By James Wagner
In the first inning of a spring training game against the Seattle Mariners in Peoria, Arizona late last week, San Diego Padres third baseman Manny Machado placed his left foot in the batter’s box, tapped his bat on home plate and twirled it around before coming set. It is a routine he has done countless times.
But in this case, Machado was out of time. Ryan Blakney, the home plate umpire, stood up from his crouch, pointed to Machado and then his left wrist to signal the first pitch clock infraction in Major League Baseball history — albeit one that came in an exhibition game.
Under a set of new rules intended to speed up the game and inject more activity, there will now be a 30-second clock between batters. Once an at-bat has begun, pitchers will have 15 seconds to start their motion with the bases empty or 20 seconds if there is a runner on base.
Batters, though, have their own regulations. They must be in the batter’s box and looking at the pitcher with eight seconds left on the clock. Machado was ready with roughly six seconds remaining. So, before he could even see a pitch or swing the bat, he was already down one strike in the count.
“That time goes by fast,” Machado said after Friday’s 3-2 loss. He joked later, “We’re in the record books at least.”
Spring training, after all, is practice. The 2023 regular season begins March 30, so the next five weeks are not only for pitchers to build up their arm strength and for batters to hone their timing but also for everyone — from umpires to coaches to players — to adjust to some of the biggest single-season rule changes in the sport’s history.
“It’s going to be an interesting year for sure,” Machado said.
Over the decades, MLB games have grown longer and, for a variety of reasons, featured less action. The average game time in 2021 set a record at 3 hours, 11 minutes while in 1976, for example, the average game took 2 hours, 29 minutes. MLB’s overall batting average last season was .243, the lowest it has been since 1968, according to Baseball Reference. Strikeout rates have risen to record highs in recent years.
So as part of the collective bargaining agreement between MLB’s team owners and its players’ union before the 2022 season, the sides agreed to an 11-person committee — which featured players but was controlled by MLB — that tackled rules changes. The result for 2023: adding a pitch clock, banning defensive shifts and increasing the size of the bases.
“The first weeks of spring training will be an adjustment period, and it’s our intent to change the behavior as quickly as we can,” said Morgan Sword, who oversaw the rule-book tweaks as MLB’s executive vice president of baseball operations. He, along with other MLB executives, descended upon the Peoria Sports Complex in the Phoenix area Friday to watch one of the first games this spring training.
They expect games to look more like it did in the 1970s and ’80s: more stolen bases, more hits, more athleticism on the field.
“I think you’re going to see a game that moves along with more pace,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said. “I think you’re going to see more balls in the play. I think you’re going to look at the field and see players in positions the way that most of us grew up seeing them positioned. I really do think they’re going to see a movement toward the very best form of our game.”
The Mariners and the Padres provided glimpses of what might be coming. During his two innings, Padres starting pitcher Nick Martínez, a relatively quick-paced pitcher who takes longer when runners are on base, delivered most pitches with several seconds remaining on the clock. But the clock got dangerously close to zero on a few.
“I had to speed up,” Martínez said after the game. “I thought I was not even going to think about it today, and I was definitely conscious of it.” He added later: “There are times where I like to kind of slow the game down so that’ll be interesting. Those happen more in the season because there’s more on the line.”
But, in turn, Martínez said he also noticed batters hurrying to get into place. When leading off the game, Mariners second baseman Kolten Wong stepped entirely out of the batter’s box but quickly hopped back in and was ready with one second to spare.
“Guys are going to get a little bit tired working at this pace, whether it’s starters or relievers throwing a lot of pitches,” Padres manager Bob Melvin said. “There’s going to be an endurance factor to this as well.”
Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Robbie Ray said he was ready for the tempo and didn’t feel rushed during his two innings.
“I feel like a couple of times, I took my time getting back to the mound and I thought, ‘Oh, I better speed it up a little bit,’ and I looked up and had 11 seconds on the clock,” said Ray, who, like Martínez, added that the pitch-calling devices used by catchers and pitchers also helped streamline the process.
When the clock was ticking down on Machado, Ray said he could hear the umpire tell Machado to hurry. Machado admitted he was trying to push it timing wise and Blakney warned him when he had two seconds left.
“That is going to speed up guys,” Machado said, adding later: “When you’re hitting, you have to get up there and go. You don’t really have the routine you’ve been doing for 10, 11 years.”
The new rules have been the focal point everywhere in baseball, from Arizona to Florida to MLB’s headquarters in New York. Los Angeles Angels two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani — among the slowest working pitchers in baseball, particularly with runners on base — said adjusting to the new pitch clock was his biggest concern entering spring training. To help, the Angels, like many teams, set up clocks on the practice fields. And the rules have a fair amount of nuance and some potential for strategizing.
“If you ask anyone in our camp or anyone around baseball if they have it down pat, I would call BS if everyone is up to speed yet,” San Francisco Giants manager Gabe Kapler said of the rules. He added later about his players, “What I’m seeing that I’m pleased with is there’s a lot of questions being asked.”
During the first inning Friday, the impact of another one of the new rules was apparent. After Machado’s violation — the only one in the game — he singled. Then Juan Soto, a left-handed hitter, smacked a single to the right side of the infield that most likely would have led to an inning-ending double play if not for the ban on defensive shifts. The new rules require two fielders to be on each side of second base, which allowed more space for Soto’s ball to get through.
“Lefties are going to love it,” said Machado, who raced to third base as a result. “It’s going to be cool to see more offense and more first-to-third and more runs probably going to be scored. But then you’re also going to see some pretty good defense.”
About 10 miles away from Machado, the Kansas City Royals defeated the Texas Rangers 6-5 in a high-scoring affair Friday. In that game, there were three pitch-clock violations, all by pitchers.
When the Padres threatened in the ninth inning — there was a mound visit and the addition of a pinch-runner — the game still breezed along. They loaded the bases, but David Dahl flied out to deep right field for the final out.
The final time: 2 hours, 29 minutes.