Pitch clock highlights new rules Braves will adjust to during spring training

Truist Park on Friday, May 6, 2022, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Truist Park on Friday, May 6, 2022, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

The beginning of the spring training schedule always brings excitement, marking the official return of baseball games a couple of weeks after pitchers and catchers report. But spring training games merely are exhibition contests and, for most fans, the novelty wears off as the regular season nears.

This year might be a bit different.

The start of the Grapefruit League slate – the Braves start playing games Feb. 25 – will mark the implementation of the rule changes. The three major changes will be in effect for the entirety of spring training to allow players and coaches to adjust before the regular season.

Those three changes: the pitch clock, limiting defensive shifts and using bigger bases. All were tested in the minor leagues last season.

“There’s definitely gonna be adjustments – with everything,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said at the Braves Fest fan event in January.

Changes on the mound

Most of the conversation has centered around the pitch clock, which is expected to improve pace of play and the time of games. MLB hopes it will speed up contests and create more action.

The rule: A pitcher must begin his motion before the expiration of the timer. Pitchers will have 15 seconds between pitches when the bases are empty, and 20 when there is at least one runner on base.

“I’m for it, but it’s going to be a big adjustment for some of these guys,” Snitker said.

“There’s some guys that pitched in Triple-A last year that have done it, and they each have a bit different feedback on it,” pitcher Spencer Strider said. “And there’s some guys who are concerned about it, and I’m not concerned, but I do think it’s gonna change the game – for better or worse, and I can’t control it, so I’ve got to adjust to it.”

“It’s new for me, it’s new for everybody,” catcher Travis d’Arnaud said. “I think in spring we’ll kind of experiment and talk and figure out what’s best for each individual more so than as a collective group.”

There are a couple of different rules that branch off of the pitch clock.

For example, with runners on base, the clock resets if a pitcher attempts a pickoff or steps off the rubber. Both of these are called “disengagements” and a pitcher is allowed only two of them per plate appearance. If a pitcher throws a third pickoff attempt, the runner will advance a base automatically if the attempt is unsuccessful.

“Yeah, we’re gonna have to be creative,” said Sean Murphy, the catcher the Braves acquired in December. “I think times to home are going to be more important, especially with the limited number of (pickoffs). You can’t throw over a bunch of times to keep the guy honest. So I think keeping guys quick to home is gonna be the best form of controlling the running game because you don’t want to blow all your pickoffs, then you give the guy a free shot at second base.

“Action on the bases is always fun. I know I like it when I’m watching the game and that kind of cat-and-mouse thing is happening. Hopefully we get more of that – more action on the bases, more guys trying to steal. I think that’s good for everybody.”

The good news for the Braves, in this regard, is that Murphy threw out 19 base runners last season, tied for fifth most in the majors. His 31.1% caught-stealing percentage was the third-best mark in the big leagues among catchers with as many attempts.

Late-game situations will provide pitchers with another test. In clutch moments, sometimes pitchers must collect themselves. Perhaps runners are on base. Maybe it’s a tie game.

In those times, how will pitchers continue working quickly when they’ve always been taught to slow the game and regroup?

“That’s something we’ve talked about, guys in the clubhouse,” Strider said. “It’s the bottom of the eighth inning, you got two runners on, tying run’s at the plate. It’s the biggest part of the game, and we’re having to go to the pace of the clock. That’s gonna be a mental strain on guys to figure out how to slow the game down, how to still be effective, how to manage that clutch moment of the game, on a clock that’s going to be different. And I think that people who are able to adjust mentally are going to be better for it.”

In preparing for the pitch clock, Strider talked about throwing his bullpen sessions at a faster rate and trying to get back on the mound quickly, but more so figuring out how he’ll make mental adjustments within the time constraints. Kyle Wright mentioned that he’s always worked fairly quickly, so he doesn’t see this being a large adjustment.

“Getting to use it in spring I think will definitely help because sometimes you may go faster than you think, and sometimes you may be working slower than you think,” Wright said. “Now you’re gonna actually have that in your mindset that, ‘Hey, I gotta catch the ball and I gotta go, can’t take too much time to think about it.’”

Changes in the field

For a while, some fans have called for MLB to “ban the shift,” and the fans got their wish.

Now, teams must have two infielders positioned on each side of second base when a pitch is thrown. All four infielders need to have both feet “within the outer boundary of the infield when the pitcher is on the rubber,” according to MLB.

You no longer will see third baseman Austin Riley running out to shallow right field. And the days of leaving one side of the field completely vacant are over.

“It could be good to see some ground balls go through the four hole again,” said left-handed hitting Matt Olson, who almost always saw a shift. “I can’t remember the last time, unless a guy was on first base. As far as approach, it’s not really gonna change it. If I’m rolling over a ball, that’s normally a miss for me. I’m trying to stay through it, drive something (to the) middle of the field. But it’ll be nice to get rewarded on a miss every once in a while.

“I really think it’ll be good for defense, too. Kind of get back to the old way of playing defense and let guys showcase their defensive ability and range. I think it’ll be good for the game.”

As for the bigger bases, the size of first, second and third base has increased from 15 inches square to 18 inches square. The league hopes this improves player safety. And the increase in base size will decrease slightly the distance from one base to another, which could mean more stolen bases.

When spring training games begin, you can see all three changes in effect. They should impact the game in their own ways.

Thus far, the pitch clock has dominated conversation – perhaps because it’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen in the sport.

“There’s a lot of little things that not all of us are exactly sure about,” d’Arnaud said of the pitch timer. “I know in the minors that worked well and sped up the games, which isn’t a bad thing, I would say. Sometimes, three-and-a-half-hour games can be long. But at the same time it will be interesting when it’s the seventh, eighth and ninth (innings) and you’re only up by one and there’s a runner on third and you have to worry about being fast or quick.

“It’ll be interesting and something you learn just by facing it head on and going through the fire and learning through failure, kind of like how baseball is in general.”