BRADENTON — The 447 fans who attended Wednesday night's Florida State League game between the Tampa Tarpons and host Bradenton Marauders caught a glimpse of the future of Major League Baseball.
Along with Triple-A, Single-A baseball is serving as the petri dish for MLB's pace-of-play initiative. Fans at LECOM Park saw one example in the form of a pitch clock located in left-center field. Introduced for the first time this season, the pitch clock limits each pitcher to 14 seconds with no one on base and 18 seconds with a runner on base. If a pitcher fails to deliver a pitch in time, an automatic ball is assessed. Additionally, inning breaks are two minutes, 25 seconds in duration.
The pitch clock was installed the third week of the minor-league season. In the first two weeks, nine-inning games were lasting an average of 2 hours, 59 minutes. But since it was put in place, games are averaging 2:35. Last season, without the pitch clock, the nine-inning average was an even three hours, with 55% of the games taking three hours or more to complete. So far this season, only 10% have lasted that long.
From earlier this year: Automated strike zone coming to minors but a while from MLB
"I think it's good," Bradenton manager Jonathan Johnston said of the pitch clock. "I think it's an adjustment for the pitchers. You have to play with a little more pace. I think it's good for our guys to play with pace."
Early in the pitch clock's implementation, with pitchers not yet accustomed to the 18-second clock, many were assessed balls. But that number has dropped; in Wednesday night's game, the six pitchers used by both teams weren't given one. And a side benefit is hitters, knowing pitchers are on a clock, don't stray from the batter's box.
As a result, a 4-1 Tampa victory required just 2 hours, 12 minutes to complete. In fact, a mid-game rain delay took longer (2:39).
The other change coming to MLB is more drastic. For the second straight season, the Marauders are playing their games with Automated Ball-Strike (ABS) technology.
Implementing the Hawk-Eye system, which is used in tennis to determine if a ball is in or out, cameras are placed on the underside of the stadium roof to create a virtual 3D strike zone. If a pitch passes through the zone, a computer above the field will register a strike and relay the call via earpiece to the umpire, who will signal accordingly.
The ABS technology is being used in Marauder games played Tuesdays and Wednesdays. But in Thursday through Sunday games, a challenge system replaces it. Each manager is given three challenges to dispute a home-plate umpire's call of strike or ball. If the appeal, made by the pitcher, catcher and batter only, is upheld, the manager retains the challenge. If not, he loses it.
But such a change seemingly would make games longer, not shorter. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has said robot umpires "will likely be introduced" in 2024. MLB data shows the automated ball-strike system has shortened minor-league games by nine minutes on average — "We have an automated system that works," Manfred said.
"The zone is consistent," said Johnston. "I would say you get different zones all the time. Now you get one that's pretty consistent. But I think the extreme corners of the strike zone should not be strikes."
With home plate 17 inches wide, the virtual strike zone adds one-half a baseball off either edge, bringing the zone to 20 inches in width. And since the strike zone for a 6-foot-4 player isn't the same as a player standing 5-8, the top of the zone is 52.5% of a player's height, and 27% for the bottom.
Much like in tennis, where a ball is considered in if just an edge touches the line, the ABS system will relay a strike to the umpire if just a sliver of the ball is contacting the zone.
One facet of the game that may become extinct is questioning an umpire's call of ball or strike. With a computer making the determination, what would be the point?
"I typically avoid saying anything to the umpire," said Marauder infielder Mike Jarvis. "There's not much you can do about it. (The ABS has missed) maybe one or two, but it's been pretty consistent."
Said Johnston, "I don't have to worry about it. It is what it is."
If, as Manfred said, the ABS becomes part of MLB starting in 2024, big-league skippers won't have to worry about it either.
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Minor league baseball testing field for MLB's pace-of-play initiatives