SARASOTA, Fla. — There were many reasons right-handers Eduard Bazardo and Logan Gillaspie strove to make the leap from Triple-A to the major leagues last season.
The idea of pitching without a countdown timer always in their head was a major bonus for earning the promotion, though.
They’d like to make the major leagues this season, too. If they do, however, there’s no avoiding that pitch clock.
It’s one of several rule changes Major League Baseball has implemented for the 2023 campaign in an effort to speed up the game at the highest level. The use of a pitch clock — perhaps the most noticeable adjustment, given the timer that will run before each offering — helped reduce the average minor league game time by 25 minutes last year, the league announced.
The league hopes for a similar outcome in the majors. But with it comes an adjustment period for players, one they began during workouts at spring training and will continue when the Orioles open their Grapefruit League games Saturday at Ed Smith Stadium.
Given time, though, many players within Baltimore’s clubhouse expect the additions of a pitch clock, amended shift rules and a limitation on pickoff attempts to become second nature — even if it might take time to get used to.
“The first couple games [with a pitch clock in the minors], I think everybody was frustrated because the game is a little bit fast, because the clock was there,” Bazardo said. “But after two months, everybody was a little more comfortable to work it out with a clock.”
Those within the clubhouse in Sarasota expect the same, particularly with time to ramp up during spring training. While pitchers threw live bullpens against hitters Tuesday and Wednesday inside the main stadium, they practiced with a pitch clock — and for some of them, it was the first time.
Between each batter, there’s 30 seconds on the clock. Between pitches, there’s 15 seconds if the bases are clear and 20 seconds if there are runners on. Should a pitcher fail to start his motion before the timer hits zero, he’ll be charged with an automatic ball. And if a batter doesn’t enter the box by the eight-second mark on the timer, he’ll be charged with a strike.
As opposed to last season in the minors, in which catchers still laid down signs with their fingers, the introduction of PitchCom to all levels this season could alleviate some of the issues teams had with the pitch clock in the minors. PitchCom allows a catcher to use a small transmitter to send the call directly to a receiver near the pitcher’s ear.
“Especially with a runner on second, you’re doing multiple signs with a pitch clock,” said catcher James McCann, who experienced the change while on a rehab assignment from injury last year. “I do think the PitchCom will be a huge component to getting guys back on the rubber, cause you can get the sign without actually being on the rubber.”
In some ways, the adjustments might be more difficult for the batters than the pitchers.
“I’m a guy who takes a little bit more time to get in the box,” McCann said. “I remember being taught that as a rookie by veteran players to take your time. It’s your at-bat. It’s not anyone else’s but your at-bat, so take a second to breathe. Take a second to step out and clear your mind. Whatever it is. So I think it’s going to depend on the guy.”
Added catcher Anthony Bemboom: “Honestly, once you get used to it a little bit, it’s more of a rush on the hitter. Getting up to the plate and getting ready in the box within eight seconds? That’s more of a challenge.”
Naturally, though, some of the pitchers in the clubhouse were more concerned about the restrictions on the number of step-offs and pickoff attempts as the largest adjustment players will have to make. Pitchers can disengage from the rubber twice per plate appearance, although that number resets should a runner advance a bag. If the pitcher attempts a third pickoff throw, he must nab the runner or else he’ll automatically advance a base.
The trickledown effect may lead to more stolen bases — with shortstop Jorge Mateo and center fielder Cedric Mullins, the joint American League stolen base leaders with 35 each last year, set to reap that benefit. The size of the base also increased from 15 square inches to 18 square inches, reducing the distance between first and second and second and third by 4.5 inches each.
But pickoff attempts aren’t the only way to hold a runner close.
“I don’t think it’ll be that different, as long as you’re holding the ball and mixing up times to try to disrupt their timing,” right-hander Bryan Baker said. “Me personally, that won’t affect me very much. I try to work fast. I don’t pick off a lot in general. I like to mix up looks and do that type of thing.”
Plus, there’s no limit to the number of times a catcher can attempt a back pick — throwing down behind a runner, particularly at first base, after they catch the pitch. During the live bullpens Wednesday, catcher Adley Rutschman practiced several of those throws.
With the elimination of the infield shift that has become so commonplace in recent years, Baltimore also doesn’t fear for much of a defensive regression. Mateo is at shortstop, and as manager Brandon Hyde said, he has “as much range as anyone.”
That range will be more pertinent, with two fielders required on either side of second base. Their feet must be in the infield dirt upon the release of the pitch, too. But there could still be room for creativity, with teams allowed to bring an outfielder in to play a five-man infield or position one outfielder in the shallow grass.
“I think it’ll have a decent size impact, but I think with my abilities, it’ll be good for me to display what I’m capable of doing and go out there and make some plays,” Mateo said through team interpreter Brandon Quinones. “I’ll feel pretty comfortable out there, and if anything, my value will only increase after going out there and being able to make more plays.”
It will take some getting used to, but that’s what spring training is for. Baker hopes the enforcement early in the Grapefruit League begins with a warning before ramping up to stricter implementation as opening day nears.
But should it speed the game up ever so slightly, the benefits could outweigh the adaptation required.
“I’m sure it’s just to take away the guys that are too much, just like the hitters,” right-hander Joey Krehbiel said. “Some of those guys take a long time, some pitchers take a long time. To shave five minutes off a game on average is a lot. That might help.”