For one year, at least, the players have avoided a pitch clock. On Monday afternoon, Major League Baseball announced new changes to its rules in support of speeding up the pace of play, but those didn’t include the addition of a timer between pitches. Instead, the league settled for a far more modest adjustment, limiting the number of mound visits that players, coaches and managers can make to six, and also shortening the amount of time between innings to two minutes and five seconds.
The curtailing of trips to the mound is the biggest change, though its effect will likely be more aesthetic than anything else. Recognizing that there are few things more aggravating and deadening than watching a catcher jogging to a mound to go over signs with a pitcher in the middle of an at-bat or a pitching coach slowly walking over to talk strategy between hitters, MLB will now limit teams to six visits per game. That includes non-catcher position players, who won’t be allowed to walk over whenever they want to exchange a few words with the pitcher.
There are a few caveats. Pitching changes won’t count against the limit; nor will mound visits because of injury or during the announcement of a pinch-hitter, or instances of cross-ups once a team has gone through its six allowed visits. Teams will be allowed one non-pitching change visit per inning in extras. There will also be no balls-and-strikes penalty assessed for teams who try to go past six visits; instead, the umpire will simply disallow any illegal trips, which should be very fun to watch play out every time it happens. But the overall result should be less time wasted watching an infielder pat a starter on the butt after he falls behind 2–0 in the count.
Will that actually shorten games, though? It’ll probably shrink the time of game at best by 30 seconds to a minute, depending on the team, pitcher and catcher. At the very least, Cardinals games should zip on by now that Yadier Molina can no longer run out every other batter. Then again, Commissioner Rob Manfred will see any reduction in game length as a win, as the average time of game ballooned to three hours and five minutes last season—a new MLB record, and one he won’t want to break in 2018.
As for the players and managers, this new rule will likely irritate some; I can already see the steam pouring out of Mike Scioscia’s ears. But in the end, they will adapt. All this change means is that pitchers and catchers will have to spend more time pre-game going over signs and coming up with new ones. And it’s an easy pill to swallow now that pitch clocks are officially off the table for the season. That issue had been a point of contention all offseason between the league and the MLB Players Association, with the union rejecting a 20-second clock and Manfred threatening to impose it unilaterally if the players didn’t agree to accept it.
Given the current stakes of this offseason, with the league and its labor feuding openly and dramatically over the slowdown in the free-agent market, it benefited no one to get into a protracted fight over a pitch clock. Without knowing the full details, this does feel like a small win for the union, or at least for its members, who were adamantly against the clock and Manfred’s attempts to force it upon them. The limitation on mound visits will rankle some, as the players had also fought against that, but that’s no serious loss. It’s a win for fans, too, who won’t have to watch so many instances of men standing around in a circle until an umpire breaks them up.
What’s worth keeping an eye on now is when the pitch clock re-enters the debate. It’s unlikely that Manfred would give up his pet cause, given how enamored he seems to be of it and how well it’s worked in the minor leagues, and it remains the best on-field way of shortening time of game. (The best way to do it would be to limit the amount of commercials between innings, but that will never happen.) But with all the anger over the current CBA and how teams have simply stopped spending in free agency, the pitch clock isn’t something the players will acquiesce to cheaply. The rules may have changed, but the battle over pace of play is far from over.