MLB took a sensible yet cautious step forward in addressing the pace of the game, with rules that should help speed up play but won't detract from the action on the field.
Major League Baseball revealed its first efforts to improve the pace of play at the big-league level Friday morning, announcing the installation of countdown clocks to govern the time between innings and during pitching changes, as well as the adoption of a rule used in the minor leagues last year requiring hitters to remain in the batter's box between pitches. Gaps between half innings and breaks during pitching changes will now last exactly two minutes and 25 seconds for locally televised games and two minutes and 45 seconds for nationally televised games, and batters will be encouraged to be in the batter's box by the time the broadcast returns from commercial.
In both cases, the final forty seconds of the countdown clock will trigger the following sequence of events:
40 seconds – batter announced and walk-up music (if any) started
30 seconds – pitcher's last warmup pitch
25 seconds – walk-up music turned off
20 seconds – telecast returns from commercial
5 seconds – batter must be in batter's box
0 seconds – pitcher must begin motion for first pitch
Batters will be encouraged to be in the box at the 20-second mark, and pitchers will be welcome to throw the first pitch at any point once the batter is in the box and alert to the pitcher, meaning the between-inning breaks could be even shorter with the right batter/pitcher combination. Pitchers may throw as many warmup pitches as they like prior to the clock reaching 30 seconds, but if they do not get their customary eight warmups in before that 30-second spot, they will still have to stop at 30 seconds, meaning they are no longer guaranteed eight tosses. Clocks will be installed on or near the outfield scoreboard and near the press box behind home plate, and all of the above will be enforced through warnings and fines, with further discipline for "flagrant violators," though a grace period will be in effect through the end of April.
With regard to batters staying in the batter's box, they will still be able to leave the box if they swing or bunt at a pitch; if brushed back; in the case of a wild pitch, a passed ball, or a play at a base; if the pitcher leaves the mound or the catcher leaves the catcher's box; or if anyone calls time. However, they will not be allowed to leave the dirt area around home plate in those instances and also cannot step out of the box without calling time after taking a pitch. That last is thus the most significant change. Remember how weird it looked when Joey Votto stayed in the box throughout an at-bat against Cleveland in June 2012 (jump to the 3:45 mark here)? This rule only requires hitters to keep one foot in the box between pitches, not stay in their stance with their eyes locked on the pitcher as Votto did in that instance, but Votto's psycho routine in that game is going to look a lot less peculiar after a few months of this new rule.
The batter's box rule will differ from the rule in place in the minor leagues last year in one key area: enforcement. In the minors, the rule was enforced with automatic strike calls. In the majors this year, it will be enforced via the same system of warnings, fines, and off-field discipline as the between-inning clock. That was a concession the league had to make to get the rule approved by the Players Association, which, according to FOX Sports' Ken Rosenthal, insisted that the actual playing of the game on the field not be impacted by these new rules. That's a particularly encouraging development, as it suggests that the strategic considerations contemplated by Baseball Prospectus' Russell A. Carleton envisioning the impact of pitch clocks with automatic-ball penalties on the game (e.g., is it more harmful to rush a pitch which could be hit for extra bases or grant the batter a ball) will not be a part of MLB any time soon.
I have come out strongly against pitch clocks this offseason, in large part because of my concern about how they would impact the way the game is played, but I have no objections to the two rules implemented by MLB on Friday, in part because of the decision to limit the enforcement to off-field penalties. In fact, these are exactly the two areas I suggested baseball focus on with regard to pace of play. Baseball has shown sensitivity here, placing the clock behind home — not on the backstop in constant view of the home-plate camera, but up near the press box and thus largely out of sight. With the other clock on or near the scoreboard, which already has a time-of-day clock, and both clocks going dark during game action, the countdown clocks will not be visually intrusive at the ballpark and should be largely invisible to home viewers once broadcasters get tired of showing and explaining them, likely around mid-April.
The big hope here is that these efforts will result in a significant enough improvement in the length of the average major league game, which ballooned to three hours and eight minutes with the introduction of instant replay last year, that MLB will stop here. At the very least, the Commissioner's office has shown that it is willing to proceed cautiously, while the Players Association has indeed stepped up as a significant check against efforts which would impact how the game is played. This is all good news.
In addition to the new pace-of-game rules, MLB announced tweaks to the instant replay rules on Friday. The most significant change is that a manager will now be able to challenge as many plays as he wants until one is upheld (at which point he will lose his right to any further challenges) and will have two challenges per game, regardless of the result, in the postseason, regular-season tiebreaker games (games 163, etc.) and the All-Star Game. Last year, a manager could only challenge two plays in a game even if both were overturned and would lose his right to any further challenges in a postseason game if a ruling had been upheld. Now he will get a second challenge in the postseason even if the first is upheld and will retain his last challenge whenever a contested play is overturned in the regular or postseasons.
It will be interesting to see if that change counteracts some of the gains made by the pace-of-play rules in the regular season. Managers will still lose their lone challenge if a ruling is upheld, meaning they should be no less discriminating about the plays that they challenge, but the total number of challenges should increase as we will occasionally see a single manager challenge three or more plays in a single game. The question is how often that will happen. I'm guessing not often, and this structure is more fair, as a manager shouldn't be punished for the frequency with which an umpiring crew makes a bad call.
Additionally, managers will now be allowed, and likely encouraged, to signal for challenges from the bench. At most, this will save the time it takes a manager to saunter out to the field, but it is unlikely to change the average review time as managers will still be allowed to hold up game action while waiting for word from his own replay consultants.
Finally, tag-up plays have been added to the list of reviewable plays. That was one of the notable omissions from last year's list (section V. here), an omission which resulted in an embarrassing situation in a high-profile late-September game between the Royals and Tigers on national television, when Salvador Perez clearly failed to tag up on a play but the umpires were told that the play was unreviewable. Worse yet, they were wrong about even that, as the issue wasn't the timing of the tag, but that Perez never re-touched the bag, which should have been reviewable under V.F.3. at the above link. That play did not ultimately have a significant impact, as the umpires correctly ruled Perez out without the benefit of official replay (though they did get to see the replay multiple times on the stadium scoreboard).
Still, MLB did well to fix the omission. Unfortunately, they did not do the same with trap/catch calls by infielders and catchers, which remain outside the purview of replay despite this play from last June and the famous, game-changing call by Dan Eddings in Game 2 of the 2005 American League Championship Series.
In the end, MLB decidedly did no harm with the rule changes handed down on Friday and likely improved both the replay system and the pace of game. Replay won't be in effect during spring training, due largely to the lack of sufficient footage, but the pace of game rules will be, meaning we'll get our first look at how these new rules play out on March 3, when the exhibition schedule begins.