Life evolves and that includes sports. Even the game that once was timeless now has a clock, at least at the minor-league level.
Fans who venture out to Hammons Field this season will notice a countdown clock looming atop the fence in right-center field. Pitchers have 14 seconds to deliver a pitch with the bases empty and 18 seconds with runners aboard, or be assessed an automatic ball.
Pitchers are limited to two step-offs or throws to first with a runner on. Between innings, defenders must be ready and warm-up pitches completed in 2:15 or the half-inning starts with a ball. It’s 30 seconds between batters.
Hitters are not exempt from penalty. If the batter is not in the box and ready to go by the nine-second mark, umpires shall assess a strike. Call this one the Skip Schumacher rule. Now a St. Louis Cardinals coach, Schumacher was notorious for stepping out of the box as a player and fidgeting with his batting gloves.
Schumacher, while a human rain delay, was not alone in slowing the pace of play. Baseball became a slow-paced game and in today’s go, go, go world we must hurry, hurry, hurry. There is no time for wasted time.
On Tuesday night at Hammons Field, a Tulsa Drillers hitter already with a two-strike count wasn’t ready and struck out without the pitch being thrown. Yes, baseball is serious about speeding the pace of play.
And it seems to be working. Jeff Passan of ESPN.com reports that through the first 132 minor-league games that included the clock rule, the average game time was 2 hours, 39 minutes. In a control set of 335 games run without the clock to begin the season, games lasted an average of 2 hours, 59 minutes, which lines up with the 3-hour, 3-minute average in more than 5,000 non-clock games in 2021.
Whether you like or dislike tinkering with the rules isn’t the point. They are here to stay. Players and managers are learning to deal with them. Fans don’t have a vote.
With only a sample size of season, the Springfield Cardinals seem to be dealing with it all just fine. Starting pitcher Kyle Leahy said he barely noticed the pitch clock, as enforcement began in his last start. Leahy said he’s always been a fast worker.
“I think it helps me because it puts the hitters sort of on their heels,” Leahy said. “They don’t have the freedom to call timeout whenever they want.”
Leadoff hitter Chase Pinder said offensive players have to be aware “to get a sign, get back in the box and get after it.” Pinder added that he adjusts his batting gloves, but in a timely fashion.
Cardinals manager Jose Leger said the rule is doing its job of speeding the pace of play and that his team seems to like it just fine.
“Our pitchers were ready to go,” Leger said of the first few games. “They get the ball and they get on the mound and get it together with the catcher.”
As for the hitters, Leger said, “There’s no time to complain and look away” between pitches. He is OK with it.
The shift is off
While the clock is new, fans will not see three infielders on one side of the field this season as defensive shifts are outlawed. Two infielders must be on each side of second base when a pitch is released. This is meant to spark offense in this grip-it-and-rip-it era of baseball.
Shifting has become the norm in recent years, on all levels of baseball. But it probably will join the pitch clock as impacting the major-league game in the near future.
Leger said he understands the reasoning but feels it takes away from strategy.
“Hitting-wise, hitters don’t try to beat the shift,” Leger said. “Nowadays, we’re demanding hitters to hit the ball hard. If that means pulling the ball with authority, so be it, even though there could be three guys” on one side of the infield.
Pinder confirmed that hitters rarely change their approach, shift or not.
“I never really changed anything when it came to people shifting,” he said. “They definitely would shade me a little bit, but I just try to square up the ball. It’s out of my hands after that.”
Bases are bigger for safety
One other change that most people probably haven’t noticed is bigger bases. The dimensions are 18 inches square from the standard 15 x 15. The slightly bigger bases could give offensive players an advantage on close plays, but it’s mainly for safety reasons whether runners go feet-first or hand-first into a base.
“It gives you more space when it comes to a guy’s cleat being near a base. You have more surface area to find a spot,” Pinder said. “I personally like them.”
Long-time baseball fans aren’t always receptive to change, but this is where we are in 2022. Changes are coming, even to the big leagues, and we might as well accept them.
Cardinals homestand at a glance
The Springfield Cardinals are facing the Tulsa Drillers in a six-game homestand, which continues through Sunday. A look at results, game times and promotions:
- Tuesday — Tulsa defeated Springfield 4-2.
- Wednesday — Tulsa defeated Springfield 7-5.
- Thursday — Springfield defeated Tulsa 9-6.
- Friday, 6:35 p.m. — Fans-On-Field Friday Fireworks / Specialty Camo Jersey Auction begins.
- Saturday, 5:35 p.m. — Infuze Credit Union & Fort Leonard Wood Military Appreciation Night / Military Appreciation Fireworks Celebration / Specialty Camo Jersey Auction ends.
- Sunday, April 24, 1:35 p.m. — Hiland Dairy Ice Cream Sunday / MOST 529 Kids Run the Bases.
Tickets: Call 417-863-0395 or visit the Cardinals box office at Hammons Field