The game of baseball has always found a sense of pride in its individuality. Outside of its inning structure, baseball has remained, for the most part, timeless. And while the length of games had been discussed, no major changes to its structure were set in place, until now. Beginning this year, Double-A and Triple-A organizations will be introduced to a 20-second pitch clock.
While other forms of athletics faced the challenges of clock violations, baseball fans had a game that stood apart and they loved it for that reason. However, on occasion the nature of the game has been known to stretch to great lengths. Anyone who sat through all 19 innings of the Detroit Tigers' and the Toronto Blue Jays' outing last summer can attest to this firsthand.
As the 2015 season prepares to get underway, an official announcement from the Major League Baseball Owners Association has everyone talking. For the first time ever, baseball looks to join the majority of the athletic world by venturing into the arena of timed play.
Word of the changes has begun to reach the ears of the up-and-coming prospects, and members of the two upper-level development programs for the Tigers are finding themselves researching alongside everyone else. Among them is Double-A right-handed pitching prospect, Guido Knudson.
"My first thoughts were directed towards the intricacies of the rule, especially as it pertains to pitchers like myself, and where the hard line is drawn," Knudson said. "Will stepping off dictate a ball? How will it influence signal relay? Holding of runners? Bunt defense? So I guess I need to really get better acquainted the the specifications of the rule first and foremost."
As for the rule itself, the clock will be positioned within the park and will allow pitchers to either pitch the ball or throw to cover a runner on-base. This concept is not the first of its kind and while a pitch clock is new in the world of professional baseball, it's not the first time Knudson has dealt with one, although in limit quantities.
"After reading about the proposed changes, it brought me back to my college days at UCSD where the CCAA experimented with a 90-second clock between innings, where the hitter or pitcher was started off with a ball or strike for going over," Knudson said. "So I have very little experience with it."
Like Knudson, his Erie pitching counterpart, Joe Mantiply got to witness it firsthand during one of his outings at the Arizona Fall League last year. Mantiply was able to find some excitement in dissecting his adaptation process.
"It was different at first just because when you hear you're on a clock at any time I think you tend to rush a little," Mantiply said. "But after a few pitches you realize that 20 seconds is a pretty good amount of time. I remember after the first couple pitches I looked up at the clock and I had my sign and was ready to deliver the pitch and I had around 12 or 13 seconds left. I didn't think many guys had a hard time adjusting to it once they got a few pitches under their belt."
Over in Single-A West Michigan, Whitecaps athletic trainer, T.J. Obergefell has discovered from an experiment from the dugout that the allotted time being set into place, really isn't that far off from how a pitch release is typically handled. However, he is also concerned about how it may affect the pitchers whose rhythms vary from the norm.
"I have timed opposing pitchers in the dugout before when it felt like they took an excessive amount of time between pitches," Obergefell said. "It may not seem like a long time, but 20 seconds is a long time. One con that I can see being an issue is the mental aspect for a pitcher. For some pitchers it is very much a mental battle pitch by pitch and adding the increased stress to them with a clock ticking in their view."
With the addition of the clock, pitchers will now also run the risk of providing the opposing team a leg up if they are unable to adapt. In a situation where the pitcher has not released the ball in the allotted time, an automatic ball will be applied to the batter's count.
From a relief pitching standpoint, Knudson sees how this could make things very interesting.
"Pace of play is not just a timing issue, it is utilized in a strategic manner. Offense and defense trying to impose their own preferred pace of comfort. Surely, the pitch clock will have an effect on this strategy. Especially with my experience out of the bullpen, in high-leverage, bases occupied, tight score, stressful pitches, special defensive play situations — slowing down the game is one way of combating the tough task at hand," Knudson said. "Sometimes it is necessary to make hitters anxious, to narrow your focus, to take a deep breath, and make a quality pitch."
In Triple-A Toledo, second baseman Brandon Douglas has concluded that this could affect many more involved than just on the mound.
"There are situations that come up during the game when a manager must set a defensive play and that play is then relayed to the players by either a catcher or an infielder," Douglas said. "I think this will put more pressure on the managers. What's next, a 10-run rule after seven innings? Games ending in a tie after 11 or 12 innings?"
In addition to what a pitcher must adjust to, batters will now be restricted from playing out their usual rituals, as the new regulations are now requiring that each batter keep at least one foot in the box at all times.
Will this cause the routine shin guard adjustment and the bat tap to the cleats to become obsolete? Some superstitions may need to be refined as the programs settle in, but Douglas, alongside the other Tigers prospects will do their best to maintain an open mind.
"It's baseball," Douglas said. "Sometimes games go by fast, others times the game goes slow. I've never played with a 20-second clock. Maybe this will have no impact on the players and managers. It will be interesting to see what it's like."
While not everyone may agree with the rule or have reservations about its future in the game, it's a change everyone will need to adapt to, regardless of their position on the matter. For Knudson, that means becoming better acquainted with the new rules.
"When it comes down to it, it's a rule I have to follow, simple as that," Knudson said. "You won't hear any complaints on my end. It is out of my control and thus is something I will study, adapt to, and thrive in. Would I have voted to institute the shot clock? Probably not but I also do not have a vote. As the saying goes, if you don't like it, play better."
Minor league players are still adapting to the realization that a pitch clock is now part of their game, and that may take time. For some who have had firsthand experience with the clock, — like Mantiply did in the AFL — the adjustment may be a smoother transition. And while a clock may change baseball on some level, the hope is that the game itself will remain essentially the same. Timeless.