Sports

Stan Grossfeld

In Arizona Fall League, baseball experiments with pitch clock

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — It may be a sign of the apocalypse that baseball was recently played with a clock in the desert.

Actually, there were five clocks, with big red numbers, strategically placed in one ballpark in the Arizona Fall League. Each counted down from 20 seconds to zero. That’s how long a pitcher had to start delivering a pitch before the umpire assessed an automatic ball.

This was the most controversial of a half-dozen new rules tested in the league this fall as part of Major League Baseball’s “Pace of Game” committee’s experiment to speed up the game.

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Baseball traditionally has been the only major team sport without a clock. There may not be crying in baseball, but there has been plenty of whining over the clock.

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“I think it’s a little [sacrilegious],” said Joe Sclafani, a 24-year-old infielder for the Salt River Rafters who was born in Brooklyn and is a Houston Astros prospect.

“I’m not a fan of it. I don’t think it will stick. Old-timers especially won’t like it. It just doesn’t feel like baseball. It feels like basketball.”

Although baseball’s Rule 8.04 says a pitch must be thrown in 12 seconds when no runner is on base, it has not been enforced. So MLB, concerned about longer games and an aging fan base, tested some new rules at all games played at Salt River Fields.

The rules include making hitters keep at least one foot in the batter’s box at all times (with exceptions, such as after foul balls), limiting the number of timeouts per team to three, and limiting the time between innings and between pitching changes to 2 minutes, 30 seconds.

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Also, intentional walks do not require pitches; managers just wave four fingers, and the batter takes his base.

The results were encouraging. The 19 games at Salt River were clocked in an average of 2 hours 42 minutes. That’s 10 minutes faster than Fall League games last year and 26 minutes faster than the average MLB game in 2014, according to Baseball Prospectus.

But it is still longer than the major league average of 2:29 40 years ago.

“It’s good to try some new things,” said Darren Wynn, a fan who took his 8-year-old son to a game. “They’ve got to change with the times. You don’t want to lose the young crowd.”

Player complaints

But baseball purists had to be appalled at the sight of the five NBA-style clocks — four between the dugouts and another in left-center field. Ted Williams had to be rolling over in his freezer 6 miles down the road. Pitchers were particularly peeved.

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Zack Jones, a Rafters righthander in the Twins organization, liked the clock as much as the crocodile did in “Peter Pan.”

“I think there’s no point to it,” he said. “I kind of went in with an open mind this year. Maybe it could speed the game up.”

But that changed during one shaky outing.

“I couldn’t find the zone,” said Jones. “I’d step off the mound and gather myself and compose myself. Take a step off the mound, take a deep breath, turn around, and I see a ‘7, 6, 5 . . .’, and so here’s ball four.

“I haven’t talked to one pitcher who is a fan of it.”

Some big leaguers believe a quicker game is a good thing. That includes Arizona Fall League alumni Carl Crawford and Dustin Pedroia, who both had their AFL uniform numbers recently retired. In an interview on WEEI, Pedroia said a shorter game “might save the legs a little bit.”

But the Velcro-obsessed Pedroia might not like the one-foot-in-the-batter’s-box rule.

“It’s a dumb rule,” said Rafters infielder Justin Bohn, a Miami Marlins prospect. “It’s weird. You don’t think it’s a strike, you can’t take a step out.”

Rafters infielder Brandon Drury, an Arizona Diamondbacks prospect, had an automatic strike called on him and was flabbergasted.

“It was 2 and 0 and I stepped out to undo my Velcro, and he said, ‘That’s a strike,’ and I said, ‘What?’ ” said Drury. “I couldn’t believe it. He said he had warned me. I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’

“It’s been part of my routine for my whole life.”

Yet he thinks players will eventually adjust to it.

“It’s weird,” said Drury, “but it’s still baseball at the end of the day.”

Constant tweaking

The time limit between innings initially was 2:05, but officials had to stretch it to 2:30. Catchers who made the last out didn’t have time to put on their gear and catch their breath.

Rafters pitcher Mark Appel, the Houston Astros’ No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft, said MLB has been changing the rules continually during the short season.

“We’d get a new rule, like, every week,” he said.

In one game, with a runner on base, Appel stepped off the rubber to look the runner back to first. But because he didn’t throw the ball to the base, an automatic ball was called.

Then the rule was changed to reset the clock once the pitcher came set in his motion, stepped off the rubber, or threw over to a base. So doesn’t that effectively make the clock null and void?

“Pitchers aren’t going to change,” said Appel. “There’s always a workaround to the rule.”

Appel also said baseball should stop catering to the younger generation.

“Young people don’t watch the games anyway,” he said. “If they’re going to be on their phone, they’re going to be on their phone. I went to an NFL game the other day and half the people in my section were on their phone. It’s just the generation.”

He doesn’t mind hitters being forced to keep one foot in the box. They have to take responsibility for long games, too, he believes.

“I’ve had guys digging a hole and hitting all of the dirt off their shoes, then they step out, take three swings, step in, look at their bat for five seconds, and then are ready to hit,” he said, “and I’m just standing on the mound watching them like, ‘Are we ready?’ ”

He also knows that big money is at stake in reducing the time between innings.

“Are TV stations and teams willing to cut down on their advertising revenue?” said Appel. “Could we have one less erectile dysfunction commercial?”

In one game, there were three not-so-instant replay challenges that took several minutes.

Tom Anastasio, a fan from Maricopa, says that’s too many.

“It kind of bothered me,” he said. “They’re expanding it a little too much. I think it’s slowing the game down more than anything.”

He had no use for the clock, either.

“I’m not a fan of it at all,” he said.

“Don’t mess around with baseball. Let’s keep it original.”

Problems foreseen

The scouts behind home plate with their radar guns don’t expect to see a clock in the big leagues any time soon.

“Baseball is not supposed to have a clock,” said a veteran scout who asked to remain nameless. “You’ll never see it.”

To implement changes for the 2015 season, baseball would need the approval of the players’ union.

Tony Clark, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, was less than enthused about the idea of a clock.

“The dialogue we received from players has not been favorable. Players believe that you still need to protect the integrity of the game as you look to make changes,” said Clark before speaking at a Foundation To Be Named Later fund-raiser in Boston.

“I would deem and the players would deem that significant changes against the backdrop of a few-week audition is a dangerous proposition to jump all in on.”

Back on the field, in a game between the Peoria Javelinas and the Rafters, it’s the 11th inning, the score is tied, there’s a runner on second, and the 20-second pitch clock has ticked down to zero. The umpire bursts forward, throws his hands in the air, and calls an automatic ball.

Peoria manager Vance Wilson, a former backup catcher for the Mets and Tigers, storms out of the dugout to argue, tossing his bubblegum in disgust.

Thankfully, the umpire’s call does not affect the final score.

But after the last out, Wilson looks for a league official who is on hand. He is upset that the clock was not reset. The official talks too softly to be heard. The Peoria manager does not.

“That’s the [expletive] dumbest thing I ever heard,” Wilson says to the official.

“They’re interpreting a rule different than what we were told, so obviously someone doesn’t know it,” he says later.

Rafters manager Andy Haines, whose team won the league championship this fall, said this experiment is not ready for prime time.

“I certainly understand what MLB is trying to do,” he said. “They are experimenting. They’re not going to experiment in a major league stadium. So this is the place to do it.

“From my standpoint, it’s pretty intimidating to see the clock. It’s pretty black and white, and I don’t want to speak for MLB, but there probably should be a little more gray area for the umpires to use their judgment.

“I kind of see some worst-case scenario in the playoffs where you don’t want somebody winning a game in the late innings because of a technicality because the clock ran out.’’

Stan Grossfeld can be reached at grossfeld@globe.com.