’s catching prospect Shea Langeliers says an adjustment was made to ensure the ball-strike call was not rendered until the pitch was 8 ½ inches deep on home plate, or the hollow of the batter’s knee.
That still hasn’t resolved the low strike problem, he says.
Jordan Walker, a 6-5 Cardinals infield prospect, says a viral photo of All-Stars Aaron Judge, who stands 6-7, Jose Altuve –just 5-5 – symbolizes the flaws.
“That picture shows how imperfect the automatic strike zone could be,” he says.
Langeliers, traded from Atlanta in a package for Matt Olson in March, also bemoans his position getting further marginalized, with the art of the great receiver a thing of the past.
“It’s part of the position. We take pride in what we do,” he says. “As catchers, we work really hard at presenting pitches, and you’re taking part of our game out of it.”
That may provoke a bigger pushback from MLB’s competition committee and greater rancor should Manfred choose to ignore a recommendation against an automated strike zone and implement it, anyways.
The pitch clock should be less of a fight and for a while, it may be advantage, youth.
Yet in a game where information has never been more abundant, it may also eradicate a certain amount of paralysis by analysis.
Get the ball, throw it. Get in the box. Don’t fret. Go home sooner.
No wonder the kids aren’t too mad.
“When you have all the time to get back in the box, usually that time is spent thinking about what happened,” says the Cardinals’ Walker. “If it limits your time to get back in the box, it’s more, see ball, hit ball.
“I feel like it does lock you in. There’s no nonsense; it does what it’s supposed to do and makes the games a lot shorter.”