'Strange at first': Minor leaguers have mixed feelings about pitch clock. But it's coming to MLB.
BOWIE, Md. — Ralph Groont pressed Preset 2 to start the next countdown, 18 seconds long. Then home plate umpire Edwin Jimenez waved his hands in the air.
"Too early," Groont lamented, resetting the timer.
Eighteen seconds appeared on the clock again in center field and behind home plate at Prince George's Stadium and began ticking down, not dissimilar from a play clock on display during football games.
As he does for all Bowie Baysox home games, Groont sits behind a Daktronics All Sport 5000 Series Control Console inside the press box. The frayed piece of white duct tape on its upper-left corner is a sign of how long this scoreboard clock machine has kept time at sporting events. Baseball, however, is a new endeavor for the All Sport 5000.
On this Friday evening, when the Class AA minor league affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles played the Akron RubberDucks, Groont operated the machine and orchestrated the game's pace as if he was conductor – offering a glimpse of the new technology and a new world order that could be coming to Major League Baseball as early as next season.
SPORTS NEWSLETTER: Sign up now for daily updates sent to your inbox
'WE'RE HERE TO STAY': Giants have found secret to winning, and it's there for all to see
As MLB confronts three-hour-plus games (3:10 in 2021, 3:06 thus far in 2022), a concerted effort to address pace of play issues is underway. It's begun in earnest this season in the minor leagues with the introduction of a pitch clock, which Groont controls in Bowie.
It works like this: With no runners on, the clock is set to 14 seconds. With runners on base, 18 seconds go on the board. The batter has until the nine-second mark (in both instances) to be ready in the box. Otherwise, the umpire can assess a strike to the count.
The clock disappears once the pitcher starts his windup. If the clock hits zero, the umpire can rule a ball. The cycle begins again once the catcher returns the ball to the pitcher.
Thirty seconds are allotted for batters after an out or the hitter in front of them reaches base. Pitchers can reset the clock by stepping off the rubber, but have only two chances per at-bat before they have to deliver to the plate.
Groont closely watches the home plate umpire, who has final say. He also sits next to a walkie-talkie; the first base ump has the other to communicate if issues arise.
Under the new collective bargaining agreement, MLB can unilaterally introduce new rules for future seasons with 45 days' notice. A pitch clock may debut in the majors in 2023.
"We are pleased with the results of the pitch timers in minor league baseball and the understanding of these initiatives by on-field personnel, who have adapted seamlessly," a spokesperson for MLB said in a statement to USA TODAY Sports. "The response of fans, players and staff members has been encouraging, and we are evaluating all of the data and experiences that result from the expanded program in the minors."
The games are certainly going faster. Since the pitch clock was introduced on April 16, the average game time was 2 hours, 39 minutes compared to 2 hours, 59 minutes for the first 335 games of the season.
"To me, speeding up the game is incredible," Baysox pitcher Cameron Bishop told USA TODAY Sports. "I don’t see an issue with having a game under three hours. I think it’s awesome."
It's a more stringent set of rules than the 20-second countdown instituted at Class AA and Class AAA since 2018. And 14 seconds goes fast, Baysox catcher Maverick Handley said.
“Honestly, I’m almost watching it every pitch,” Handley told USA TODAY Sports.
Handley prefers the pitch clock while he's behind the plate more than when he has a bat in his hand.
“As a hitter, it’s a little harder, because you don’t get the mental reset … as a catcher, you’re almost using it as an advantage to get the guy out. Hitters, there’s no real benefit to you, other than if the guy takes too long,” Handley said.
For most of the Baysox pitching staff, the pitch clock hasn't presented much of an issue.
“As long as you’re staying on pace, it really doesn’t have too much of an effect on you as a pitcher, really,” said right-hander Conner Loeprich, who was first exposed to the countdown while pitching in the Arizona Fall League last year.
Pitchers put a lot of effort into their craft, righty Morgan McSweeney said. Speeding up their on-mound routine by “five, 10 extra seconds isn’t the end of the world.”
“I would say it was a little strange at first – the timing of it, being conscious of it," McSweeney said. "But after that first outing, it was pretty second-nature at that point.”
The hitters are having a different experience. Batters have to be in the box with nine seconds on the clock, which only causes confusion, Baysox manager Kyle Moore said.
"In no other sport does a random number on a clock mean something," Moore said.
"Why wouldn’t you just have a hitter’s clock and a pitcher’s clock?"
Hitters have five or nine seconds to prepare for the next pitch, depending on if there's a runner on base. Those with practice-swing or equipment-adjusting routines have been forced to adapt. Getting a sign has become flash viewing.
Baysox outfielder Zach Watson said he thinks adding a few more ticks would go a long way to help hitters.
"I feel like between pitches, you’re kind of rushed in the box. You don’t have time to catch your breath," Watson said.
It could be as little as five extra seconds.
"I think that’s all it needs," he said. "It’s not going to make too much of a difference in the game (time) if everybody had five more seconds."
Bowie right-hander Shelton Perkins further explained the advantage pitchers might have.
“When we get the sign, we know what we’re throwing. A hitter sees a pitch, two pitches, he’s trying to process his scouting report, what he thinks might be coming. It kind of speeds up his process," Perkins said. "So really, it favors us.”
Perkins added that pitchers could run into problems if they're being hit hard or have lost control. Lengthy trips to the rosin bag and laps around the mound in the name of composure are no more.
On Friday in Bowie, the clock had little noticeable effect on those watching. Akron reliever Kyle Marman appeared to realize the pitch clock was in effect and cut his walks off the mound short with a runner on base in the sixth inning.
The Baysox won in the bottom of the ninth for the second straight night and earned a 2-1 victory.
Official time of game: 2 hours, 33 minutes.
That followed a 5-0 Baysox victory over Akron on Wednesday that ended in 2:20 and a 3-2 win the previous night that went 10 innings and needed just 2 hours, 34 minutes.
"I think three hours – 3.5 hours – is just too long," said Bishop, who struck out six, walked two and allowed no hits in three innings out of the bullpen Friday. "Especially if you’re playing 142 games, big leagues 162, that’s a long time at the ballpark and a long time for us to be locked in. For the fan’s sake, I don’t blame fans for being upset and not wanting to watch a 3.5-hour game."
The Baysox haven't been around much pitch clock penalizing in its infant stages. One player on the Binghamton Rumble Ponies struck out last weekend because of it. Infielder Adam Hall walked when a pitcher ran out of time with a full count.
Bishop played in the Fall League last year as well, so the transition hasn't been as severe. In an effort to attract new fans and keep the ones already paying attention, it's a small sacrifice for pitchers, he said.
"Just be ready to throw," the southpaw said.
It's easy to impose rules upon a population of players in pursuit of reaching the majors – good luck convincing veterans in the major leagues to adhere to these timeframes.
"Yeah I do think that’s going to be an issue," Bishop said of MLB implementation. "I think we’re lucky enough to be the test bunnies for this system."
Data from the minors this year will be shared with MLB’s newly constituted Competition Committee, which will include active major league players who will represent the MLBPA.
Moore, the manager, also thinks the time for hitters should be longer – as much as 30 seconds, even – and that more should be up to the umpire’s discretion before a ball or strike is assessed.
Moore and his staff explained the pitch clock rules to his players as they were written to limit confusion. They had plenty of questions, especially the pitchers.
Pitch grading and strikeout-per-nine-inning (K/9) ratios are drilled into prospects' heads. At the Class AA level, players are fighting for jobs and futures. They want to impress the analytics department in Baltimore, Moore said.
How am I going to be evaluated on a walk that’s not really a walk?
"That’s my biggest fear," Moore said, "is that in a big count in a game with a runner in scoring position, the pitcher has to throw with little to no conviction because of the clock ticking down behind him.
"I hate dragging out baseball games," Moore added. "I don’t like that. I don’t think that’s to the benefit of the game. I just think 14 or 18 seconds – that’s too pushy."
On Groont's machine, that is Preset 1 (:14) and Preset 2 (:18).
Like four balls and three strikes, those numbers may become second-nature to fans in the not-too-distant future.
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB pitch clock is coming. Minor leaguers using it have mixed feelings