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Mudville: June 13, 2024 3:45 am PDT
Beat the Clock

Beat the Clock

BY KEVIN KERNAN

Baseball used to be about beating the opponent.

Things have changed drastically this season thanks to the New Rules.

Now it’s Beat the Clock like the old game show.

That’s what baseball is all about these days, and Max Scherzer’s latest experimental outing is testament to where the game is going. And yes, I know everyone wants a faster paced game, no question about that; but my question continues to be: is this a better game with the changes?

So far, no.

Yes, the games are faster and ballplayers and fans baking in the sun in Florida or a little chilly in the surprising spring cold in Arizona are happy – because we all know what spring training is about: get some work in and get out. If you’re a fan it’s all about seeing some ball played in the sunshine and then getting out to a nice dinner.

What I’m seeing so far from the players, though, is confusion.

I said when the rules were introduced that the smart hitters will now shorten their swings on occasion and put the ball in play. With the pitch clock in motion you have to be ready to hit early. Your timing is not the same as it once was (as it always was) at the plate; your rhythm is off.

You are being rushed so you have to be ready. I thought Ron Darling said it best when Scherzer was trying out some new ideas to push the legal limits of the pitch clock; Darling noted the at-bat had “an unusual rhythm here.’’

Exactly.

My friend Jeff Frye, who spent eight years in the majors and batted .290, said they are messing with “the fabric’’ of the game. They are.

The rhythm of baseball has been disturbed.

The main story this spring is that the game that never had a clock is being ruled by a clock.

They call it progress.

I’m not convinced. It all depends on the adjustments that are made and the first problem I see is that it is all a little bit inconsistent and the game feels rushed now.

If you are going to live by the clock, the second that clock hits zero, a violation needs to be called on the pitcher.

Why?

Because the batter gets a strike called on him at the eight-second mark if he is not engaged with the pitcher, even if the catcher has not gotten into his crouch; and that happened to end a game. It’s only spring training, so people were happy that the game ended because they could go on their merry way to dinner – but if this were a regular season game or a playoff game, it would have been a baseball meltdown.

Scherzer also lost a double play in his outing on Friday because of a violation during that crazy eight-run third inning.

Again, no big deal because it’s only spring training and Scherzer is testing it all out; but in a real game, it would be a big deal. Scherzer is one of the most interesting people in baseball, because he is such a curious person and he does his homework. He has been working on all the pitch clock variations on a theme all off-season, trying to gain an advantage. After his outing on Friday, however, he said the league has to figure out what’s best here, in regards to clock rules.

You still have to make the right pitch with conviction, no matter what the clock says. Baseball is the game at hand, not the clock.

You can’t Beat the Clock, unless the Clock Rules are clearly in place.

Remember all these Rob Manfred changes were done basically to add more offense to the game while quickening the pace. Those in charge of MLB evidently had no clue that pitchers could use all this to their advantage. I know, shocking.

As Scherzer wisely noted, “Now I can dictate the pace.’’

When Scherzer was called for a balk on the second pitch when he attempted to quick-pitch Washington’s Victor Robles two pitches in succession (after Robles called time), Robles had not yet fully engaged with the pitcher and appeared to be looking down when the pitch was released – and that is why the umpire called the balk.

If the batter is not looking up and the clock has not yet hit eight seconds, that’s on the pitcher. There’s also a safety issue here. With a fastball coming at you at blazing speed, you want to be looking up in case it’s headed for your head.

Again, these are all things that are popping up now that the rules have gone from planning stage to reality stage.

I believe hitters can counteract some of this by opening up their arsenal, and that is a good thing. When Scherzer was putting the rush on the Nationals’ hitters with two outs and a runner at third, Alex Call attempted to drop a bunt for a hit, something you never see anymore in spring training nor during the season. I’m sure there were conversations in the Nationals dugout that if Scherzer’s going to hold the ball to one second on occasion, then fire and then also rush the hitters with a quick pitch, the hitters can try to get him out of his rhythm by doing different things like dropping a bunt.

The hitter can only call one timeout during an at-bat; so once that’s called, the pitcher really is in total command of the situation.

Earlier in the week at a Buck Showalter postgame press conference at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, he honestly said there are a lot of things that have to be figured out, noting, “It’s been a learning experience for all of us.’’ I then threw this difficult question at him in front of the group: “Did they have any managers on that competition committee?’”

Buck smiled and asked, “What else?’’

I then added, “I would think you would have the guys in charge of the game offering input.”

Buck bit his tongue. He did not want to get in any trouble with MLB.

This is what the owners wanted, this is what they got and now it’s let’s see how far the players can push the rules; that’s the nature of the beast, get any advantage you can so here we are with definitely faster games, but are they better games?

I’m hoping the players adjust quickly and the games get better with not only pace of play and more action, but better played games.

Again I understand why the pace of play needs to be picked up but MLB did not consider all these little things that essentially change the game entirely. When Scherzer was asked on Friday if this spring is different because of the changes, Mad Max fired back, “Yeah, I mean, it’s obvious, isn’t it? I mean the game has completely changed.’’

There it is in a nutshell.

The game has completely changed.

They tell us change is good. We’ll see. Something had to change because under Nerd leadership, and Nerd hitting styles, batters hit .243 last season, the lowest batting average since 1968.

The Joey Gallo League is not as exciting as the Don Mattingly League from the 1980s. Just a quick point here. Gallo has struck out 1,048 times in 2,364 at-bats over his eight-year career, hitting 177 home runs. Over his 14-year career, Don Mattingly produced 7,003 at-bats with 222 home runs and struck out only 444 times. In 1985, Mattingly hit .343 with 48 doubles, 35 home runs, 145 RBIs, and 41 strike outs. The Gallo-ization of baseball, produced by the Nerds, is why hitting has essentially come to a stop; and that is why new rules were instituted.

Joey Gallo swinging

Joey Gallo #13 of the Minnesota Twins at bat against the Boston Red Sox during the first inning at JetBlue Park at Fenway South on February 27, 2023 in Fort Myers, Florida. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

Baseball is just looking at a symptom of the problem; baseball is not fixing the problem until the mindset of hitters change and they value contact. The Nerds must value contact – and they don’t.

I have seen hitters change their approach a bit because of the rushing approach caused by the pitch clock and the pitcher holding all the cards; so hitters are a bit more defensive, just trying to make contact – and that is a good thing.

The hitter is on his toes and if he isn’t looking up, that is a major issue. As Darling noted, “that becomes a very dangerous thing for a pitcher vs. the hitter and that is why the umpire called (the balk).’’

Scherzer is seeking clarification, as are all pitchers.

“It’s a little confusing to me,’’ he said. “Because the umpire had time. He gives a signal like you can go, I go, Robles’ eyes are up and I get called for a quick pitch balk. You’ve got to press the limit on what you can and can’t do, and I pressed it today. You have to press the limit to find out where the boundaries are on this. I was set. (The hitter) called time and I came set, so you can’t say I didn’t come set. That’s where we’re all working through this. Whether it’s the umpires, hitters, everybody. I thought that was a clean pitch. He said no, we have to figure out where the limit is.’’

Yes they do – and Scherzer is testing that limit.

Pitchers and hitters have always tested limits. As Showalter said, “Everybody’s looking for the competitive edge.’’

Don’t forget how the limits were tested and passed during the steroid era and how the limits were tested and passed in the recent sticky substance days.

This is where baseball is at with the 15-second pitch clock with no one on base and a 20-second pitch clock with base runners. Everyone is looking at the clock during that time in a game where no one looked at the clock. Quick pitch will become a thing and batters will have to find a way to overcome it.

Fans the other day were counting down the pitch clock to get in the batter’s head as if to say, 3-2-1 batter-batter, swing. All kinds of unintended consequences are lurking ahead.

Pitchers cannot lose their focus on the job at hand with so much attention given to the pitch clock. You still have to make the right pitch with conviction, no matter what the clock says. Baseball is the game at hand, not the clock.

It’s also clear to me, and I thought would this would happen, that it’s so easy now to steal bases with pitchers limited to two disengagements per batter and bigger bases. The Yankees heads-up young prospect and future star Anthony Volpe easily stole second and then third the other day. The Nerds have to sit this one out; they never let players steal bases because they were worried about giving away an out. With decent speed, and a good jump, it’s nearly impossible to get thrown out. I’m seeing bases being stolen easily on pitch-outs.

Of course you still have to pay attention as a baserunner. On Saturday the Padres’ Tim Lopes stole second against the Diamondbacks and was safe by a mile. Second baseman Ketel Marte scooped the one-hop throw and then deked Lopes. Marte acted as if the ball got past him and went to chase it – but the ball was in his glove. Lopes not only lost the ball on his cross-step over the pizza box sized second base; he came off the box and was alertly tagged by Marte. Great play by Marte, a complete loss of focus by Lopes.

Bigger bases, yes, smaller focus, yes.

There definitely will be more balks and more stolen bases; and if the hitters can make contact, more runs scored – but if hitters don’t change their ways they will suffer. The Red Sox employed the shift on Gallo on Friday, dropping the left-fielder into short right field like it were softball. Gallo had all kinds of green space to attack. He walked.

Ballplayers must come to the realization that they are not playing Beat the Clock even though they have to Beat the Clock. It’s about beating your opponent and that means better fundamental play. In the crazy Scherzer inning, the usually outstanding Luis Guillorme made two errors at shortstop. For the first time since Little League, and this is a point not many are making, the middle infielders are now starting on the dirt portion of the infield. Throughout their careers they were starting on the grass, unless they were playing double play depth. Now it’s always double play depth, and players have to get used to that change as well – and the different feel of that first step.

Just one more thing to think about and consider in the Beat the Clock world of MLB.

Tick, tick, tick, tick.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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