CLEARWATER — Baseball purists like veteran Phillies reliever David Robertson hate seeing the constant tweaks to the major league rule book.
And for Robertson, who will be entering his 12th big league season this year, the implementation of a pitch clock this spring is just the latest move to threaten the sanctity of the sport -- all to shave a few minutes off game lengths.
“The game of baseball doesn’t need to be changed,” Robertson said. “It’s a great sport, There’s no need for a pitch clock in baseball. … It’s a great sport, the fans love it. Let’s keep it a great sport. I do think that there are things added in that are taking away from the game and some of the excitement in it.”
As the spring training schedule begins in earnest on Friday around the Tampa Bay region, throughout Florida in the Grapefruit League and in Arizona, games will feature a pitch clock for the first time at the major league level, giving pitchers 20 seconds between pitches.
Commissioner Rob Manfred announced last week that if the transition to pitch clocks goes well, it could go into effect in the regular season. MLB chief baseball officer Joe Torre has been traveling around the Grapefruit League in recent days to meet with teams and brief them about the change.
While the introduction of a pitch clock has been discussed for years, long tested at the minor league level and nearly enacted last season, Manfred wants the have the players union’s approval before implementing it, though he does have the power to unilaterally install it for for 2019.
Baseball will have a soft roll out during spring games. So initially, there will be no penalties that effect games. A regular-season major league implementation would likely include in-game penalties, with a pitcher being charged with an automatic ball for not delivering the pitch on time and a batter receiving a strike for not being ready within the time limit.
“Just as they do with everything, it’ll be gradual, they’ll get some feedback from the umpires and the teams and then probably ramp it up a little bit more,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said Wednesday after Torre visited Port Charlotte. “There’s a lot of talk about this — if you look at the mound visits (changes) we talked about it for two weeks and after that nobody talked about it — I would imagine this will be similar. It’s to help the game get a little quicker, which I’m totally in favor of.”
Players are divided on the issue, and their opinions vary along interesting party lines. Veterans like Robertson hate seeing it, but younger players — many of whom adapted to pitch clocks without incident in the minor leagues — don’t see it as much of an adjustment.
Twins reliever Taylor Rogers saw pitch clocks first implemented while he pitched in the Arizona Fall League in 2014 and has learned to pitch through them.
“I didn’t notice any type of change,” Rogers said. “Everyone who is coming up to the big leagues is going to be used to that clock and have that routine set with the 20 seconds. So, I think as they come up and the other guys start to weed out, the game will just speed up.”
A 20-second pitch clock has been used in the upper levels of the minor leagues since 2015, and in 2018, a 15-second pitch clock was added when the bases are empty. Last year, games were an average of eight minutes shorter than 2014, the year before pitch clocks were initiated.
“Even if we’re not certain these strides will make a significant impact, having an open-minded nature is a very positive thing,” said Blue Jays general manager Ross Adkins. “Regarding the pitch clock and the way it’s worked in the minor leagues, it’s seemingly only been a plus. It doesn’t seem to be a distraction at all and has certainly helped on the pace at the minor league level.”
Phillies ace Aaron Nola, one of the game’s top young pitchers, takes the fourth longest between pitches at a 25.4-second pace, according to FanGraphs, But Nola said he doesn’t think he will struggle with the adjustment.
“I think we’ve gotten used to it over the past few years,” said Nola, who pitched in the minors with pitch clocks in 2015. “The pace of play is always going to be dictated by the way the pitcher is throwing. It all depends on how the pitcher is throwing, most pitchers, home and away. If the pitcher is dealing, the game is going to go by quick. If he’s walking batters, hits are being scattered, walks are being scattered, it’s going to be slower. I feel like they don’t look at that part of it. The pitcher dictates the pace.”
Taylor said it’s more the batters who slow the game down. In 2015, MLB made a rule that hitters had to keep at least one foot in the batter’s box, but enforcement of the rule varied. Hitters received warnings for being slow and repeat violators were fined, but no penalty impacted the game itself.
"I don't think it will be that much of a change for the hitters," said Orioles outfielder Trey Mancini."We had a pitch clock in the minors, so you just get used to it."
Baseball had enacted other pace of play initiatives that have seemed to work. Last year, mound visits were limited to six a game and rarely did teams test that limit. And pitchers are already preparing for finding their own loopholes, like stepping off the rubber if they’re nearing 20 seconds, something that would just delay the game.
"I just don’t see it as very useful in the first place,'' said Rays right-hander Charlie Morton, who jokingly suggested that umpire be given dog zappers to use when pitchers violate the pitch clock. "There’s some other things that probably should be addressed before that. You’ll have the guy that will come in and it’s like, ‘Human rain delay, please throw the ball,’ but I don’t think that’s the norm. ... What’s the goal, to get the game two minutes faster?''
Morton averaged 23 seconds between pitches last season, ranking 16th slowest among qualified AL starting pitchers.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at [email protected]. Follow @EddieInTheYard.
Times staff writer Marc Topkin contributed to this story.