Pitch clocks, shift limits, larger bases in MLB’s future
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and the rest of major league pitchers are likely to be looking over their shoulders next season: at a pitch clock.
Clocks have cut the length of minor league games by about a half-hour this year, and baseball officials appear certain to promote the timers to the majors.
“I think it needs it, obviously. And I think it’s coming regardless of opposition of the players. It’s kind of our fault,” the Yankees’ Cole said ahead of Tuesday’s All-Star Game. “We’ve known it’s been an issue and its importance and we don’t seem to clean it up.”
Major League Baseball also is considering shift limits, larger bases, restrictions on pickoff attempts and — perhaps in 2024 — limited use of robot umpires to call balls and strikes. The new collective bargaining agreement includes an 11-person competition committee with six management representatives, four players and one umpire, and it is empowered to make changes by majority vote with 45 days notice.
Average time of nine-inning games increased from 2 hours, 43 minutes in 2003 to 3:13 in 2020 before dropping to 3:02 so far this season through July 12, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. A clock experiment in the minor leagues cut the average this year to 2:37 from 3:04 at a similar point for non-clock games last year.
“At first, I wasn’t buying into it. But then we started the season, I was: ‘Oh, this is pretty good.’ I like it. I think it’s more efficient,” Brooklyn Cyclones manager Luis Rivera said before a 9-0 win over Greensboro on July 12 that breezed along in 2:27.
Time between pitches with no runners ranges from 12.6 seconds for Milwaukee’s Brent Suter and San Francisco’s Sam Long to 26.6 for St. Louis’ Giovanny Gallegos and 26.0 for Atlanta’s Kenley Jansen. With runners on, San Diego’s Tim Hill leads at 18.1 and Gallegos (32.1) and Jansen (31.1) are the slowest.
MLB’s average through Thursday was 20.5 seconds with no runners and 27.3 second with runners. Boston manager Alex Cora notices callups are working more quickly than veterans.
“Little by little, everything they’re doing in the minor leagues is going to affect their big league game, which is great,” he said.
Long the most traditional of U.S. major pro sports, baseball adopted video review for home runs in 2009 and for a broad array of umpire decisions in 2014. All 30 teams are using the electronic pitching signaling device introduced this spring.
A clock is being used this year throughout the minors: 14 seconds with the bases empty and 19 with runners on at Triple-A, and 14/18 at lower levels. The clock starts “when the pitcher has possession of the ball and the catcher is in the dirt circle surrounding home plate.” In addition, “the batter must be in the box and alert to the pitcher with at least nine seconds remaining.”
“I’m not opposed to a pitch clock, but I think it needs to be a reasonable amount of time to not feel rushed,” said Houston’s Verlander, a two-time Cy Young Award winner. “Fourteen is quick. I was kind of like on the fence about it, maybe pro pitch clock, but then talking to a couple of the Triple-A guys we’ve had, they feel in certain situations that they don’t even have enough time to shake off pitches. Granted, they don’t have PitchCom down there.”
Yankees pitcher Ryan Weber, who spent the first two months this season in the minors, favors a clock but with four additional seconds. He pointed to a 3-2 fastball he threw to Norwich’s Patrick Dorrian on April 17 that ended a nine-pitch at-bat with a flyout. He feared a violation that would cause ball four.
“If I throw a pitch, catch the ball and then go around to the rosin bag, and then when I get on the mound and I’m looking for the sign, it’s running low and I got to say yes to that pitch,” Weber recalled. “I just grooved it. I felt that I was forced to throw.”
Violations dropped from 1.73 per game during the opening week to 0.52 in week 11.
MLB’s goal is to eliminate dead time, such time-consuming tics such as Nomar Garciaparra tapping toes and adjusting batting gloves between pitches.
“It’s something that takes a while to get used to, but I think overall the impact it had on the pace of the game was good,” said the Yankees’ Matt Carpenter, who spent April at Triple-A with Round Rock.
Minor league pitchers also have been limited to what the regulations call “two disengagements per plate appearance” with runners on — pickoff attempts or stepping off the runner. A third attempt that is unsuccessful results in an automatic balk.
Bases have been increased to 18-inch squares from 15, promoting safety — first basemen are less likely to get stepped on — but also boosting stolen bases and offense with a slightly decreased distance.
Shifts have been limited all season at Double-A and Class A, where teams are required to have four players on the infield, including two on each side of second base. The Florida State League adds an additional restriction starting July 22 by drawing chalk lines in a pie shape from second base to the outfield grass, prohibiting infielders from the marked area pre-pitch.
Use of shifts has exploded in the past decade, from 2,357 times on balls hit in play in 2011 to 28,130 in 2016 and 59,063 last year, according to Sports Info Solutions. Shifts are on pace for 71,000 this year.
There has been a corresponding drop in the big league batting average from .269 in 2006 to .255 in 2011 to .242 this season, on track to be the lowest since 1967 — before the mound height was cut.
“I like organic primarily,” said former Rays, Cubs and Angels manager Joe Maddon. “If we have to legislate our game to become better I would put the all the infielders on the dirt, but I’d still permit three on the one side.”
Shift ban tests are hard to interpret, giving there is far less shifting and defensive data in the minors.
MLB also is piloting an Automated Ball-Strike System in the minors, which could reach the majors as soon as 2024. Defining the computer strike zone is still being worked on.
Big league umps are much criticized in an age of high-speed video cameras analyzing every pitch. Jeremie Rehak and Pat Hoberg have been the most accurate plate umpires this season at 95.6% correct, according to UmpireScorecards.com. Among umps who have worked more than one game calling balls and strikes, Andy Fletcher (91.4%) and CB Bucknor (91.7%) have been the least accurate.
A test in the Class A Florida State League uses the robot umps in the first two games of each series, then has a human call ball and strikes in the remaining game with a challenge system. Each team gets three challenges and keeps its challenge if successful. Only the pitcher, catcher or batter may appeal, unlike the MLB replay challenge system, in which a manager generally has 20 seconds to challenge a call — leaving time for the team’s video room staff to make a recommendation.
“I love that,” Verlander said of the ball/strike challenge system. “These guys get a lot of flack, but they have one of the hardest jobs in the world. We’re throwing 100 mph, nicking corners. If I were an umpire, I like that: Oh, you think you’re better than me? Appeal it and find out. I think it’s a fun back and forth.”
Decisions fall to the technical committee, which includes players Jack Flaherty, Tyler Glasnow, Whit Merrifield and Austin Slater, umpire Bill Miller and six team officials.
MLB hopes quicker games will be more appealing to fans as it tries to rebuild attendance following the pandemic. Cyclones general manager Kevin Mahoney said minor league teams haven’t experienced a drop in concessions sales.
“We used to notice that at 9:30, fans would get up in like blocks of 10, 12, 14 at a time from different sections and leave. And I used to think, why is everybody leaving in the seventh inning?” Mahoney said. “Now on most nights we’re in the ninth inning at 9:30 and they don’t leave because the game is almost over.”
Bryce Harper has lived up to the hype. The left-handed slugger famously left high school after his sophomore year to become draft-eligible as a 17-year-old, and Harper was an easy choice for the Washington Nationals that season and signed a $6.25 million signing bonus. He made his MLB debut in April 2012 and helped the Nats reach the postseason for the first time while winning National League Rookie of the Year. Harper had one of the best seasons in MLB history in 2015 at age 23 and unanimously won the NL MVP award after slashing .330/.460/.649 with 42 home runs and 124 walks with a 1.109 OPS. The six-time All-Star and 2018 Home Run Derby champ became a free agent after his age-25 season and signed a 13-year, $330 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies, the richest contract in the history of North American sports at the time. Harper, 29, who won his second NL MVP award in 2021 with the Phillies, has a career slash line of .281/.391/.528 with a .919 OPS and 282 home runs. While he’s currently on the injured list, Harper is of the elite players in baseball and is showing no signs of slowing down any time soon.
David Price, a heralded left-handed pitching prospect out of Vanderbilt, received $8.5 million guaranteed, including a $5.6 million signing bonus, before quickly rising through the minor league ranks and helping the Tampa Bay Rays reach the World Series in 2008. Price, 36, who has a 155-82 record with a career 3.33 ERA and 1.16 WHIP, is a former Cy Young Award winner, a five-time All-Star and a 2018 World Series champion with the Boston Red Sox. He has also pitched for the Detroit Tigers, Toronto Blue Jays and Los Angeles Dodgers, but reports say Price is leaning toward retirement after the 2022 season, his 14th in the big leagues and the final season of the seven-year, $217 million free-agent deal he signed with the Red Sox in December 2015. Price in the Hall of Fame conversation.
Gerrit Cole has the distinction of being a first-round pick twice. The New York Yankees took the right-hander with the 28th overall pick in the 2008 draft, but Cole opted to attend UCLA, where he had a breakout sophomore season and solidified his top prospect status as a junior. The Pittsburgh Pirates gave Cole an $8 million signing bonus, the highest ever offered to a rookie, and he made his MLB debut in June 2013 and helped the Pirates reach the postseason three straight years. Pittsburgh traded Cole to the Houston Astros in January 2018, and he immediately became one of the game’s best starting pitchers and finished in the top five of Cy Young Award voting his two years in Houston before signing a nine-year contract worth $324 million with the Yankees, the largest for a pitcher in MLB history. The four-time All-Star has finished in the top five of Cy Young voting five times, including second twice, and has a career 125-65 record with a 3.20 ERA and 1,797 strikeouts. He’s been one of the best pitchers in the game the last four years and is putting together a Hall of Fame resume.
Current Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias was in his first year in the Houston Astros’ front office when the franchise took shortstop Carlos Correa first overall as a 17-year-old out of a Puerto Rican high school ahead of the consensus top player, Mark Appel. After breaking his leg in the minors in 2014, Correa made his MLB debut in June 2015 and quickly made his mark, helping the Astros reach the playoffs while earning AL Rookie of the Year. He became an All-Star at the age of 22 in 2017, when he was a key member of Houston’s World Series championship team. He was an All-Star again in 2021, his last with the Astros. In March, Correa signed a three-year contract worth $105.3 million with the Minnesota Twins — the $35.1 million average annual salary became the highest for an infielder in MLB history — and he can opt out after each season. Correa has a career slash line of .277/.356/.479 with an .834 OPS and 143 home runs. He’s still elite at 27.
Before signing a then-record-breaking seven-year, $245 million contract to return to the Washington Nationals after earning World Series MVP honors in 2019, Stephen Strasburg was among the most heralded right-handed pitching prospects of all time. He went 13-1 with a 1.32 ERA in his final season at San Diego State before the Nationals gave him a record-breaking four-year, $15.1 million contract minutes before the signing deadline, and he made his long-awaited MLB debut June 8, 2010, striking out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates in seven innings. Injuries derailed much of his career, but Strasburg pitched his best when it mattered most, going 5-0 with a 1.98 ERA and 47 strikeouts in the 2019 playoffs, and he’s the only No. 1 draft pick to be named World Series MVP. Since then, however, the three-time All-Star has thrown only 30 1/3 innings while battling multiple injuries. The 33-year-old has a career 113-62 record, a 3.24 ERA and 1.096 WHIP with 1,723 strikeouts in 1,470 innings across 13 seasons.
In 2015, the Arizona Diamondbacks made Dansby Swanson the first college shortstop to be taken No. 1 overall in more than 40 years. Just a few months later Swanson was included in a trade with the Atlanta Braves that the Diamondbacks surely regret (remember Shelby Miller?). The move helped speed up the Braves’ rebuild, and in August 2016 Swanson made his MLB debut as a 22-year-old. He’s been their shortstop ever since. In 2020, he finished 18th in NL MVP voting, and last season Swanson batted .302 and hit 14 home runs in 87 games to help Atlanta win the World Series. For his career, Swanson’s slash line is .255/.323/.419 to go with 91 homers.
Kevin Richardson/The Baltimore Sun/TNS
Perhaps it’s no surprise the Orioles are 27-20 since catcher Adley Rutschman made his major league debut in Baltimore. After all, Rutschman was always regarded as a can’t-miss two-way prospect, and he’s showing that same ability with the Orioles after a slow start. The former Oregon State standout signed with the Orioles for $8.1 million, the highest signing bonus at the time, and steadily rose in the minor league ranks. In 2021, Rutschman batted .312/.405/.490 in 43 games at Triple-A Norfolk, and only a triceps strain prevented him from starting the 2022 season in Baltimore. The 2019 Golden Spikes Award winner as the best amateur player in the U.S. debuted this season on May 21, and after a slow start is batting .221 with a .714 OPS and 18 extra-base hits in 145 at-bats. He’s also providing above-average defense behind the plate, so while it’s too soon to tell, he hasn’t shown any red flags or battled any serious injuries, putting him at the top of this tier.
Like Mickey Moniak the year before, Royce Lewis was California’s Gatorade Player of the Year as a high school senior and went No. 1 overall. Lewis, a shortstop, has been ranked among the game’s top prospects ever since being taken by the Minnesota Twins and seemed ready to debut in 2021 before tearing his ACL in February and missing the season. He finally reached the big leagues as a 22-year-old May 6 and performed well — he batted .308 with four doubles, two home runs, five RBIs and five runs in 39 at-bats across 11 games — before being sent back down to Triple-A. The Twins quickly called him back up, but on May 29 he tore the same ACL again in a collision with the outfield wall in his first action in center field. Baseball America’s No. 59 ranked prospect will miss the remainder of the 2022 season.
It was no surprise the Detroit Tigers took Casey Mize with the first pick in 2018. He was the consensus top-rated prospect after dominating the Southeastern Conference at Auburn and agreed to a $7.5 million signing bonus with the Tigers. He quickly rose in the minors — he had a 0.35 ERA in four starts in High-A, then threw a no-hitter in his first start at Double-A in 2019 — and made his major league debut in August 2020 and made seven starts. Mize made the rotation in 2021, starting 30 games and posting a 7-9 record and 3.71 ERA. After starting this season as the No. 2 starter in Detroit, Mize was placed on the injured list, and on June 10 it was revealed that Mize had Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery and will miss the remainder of the season. The 25-year-old has a 7-13 career record with a 4.29 ERA in 188 2/3 innings.
Spencer Torkelson was considered the best college bat in the draft and was still just 20 years old when the Detroit Tigers took him first overall. The first baseman and third baseman signed with the Tigers for more than $8.4 million, a record at the time, and with the minor league season canceled because of the coronavirus he made his minor league debut in 2021. He excelled at each level, reaching Double-A in June and Triple-A in August. Torkelson beat Rutschman to the big leagues as the Tigers opened the season with him on the roster. Torkelson’s struggled, however, and is batting .198 with 16 extra-base hits in 243 at-bats across 77 games.
Gene J. Puskar
The Pittsburgh Pirates surprised many by passing on two highly regarded prep prospects and Vanderbilt right-hander Jack Leiter to take right-handed-hitting catcher Henry Davis out of Louisville with the No. 1 pick in 2021. It’s too early to tell whether that was the right move, as Davis has shown flashes of power but has struggled with strikeouts and staying on the field. He reached Double-A before the halfway point of his first full season and was named to this year’s Futures Game, but on Friday Davis was placed on the injured list with a wrist injury. After hitting .341 in 22 games at High-A, Davis struggled in Double-A before the injury. He’s batting .274/.397/.531 in 49 career minor league games and is ranked as the game’s No. 44 prospect, according to Baseball America.
Originally committed to play at UCLA, Mickey Moniak decided to accept a $6.1 million signing bonus after the Philadelphia Phillies took the high school outfielder out of California with the No. 1 pick in 2016. He slowly rose in the minors before finally reaching the big leagues in September 2020. Moniak hasn’t stuck there full time, however, and has 12 hits in 90 MLB at-bats across parts of three seasons. He’s currently on the Phillies roster, though.
Tim Beckham never lived up to the hype that surrounded the teenager out of Georgia. The shortstop was suspended 50 games in May 2012 for a second positive test for a “drug of abuse” before he finally made his big league debut with the Tampa Bay Rays in September 2013 as a 23-year-old. He then tore his ACL in the offseason and missed all of 2014, and he batted .222/.274/.429 in his first full season a year later. In 2017, after another demotion to Triple-A the year before, Beckham was traded to the Orioles, where he quickly made his mark and played some of the best baseball of his career, batting .306 with 10 home runs in 216 at-bats with Baltimore in 2017. His play dropped off in 2018, his last with the Orioles, before he spent one more major league season with the Seattle Mariners in 2019. He hasn’t played in the big leagues since. For his career, Beckham batted .249/.302/.431 in 472 games, but he had a relatively long career compared to the next guys on this list.
Mark Appel’s journey to the big leagues made the news last month, as he made his MLB debut as a 30-year-old rookie reliever with the Philadelphia Phillies on June 29, nearly 13 years after first hearing his name called in the 2009 draft. He was a contender to be the No. 1 pick out of Stanford in 2012 but was taken by the Pittsburgh Pirates with the eighth pick. He didn’t sign and returned to Stanford, and a year later the Houston Astros, who considered Appel with the No. 1 pick in 2012, took the right-hander first overall. However, after an underwhelming minor league career, he was traded to the Phillies in December 2015, and after being designated for assignment, Appel stepped away from baseball at age 26 in February 2018. In March 2021, he attempted a comeback that culminated in his major league debut, in which he pitched one inning of relief against the Atlanta Braves. He’s appeared in three games and thrown four innings without allowing a run. He didn’t pan out as a No. 1 overall pick, but he could still stick around as a major league reliever.
Yes, the Houston Astros were bad enough back then to have the No. 1 pick three consecutive years. And yes, in 2014 they took a player who is one of three in history to be selected first overall and not reach the big leagues — not yet, at least. Left-hander Brady Aiken was considered the top prospect heading into the draft and after it appeared the two sides had agreed to a $6.5 million signing bonus, the offer was reduced to $5 million after a physical revealed a problem with the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching arm. Aiken never signed, becoming the first No. 1 pick not to do so since Tim Belcher in 1983. The Astros, in hindsight, were correct about the physical — Aiken had Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery in March 2015. The Cleveland Indians took Aiken with the No. 17 pick in 2015 despite the issue, but he struggled on the mound and in 2019 took time away from the game. Cleveland released Aiken in October 2021 — he was only 25 — and he remains a free agent. He’s among the biggest busts in baseball history, and certainly in the last 15 drafts.
A pitch clock is deployed to restrict pitcher preparation times during a minor league baseball game between the Brooklyn Cyclones and Greensboro Grasshoppers, Wednesday, July 13, 2022, in the Coney Island neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York. Major League Baseball is considering a pitch clock for next year along with shift limits, larger bases and restrictions on pickoff attempts. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)