Pitch clock could spark drama — but at least it’ll play out in spring training

Cubs pitching prospects who experienced the pitch clock in the minors last year say the adjustment just takes time.

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The new pitch clock is seen at Salt River Field Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, in Scottsdale, Ariz. Opening day will feature three of the biggest changes in baseball since 1969: Two infielders will be required to be on either side of second base, base size will increase to 18-inch squares from 15 and a pitch clock will be used.

The new pitch clock is seen at Salt River Field Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, in Scottsdale, Ariz. Opening day will feature three of the biggest changes in baseball since 1969: Two infielders will be required to be on either side of second base, base size will increase to 18-inch squares from 15 and a pitch clock will be used.

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MESA, ARIZ. – Cubs pitching prospect Ben Brown admits he didn’t hide his frustration with the pitch clock when it was first introduced last year.

“I couldn’t really understand it the first month,” he told the Sun-Times. “I was attributing every weird soreness to it. I’m like, ‘Ah, my ankle hurts; probably was the pitch clock,’ or whatever, just joking around.”

Now, he says it just takes time.

“Once you get in the rhythm, in a groove, and start making the adjustments, it comes pretty easy,” he said.

The pitch clock, and the step-off limits that come with it, are coming to MLB this year – with slight adjustments from the rules the minor leagues played with last year.

Pitchers will have up to 15 seconds when the bases are empty, and 20 with runners on, to begin their motion. A clock violation results in an automatic ball. The batter has to be set and looking at the pitcher with at least eight seconds on the clock, or he’ll be penalized with an automatic strike. Batters can call one timeout per plate appearance.

With runners on base, the pitcher can disengage from the rubber – stepping off or attempting a pick-off – twice per plate appearance. If he disengages a third time, it’s a balk unless he throws out a runner.

“I think the intentions are good,” shortstop Dansby Swanson said of the full slate of 2023 rule changes. “It’s just, I hate that we have to have rules to make things how the game probably should be played.”

MLB is also limiting infield shifts and putting in bigger bases, all rules that will debut in spring training to give major leaguers time to adjust before the season.

“The athleticism is going to show up from a shifting standpoint,” manager David Ross said, “but I think immediately we’re going to notice the clock, for sure. Now, over the long term, I’m sure the pickoffs and the bases being closer and how guys try to circumvent some of these things will be there. But the clock’s kind of running all that, so I think the pitch clock will be the most impactful.”

In the minors, nine-inning games went from averaging three hours and four minutes in 2021 to averaging two hours and 38 seconds last season with the pitch clock. That was the goal, limiting dead time during games for a better fan experience. Minor-league players and coaches have raved about that aspect of the new rule.

That doesn’t mean the introduction to the major leagues will be drama free.

Last season, pitching prospect Ryan Jensen noticed Double-A hitters’ frustration when they were penalized with a strike, often taking umbrage with the level of consistency between umpires.

“At first it feels like the game really speeds up on you, but honestly, it’s good for pitchers to get in a rhythm,” he said. “I feel like the hitters kind of get the short end of the stick on it because, especially in the big leagues, those guys like to take their time getting the box.”

Even before this spring, the Cubs were tracking their pitchers’ time between pitches, so they have a sense of who will need to adjust.

New Cubs pitcher Jameson Taillon said he talked to minor-leaguers about their experiences last year when he first heard MLB might implement a pitch clock, and he doesn’t expect it will be much of an issue for him.

“I heard that the step-offs and the pick-offs were the weirdest part of it,” Taillon said.

Unlike in the minors last year, when the disengagement count would only reset with a new batter, the pitcher will get a new set of step-offs if the runner advances. But base runners still have a big advantage after two disengagements.

“Being quick to the plate, mixing your timing – there are still weapons you can use to control the running game without picking off,” Taillon said. “So, it’ll be fun to see the cat mouse game.”

Different strategies will play out throughout the spring. Will pitchers be more stingy with their second pick-off attempt, worried about running out of allotted disengagements? Will they throw over a third time, hoping to catch the runner off the base or at least keep the other team guessing?

“I’m sure there’ll be some struggles,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said. “There’ll be some pitchers that struggle with the clock, there’ll be some strange things that happen on the bases. But hopefully we can get that stuff out of the way and test our boundaries based-running wise here, and then get going during the season.”

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