Clocks and Clouds

Over a week ago, Mets pitcher Max Scherzer felt as though he’d awakened one fine morning to discover he had super powers. Very well, that’s a slight exaggeration. But after he’d spent two innings against his old team, the Nationals, striking out five despite surrendering a single run, Scherzer felt the newly-mandated pitch clock gave him, well…

“Really, the power the pitcher has now—I can totally dictate pace,” he crowed then. “The rule change of the hitter having only one timeout changes the complete dynamic of the hitter-and-pitcher dynamic. I love it. It’s a cat-and-mouse game. There’s rules, and I’ll operate within whatever the rules are. I can come set even before the hitter is really in the box. I can’t pitch until eight [seconds], but as soon as his eyes are up, I can go.”

Not so fast. Come last Friday, Scherzer faced the Nats once again and learned the hard way that he might have competition in the New Tricks Up Their Sleeves Department. With a man on first, he thought he could catch Victor Robles off guard the split second home plate umpire Jeremy Riggs re-set the pitch clock, after Robles stepped out of the box with his only allowable step-out during a plate appearance before stepping back in. Scherzer started to throw at that very split second. Riggs called a balk.

“He calls time, I come set, I get the green light,” Max the Knife told reporters post-game. “I thought that was a clean pitch. He said no. We have to figure out where the limit is.”

Baseball’s government thinks it did it for him. Hours after Scherzer’s little experiment was neutralized, MLB sent a memo to all 30 teams saying forthrightly that pitchers can’t throw “before the batter is reasonably set in the batter’s box.” Come Saturday, another Mets pitcher, Justin Verlander, discovered he’ll have to do something about his long-normal routine around the mound between pitches.

“Today I got on the mound a couple times and looked up and it was like, I only had seven seconds,” the future Hall of Famer said, after pitching three innings against the Marlins, surrendering a single run, and having to adjust his mound strolling. “If me and [Mets catcher] Omar [Narvaez] weren’t on the same page, it could have been a problem.”

When this spring training’s exhibition games began, Padres third baseman Manny Machado became baseball’s first to earn a 10-year, $350 million contract extension for opening with an 0-1 count on him before he even began a plate appearance. Okay, that’s a joke. But Machado did have strike one called on him when facing Mariners pitcher (and former Cy Young Award winner) Robbie Ray and failing to be in the batter’s box when eight seconds on the clock passed.

“I’m going to have to make a big adjustment,” Machado said with a hearty laugh after that game. “I might be 0-1 down a lot this year. It’s super fast. It’s definitely an adjustment period.”

Pitchers have 15 seconds to throw a pitch after receiving the ball back with the bases empty and 20 with men on base. Batters must be set and ready after 8 seconds are gone. And the pitchers aren’t the only ones looking to circumvent some of the new rules imposed by baseball’s attention-deficit commissioner. The notorious defensive infield shifts are now against the law, too, at least to the extent that there must be an infielder each on either side of second base itself at all times. Well, now. A few teams have already tried their own end run around that.

The Red Sox, for one. They thought they could get away with moving their left fielder to the shallowest patch of the right field grass against notorious all-or-nothing slugger Joey Gallo, now with the Twins. They got away with it long enough for Gallo—who’d torn one through the right side of the infield for a base hit earlier—to hammer a 3-1 service into the right field bleachers.

I’m reasonably certain I’m not the only one who thinks commissioner Rob Manfred didn’t stop to think that there was a reason for games going well over three hours having nothing to do with the actual play and everything to do with broadcast dollars. It never seems to have occurred to him that it wasn’t pitcher or batter gamesmanship, but two-minute-plus broadcast commercials after every half inning and during mid-jam pitching changes.

It seems to have occurred to Commissioner ADD less that he and his bosses might have landed the same delicious dollars by just limiting the spots to before each full inning and adjusting the dollars accordingly. Since it’s been established long and well enough that Manfred’s true concept of the good of the game is making money for it, that should have been child’s play for anyone applying brains.

And, speaking of dollars, try not to delude yourselves that MLB’s new so-called Economic Reform Committee will be for the good of the game, either. How about the Committee to Horsewhip Owners Who Actually Spend on Their Teams and Want to Win? The Committee to Immunize the Bob Nuttings and Bob Castellinis and John Fishers From Their Economic Malfeasance?

Manfred has pleaded that oh, but of course he’s after nothing more and nothing less than “a crisp and exciting game.” He’s been bereft, apparently, of the sense that baseball’s flavors come as much from the tensions in its pauses as from the cracks of the bats, the thwumps! of the pitches into the catchers’ mitts, and the brainstormings on the field and in the stands during jams.

Thus far, the games are shorter—by a measly 22 minutes. But the potential for such unintended consequences as, at extreme, a World Series-ending strikeout on a pitch clock violation is almost as vast as Manfred couldn’t stand single games having become. Those supporting the new arbitrary havoc like to say Manfred merely scoped what “the fans” wanted. It’s not inappropriate to ask, “which fans?”

Think about this: Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal was fabled for an array of about sixteen different windups and ten different leg kicks, including the Rockettes-high kick that was his most familiar visual hallmark. The new pitch clock may actually come to erode the presence of pitchers who are that much fun to watch (I’m talking about you, Luis [Rock-a-Bye Samba] Garcia, among others) even if they’re not a barrel of laughs against whom to bat.

It might also erode the presence of batters who are as much fun before they swing as while they swing. What’s next—a base-running clock, mandating batters have x number of seconds before they’d better start hauling it around the bases on home runs? Oops. I’d better not go there. We don’t want to give Commissioner ADD any more brilliant ideas.

Note: This essay was published first by Sports-Central.


2023 bases

Are the new bases (left) really that effronterous?

“A state without the means of some change,” wrote Edmund Burke in Reflections on the Revolution in France, “is without the means of its conservation.” As spring training opens, baseball faces more change. Stop snarling, self-identified and self-righteous purists and traditionalists, and start thinking.

It’s too easy to forget that a game without the means of some change is a game without the means of its conservation, too. It’s even easier to forget that baseball has never remained a static game. Would you like to know the game you’d be watching if it had?

You’d see a game end after one or the other team scored 21 runs, no matter which inning the 21st arrived. In theory, the game could have ended after one inning. In fact, the highest-scoring first inning in major league history happened in 1952, when the Boys of Summer Dodgers dropped a mere fifteen-spot on the Reds.*

You wouldn’t see the game mandated to end in the ninth inning until 1857, barring extra innings. You’d see large stones for bases and, a little later, wood posts. You’d see any old thing—marble, metal, glass—as home plate, so long as it was round, until 1899. You wouldn’t see anything resembling the colloquial “bags” for bases until canvas bases were introduced . . . in 1877.

You’d see pitchers barred by the rules from throwing higher than underhand. If it’s before 1887, you’d actually see batters calling for pitches—“high,” “fair,” or “low”—and umpires ordering pitchers to throw precisely those. You’d see foul balls not called strikes, at least before 1894. You’d see strike three on a third foul ball until 1901. You’d see pitchers required by law to throw from standing positions from 1863-1867. (Hall of Famer Juan Marichal, he of the eighteen different windups and about ten different leg kicks, wouldn’t have had a major league career with or without ethnic restrictions.)

You wouldn’t see fly outs until 1864, until which time what you know today as the one-hop base hit was ruled an out if the outfielder caught it on the first hop. You wouldn’t see the batter getting away with running past first after ripping a base hit without being called out until 1870. Come to think of it, you wouldn’t see a batter’s box until 1872. And you wouldn’t see ball four equaling a walk until 1889—before which walks were nine, seven, six, and then five balls.

You might be astonished to hear assorted purists and traditionalists screaming bloody murder at any, most, or even all those changes. You might even think, what fools those mortals were. So think twice before you start screaming again over, say, new bases coming to the ballparks near you that will be . . . a mere three inches larger around than the pads were through the end of last year’s World Series.

Don’t snort at those who understood slightly larger bases might mean slightly fewer injuries. The reason you don’t hear about how many runners broke themselves on the ancient stone bases is because you don’t know who they might have been and whether those injuries were recorded. Now try to imagine whether future Hall of Famer Mike Trout would have missed a full two-thirds of one season with a nasty thumb injury if he’d gone into a base three inches larger around.

Of course, it’s not every purist or traditionalist who thinks of safety first. (Please. Enough such creatures think enough players injured in the line of duty are goldbricking it and exposing themselves as fragiles when they don’t heal and return from those injuries within, oh, a few days.) They’re too busy counting the numbers anticipating a hike in basepath crime.

Last year, there were 3,297 stolen base attempts. Seventy-five percent succeeded. Ten years earlier, there were 4,365 attempts with 74 percent successful. Less proved slightly more last year. But as Keith Law reminded us in Smart Baseball, “speed kills” cuts both ways in baseball. Speed with brains is Hall of Famers such as Lou Brock (75 percent success), Ty Cobb (81 percent), Rickey Henderson (81 percent), and Tim Raines (85 percent); if your runner isn’t successful 75 percent or better, you’d “be better off having the first base coach nail [your] runner’s foot to the bag.”

We get to say goodbye, too, to those notorious infield defensive overshifts, which often placed at least one infielder into the role of a fourth outfielder. Well, now. Those who think they were contemporary aberrations might forget, assuming they knew, that there were managers playing the overshift as far back as in Cy Williams’s day. Williams, of course, was a power hitting dead-ball era center fielder who once hit thirteen homers without leading his league (1915, when Gavvy Cravath led the National League with a then unheard-of 25) but hit twelve the next year and led the entire Show.

“My biggest complaint about the shift,” says David Robertson, relief pitcher, “is, how do you explain it to kids? What’s the point of having a shortstop if he can’t play shortstop.” Well, let’s ask a shortstop. Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor is on record saying the end of the shifts might mean the return of more “exciting” infield plays. He may not be wrong.

But I would rather have seen the shifts busted the way they tended to be in Williams’s day and in that future day of another Williams, Ted, not to mention how some hitters the past few years did thwart them. The problem was that not every hitter could go the other way, not through neglected learning but because hitting itself is as much organic as anything else. And there were those teams who fumed when smart hitters thought about dropping bunts into that delicious free real estate.

(You guessed it. I’m going there, again. Be gone, bunts, except a) if you have the next Brett Butler [383 lifetime bunts, 85 percent for base hits]; or, b) if you have enough free real estate even without the shifts—say, a stone-handed infield playing just at the edge of the outfield grass—to have first base on the house. Unless you’re up with first and second and nobody out, you have less chance scoring after a sacrifice bunt than before it. The most precious commodity you have with your team at the plate is outs to work with. A sac bunt blows a third of that resource. The defense thanks you for your help.)

The pitch clock? I’m still on the fence about it. Last year’s minor league games did shorten up a bit under the rule. Commissioner Rob Manfred hopes putting it into the majors—a pitcher now has fifteen seconds to throw to the plate with the bases empty and twenty seconds with a man on base—will shorten it up in the Show. He still doesn’t get that certain rule tinkerings won’t do half as much to shorten the times of games as certain broadcast tinkerings.

As in, eliminating the commercials not just between half-innings but from every pitching change in a game. I’ll guarantee it: fans watching at home used to love seeing the teams change sides and go through their quick warmups before getting back to play. I’ll guarantee it further: it takes less time to get a relief pitcher into a game from the bullpen than to run those pitching-change commercials.

And while we’re at it, I’m going here, again, too—if you’ve brought a pitcher into the middle of a jam, and it wasn’t because the incumbent was injured, why are you wasting his time, your time, and his arm with the eight warmups on the game mound? What do you think he was doing getting ready in the bullpen, practising his dance moves?

He might have thrown the equivalent of a quality start’s minimum pitches before you brought him in. He’ll be as ready as possible to face that first batter the moment you give him that good-luck pat on the fanny. Let him get to it. Now, you’ve shaved 45 seconds more off the game time in addition to dumping those pitching-change commercials. (Does Manfred consider, as a commissioner who thinks the good of the game equals making money for its owners, that you could charge a bit extra for the between-ends-of-innings spots and thus not lose money without the half-inning and pitching-change spots?)

The pickoff throw limit? The late Vin Scully used to love describing what he called “the game within the game,” including those contests between ornery baserunners and pitchers determined to keep them from getting too ornery, if not putting them under arrest. (Once upon a time, a Phillies pitcher, Art Mahaffey, proud of his effective pickoff move, swore to pick off his first major league baserunner. The spindly righthander picked off the first three Show men to reach base against him.)

It was just as much fun as anything else to watch Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan try to outsmart Henderson on base before the Man of Steal took off with grand theft in his heart and his legs. (I didn’t choose that pair arbitrarily: Ryan blew one through Henderson for his history-making 5,000th lifetime strikeout.) Or, to watch Hall of Famers Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal, and Tom Seaver engage battles of wits with Brock at first.**

We’ll learn soon enough whether these changes wreak as much damage as the free cookie on second to begin each extra half inning has done so far. Just don’t use the “tradition” argument. That argument began dying before the Civil War ended. But Mr. Manfred might have been (I hate to use a four-letter word) wise to ponder another Scully observation:

Football is to baseball as blackjack is to bridge. One is the quick jolt. The other the deliberate, slow-paced game of skill . . . It’s all there in front of you. It’s theatre, really. The star is the spotlight on the mound, the supporting cast fanned out around him, the mathematical precision of the game moving with the kind of inevitability of Greek tragedy. With the Greek chorus in the bleachers.

Whichever chorus caught hold of Manfred’s ear and refused to let go without a fight, the changes he’s sought and begun to impose seem a mixed jar of nuts and berries. The question before the house then becomes not whether but which of the nuts will come out on top when you shake the jar. Which nuts, and whether the thinking person and his or her sport will prove to have another allergy to them.


* Legend has it that Reds starter Ewell (The Whip) Blackwell, knocked out after surrendering three runs with one out (a leadoff ground out), returned to the team hotel after his shower . . . and shortly met his relief, Bud Byerly, at the hotel. Byerly opened his turn by his catcher Dixie Howell throwing Andy Pafko out stealing, before surrendering a walk and five straight RBI singles.

The Reds went through four pitchers (Blackwell, Byerly, Herm Wehmeier, and Frank Smith)  before the first-inning carnage ended. The Dodgers with Hall of Famer Duke Snider—batting for the third time in the inning, having opened the bloodshed with a two-run homer—caught looking at a third strike.

Except for Snider’s one-out blast, the Dodgers scored ten of their fifteen runs with singles. The other three scored on two bases-loaded walks (both by Smith) and a bases-loaded hit batsman. (Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson, Wehmeier’s first batter, plunked on 1-0, sending Billy Cox home.) Or, if you’re scoring in longhand at home, one nuke followed by eight machine gunnings and three enemy mistakes.

** At least two decades before Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn earned his “Captain Video” nickname for taping his plate appearances to correct mistakes, Lou Brock habitually carried a small, handheld, old-style movie camera, using it to film pitchers the better to pick up any “tell” he could get to help him with his life of basepath crime.

Snapped Drysdale, when spotting Brock with the camera, “I don’t want to be in your goddam movies, Brock!” That from a man who was almost as famous for making numerous television guest spots as he was for making pitches on the mound.