From pitch-clock enforcement to robot umps, changes hit Charlotte Knights overnight

How many times have you fantasized about what it would be like to watch an entire baseball game without a single player stepping out of the batter’s box to adjust his batting gloves?

Well, Nomar Garciaparra be damned, that dream came true for me in Charlotte this past weekend as MILB enforced it’s pitch-clock rules and, I gotta say, it was glorious.  

For the players and coaches, though, it was probably closer to a nightmare. They were less than thrilled, especially when they got rung up for an automatic third strike. In fact, Seby Zavala was tossed from a game when it happened to him this weekend.

For the Charlotte Knights in particular, it was quite the weekend for adjustments.  Not only did pitch-clock rules take center stage, but Truist Field, the team’s home ballpark, is also one of the test sites for automated balls and strikes (aka robot umps), and that went into effect as well.

Here are some observations.

NEW PITCH-CLOCK ENFORCEMENT

In essence, pitchers have 14 seconds to throw a pitch, unless a runner is on base, in which case he has 18 seconds.  I’m sure it is quite disruptive to pitchers who work really slowly, but it didn’t seem to bother anybody pitching for the Charlotte Knights or Memphis Redbirds this weekend.  There may have been one or two instances of a pitcher being penalized a ball, but that’s about it.

For batters, though, it was a different matter. They are given automatic strikes if they are not in the box by the nine-second mark, so that leaves barely any time to step out. And a handful were penalized over the weekend, including at least two for an automatic third strike.  It was apparent that some batters were really uncomfortable with the pace.

It may be even tougher for managers and coaches. Knights manager Wes Helms, who also coaches third, said he barely had time to relay signals to batters and baserunners.

One of the worst aspects of the rules is that pitchers and hitters alike can’t step off the rubber or out of the box to regain their composure. And that’s actually a really big deal, especially for minor leaguers. It is imperative some revisions to the new rules address this.

“Sometimes, if a hitter or pitcher wants to regather themselves, they don’t have that chance now,” Helms observed. “It goes away from everything we teach these guys. One of the hardest things is to slow the game down, especially when things start to speed up and get out of control, you’ve got to take a step back, and you can’t do that now.“

Helms said there will probably be a lot of drama over the next couple of weeks but, in the end, players and coaches alike will adjust to the point that it becomes a non-issue. (It was probably even more of an adjustment than it should have been because players told me on Saturday that they had no idea it was even being enforced until the umpires informed Helms just minutes before first pitch on Friday.)

Again, I like the pitch clock (though opinions were divided in the press box). I find the pace of play so much more watchable, but MLB needs to experiment with different times because the current ones are too fast.

Here’s another oddity about the six games in Charlotte this week: The rules were only enforced during the last three games, yet the lengths of all of the games were almost the same, excluding an 11-inning, 32-run affair.

John Parke and Matthew Liberatore started both the Tuesday and Sunday’s games, and the number of runs, hits and walks were comparable. Yet Sunday’s game, with the enforced rules, was just 9 minutes faster. Perhaps it was an anomaly and two games does not a sample make.  Baseball America estimates the improved pace is closer to 25 minutesTime will tell (ba-da-boom!).

ROBO-UMPS

Thee drama and confusion about pitch-clock enforcement overshadowed the implementation last week of an automated strike zone in Charlotte.

There are a few issues here. How is the zone different, if any, from most live umpiring? How consistent is it? And for the Knights, at least, how much of an adjustment is it to face robo umps at home and live umps on the road?

At shortstop, Romy Gonzalez has a great view of how balls and strikes are being called, and he was surprised by what appeared to be a lack of consistency, especially because the system is designed for the exact opposite reason — to provide players with a more consistent strike zone.

“It is hard to know,” he said. “I’ve seen pitches that were called strikes and then the next pitch thrown in the same exact spot is not a strike. We’re just going to try to figure it out and adjust to it.

“That’s another thing … having it here and then going on the road and back to the umpires. I think the umpires in Triple-A are good. They are consistent with their zone and you know what you’re going to get. We’ll see. It is still baseball. You have to see the ball, hit the ball, swing at a good pitch. Not much has changed.”

Indeed, much like the pitch-clock enforcement, players say they have no choice but to adjust to the automated strike zone and move on. 

“Whether we are at a disadvantage or advantage having it here, having to bounce back and forth with it, is just something that we have to deal with,” Mark Payton said.  

There is a lot of new technology involved, and it appeared to me MLB continued to tweak it on the fly — at least in Charlotte last week — to iron out some kinks.

Just prior to opening day, Jake Burger had a funny take on the matter.

“We had a hitters’ meeting yesterday, and they said the zone was going to be an inch-and-a-half wider on both sides and, I’m like, I don’t know how the plate can get wider,” he joked.

“It will be interesting to see how big the zone actually is,” he said, “both outside and inside and up and down. You can kind of adapt pretty quickly, maybe a couple of games. Last year, we had pretty much the same umpire crews, it was probably three different crews that kept rotating, so by the third game, with each of the guys taking his turn behind the plate, you get used to their zones, kind of know what they’re going to call, whether they are going to give an inch inside or up in the zone.”

Catchers are paying particular attention to whether the automated strike zones are implemented across baseball, because guys who make a living as pitch framers are feeling especially vulnerable these days.

The Knights are on the road in Nashville this week. I’ll be curious to get their thoughts in a week’s time about the transition back to live umps, though I’m guessing their preoccupation will be more about pitch clocks than balls and strikes.

Stay tuned.

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Jeff Cohen
Jeff Cohen
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Qubort

I’m against a pitch clock. It won’t take that much time off the length of a game. Football games take about the same amount of time and it’s not an issue. Rules for the shift will mean more balls in play and more excitement.

Jim Margalus

In theory, a strict enforcement of the pitch clock actually leads to balls in play.

More time between pitches –> More time for pitchers to recover and continue throwing max effort, which results in those pitches being harder to hit.

The tension lies in whether slicing into pitchers’ recovery time would result in a really tough adjustment period where a bunch of guys are on the IL because their bodies are used to more time between their intervals.

WrongWay

Please don’t compare baseball to football. Football is unwatchable except as a compressed game where you get all of the action in 20 minutes.

Kelly Wunsch N' Munch

Terrible. Leave the game alone. Watch something else if you don’t like baseball. I think it’s more of an issue with people’s lack of attention span nowadays. The instant gratification generation. Sure there’s been tweaks here and there to the game, but inherently it’s been pretty consistent over decades.
Let them shift if they’re brazen enough to do it. Don’t like the shifts, don’t hit into them. Players refuse to adjust.
Human error has been part of the game since it’s inception. Like Burger said in the write up, you learn what to expect of certain umpires. So it isn’t really a mystery in regards to strike zones. Anyone who has watched this sport throughout their lives knows this.
Pitch clocks?? Limited mound visits?? Minimum batter faced requirements??? Expanded playoffs??? Ugh… will they ever stop!?
Sorry. Rant over.

tommytwonines

The average length of a game was 40 minutes longer in 2021 than it was during the 1970s (3 hours and 10 minutes versus 2 1/2 hours).

Tweak the new rules, sure, but speed it up, pretty please!

tommytwonines

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HallofFrank

There’s no doubt that attention spans are rapidly eroding, and baseball shouldn’t fundamentally change for it. But like tommy notes, the games are getting notably, even ridiculously, long. A 2.5 hour regular-season game is just a lot more approachable (and, usually, enjoyable) to watch than a 3+ hour game.

On the whole, I agree with your sentiment. I love baseball as it is and changes usually make it worse. But some of the changes are worth considering, and changes aren’t without precedent in MLB history.

joewho112

You enjoy baseball because of the plentiful mound visits and LOOGY’s?

Also this isn’t being done to appease the younger generations. They don’t even watch baseball. This is for the Boomers

Kelly Wunsch N' Munch

I don’t know where it is that I said I loved baseball because of those things, but okay??? That’s quite a reach. But I guess I accepted those things as part of the game. As far as your other point, I disagree. As you stated, boomers already watch baseball. They’ve grown up with the game as it was. These changes are absolutely an attempt to entice a younger generation to grow to love the game. In that regard, I can respect that. I just think there’s better ways to go about it.

itaita

I think it was a bit of a mistake to implement all those at once. I think the players might’ve had a better time of it if it was one thing at a time. Even if ump’s can be annoying i dont like the robot zones, im worried really good pitchers will find odd angles and ways to throw auto strikes that are crap pitches to actually try to hit. Not to mention how it might get rid of a skill like pitch framing.

Im just always wary of sports doing big changes like this cause it reminds me of all the meme nonsense nascar has put in to try and attract new people but all it really does it annoy the longtime fans who actually spend money on the product.

To Err is Herrmann

I live near and watch AAA baseball and don’t mind the pitch clock but 14 seconds is very fast. If robo umps are inconsistent, that’s a huge problem. Baseball should ditch instant replay except for playoffs, though I could live without it altogether. The game’s problems are deeper than these little tweaks and don’t address core issues. There isn’t enough brainpower in Manfred’s administration to think things through.

Right Size Wrong Shape

The high school rule used to be (don’t know if it still is) that the hitter had to keep one foot in the box at all times unless he swung and missed. After a swing and a miss you were allowed to step out of the box and gather yourself. I think that’s a good compromise.

joewho112

So I have an issue appreciating 14 and 18 seconds between pitches. How long did Mark Buehrle take between pitches? What about a slow pitcher like Clay Buchholz?

Jim Margalus

If I recall correctly, Buehrle averaged 9 seconds between pitches without a runner and without a swing, and about 16 seconds with a runner on.

The fastest I’ve ever seen anybody work was Clayton Richard in Charlotte. At full speed, he needed only about six seconds between pitches, and I saw him record a three-pitch strikeout in 23 seconds.

a-t

Pitch/batting box clock idea is being badly misapplied imo. It should be used as an upper limit, not as a way to forcibly speed the game up at the cost of the players’ comfort and potentially health for pitchers.

The games take much longer than in the 1970s because how the game is played is vastly different. Taking pitches is a virtue not a sin, and swinging at the first pitch to hit a grounder is now a sin not a virtue.

Also… players were eating greenies like candy in the 1970s. The game was faster in large part because everyone was on speed, metaphorically and literally. They also still thought weightlifting was evil and running poles was the best form of conditioning in existence. Some of the changes we see are a result of analytics, but at least as many are the result of the steroid era— baseball players to a one hit the weight room hard now in a way that just was not the case pre-roids, even though they aren’t still helped by anabolics.