Mike McCarthy of the Portland Sea Dogs gets set as the pitch clock winds down to 5 seconds at Hadlock Field in 2015. “As a player,” he said, “I always tried to keep a good tempo on the mound.” Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

The commissioner of Major League Baseball hopes the 2018 season gets off to a quick start Thursday – and stays that way.

Rob Manfred has introduced rules to speed up the pace of the game, after a decade in which the average nine-inning contest has increased by 15 minutes. Coaches and catchers will face limited visits to the pitcher’s mound, and the time between innings will be shaved by 20 seconds.

And if those measures don’t work, Manfred may impose a pitch clock like the ones in use at Hadlock Field and some other minor league ballparks since 2015.

A pitch clock might do the trick. Three years in, it has helped to reduce the length of games in all Double-A and Triple-A leagues – without a significant impact on the game itself.

“I haven’t noticed a huge difference,” Portland Sea Dogs general manager Geoff Iacuessa said. “There is an attentiveness to it (by the players) … Kind of a friendly nudge to keep going.”

The Sea Dogs play in the Double-A Eastern League. In 2014, the year before pitch clock was implemented, the league’s average nine-inning game lasted 2 hours, 50 minutes after a decade of steady increase. Last season, games ended in 2:42.

The average nine-inning MLB game in 2017 lasted 3:05, the longest in the sport’s history and five minutes longer than a year earlier. Ten years ago, the average time was 2:50. Manfred said if the average time does not get down to at least 2:55 this season, he plans to initiate a pitch clock in 2019.

Minor league games, by their nature, take less time. Because the all-out desire to win is supplanted by the need to develop players, especially pitchers, there are fewer pitching changes.

The minor league pitch clock has allowed for a pitcher to take 20 seconds to be set after the previous pitch (excluding foul balls). That is being shortened this year to 15 seconds, unless there are runners on base.

The average major league pitcher, according to estimates by fangraphs.com, took 24.3 seconds to deliver a pitch in 2017, up from 23.2 the year before.

BATTERS FEEL IMPACT, TOO

The minor league pitch clock also affects the batter, who must be ready. When the pitcher violates the clock, a ball is added to the count. When a batter is not ready, a strike is added. Last year in the five minor leagues using the pitch clock, there were 178 automatic balls called, and 84 automatic strikes – in 4,344 games.

“The clock does (quicken the game),” said local umpire Kevin Joyce, who fills in at Sea Dogs games in between umping more than 150 college and high school games a year. “But I don’t think it’s the pitcher, it’s the batter. They let them step out of the box. They have to adjust their gloves, adjust this and adjust that.

“All you have to do is call that first strike and they all get in. … But calling that first strike, no one wants to do it.”

Joyce has a point. MLB has rules forbidding a hitter to step out of the batter’s box between pitches, but they weren’t enforced. Before the 2015 season, MLB announced it would finally enforce the batter’s box rule. Players complained, especially those who take a long time (think David Ortiz walking around when he disagreed with an umpire’s strike call).

Initially, MLB umpires were strict about the rule – one reason why the average time for nine-inning games in 2015 was 2:56 – but eventually the rigidness faded.

THE CLOCK REINS IN DELAYS

Conversely, some pitchers can take an extraordinarily long time to get into their windup. Boston Red Sox fans can remember the deliberate days of Josh Beckett, who was always among the leaders in slow pace (slowest in 2011, at 28 seconds).

Today’s Red Sox starters seem to move more quickly. Drew Pomeranz was the most deliberate last year at 24.8 seconds. The New York Yankees’ Sonny Gray was the slowest in the majors at 28.3 seconds.

Relievers can really slow it down. Pedro Baez of the Los Angeles Dodgers took 31.1 seconds between pitches last year, while Boston’s Matt Barnes (29.6) and Joe Kelly (29.3) also took their sweet time.

In upper levels of the minor leagues, the clock reins in those delays.

“It does do that,” Iacuessa said. “Most pitchers get the ball back and are ready to throw.”

When former pro Mike McCarthy pitched for the Sea Dogs, the clock did not bother him.

“The clock sped up games, occasionally,” he said. “But for the most part, it didn’t impact the players that I was aware of. … As a player, I always tried to keep a good tempo on the mound.”

NEW LIMITS ON VISITS TO THE MOUND

Ken Joyce, Kevin’s brother and another Portland native, has served as a minor league manager and coach for more than two decades. This year, he’ll be a hitting coach in the Yankees’ farm system.

“When I managed, I preferred my pitchers to step on the mound and get going,” he said. “I tell the hitters the same thing – get in there and be ready.”

The new MLB rules cut 20 seconds from the time between innings to 2 minutes, 5 seconds, or 2:25 for nationally televised games, and 2:55 for postseason games.

Pitchers used to be guaranteed eight warm-up pitches. Now, their final warm-up pitch must come with 25 seconds left in the break.

The bigger change is mound visits that don’t include removing a pitcher. The old rules allowed one visit by a coach per pitcher, per inning, and unlimited visits by the catcher.

Now, a total of six visits (by the coach or any player) will be allowed in a nine-inning game. In the minors, six mound visits will be allowed in Triple-A games, eight in Double-A games and 10 in Class A.

It used to be that catchers came out for a number of reasons, to talk about which signs to use, or the strategy for a specific batter … or even to stall.

“We told our catchers to try and identify when a pitcher needs to be slowed down or given a breather after covering first or fielding a bunt,” said Chad Epperson, the Red Sox’ roving minor league catching instructor. “Also, (the decision for the catcher to visit) may come from the dugout to buy time for the pitcher warming up in the bullpen.”

FAN APPRECIATES ‘THE CHESS MATCH’

Manfred said he is making these changes for the fans, especially younger ones who want a faster pace.

But do they?

“It doesn’t matter,” said Addison Dunn, 24, a baseball fan and an accountant in Portland. “Baseball is one of the few sports without a clock. Having a clock has a drawback from the game itself.”

Reducing mound visits may quicken the game, Dunn said, but “I think one of the fun things about (the visits) is the chess match. It’s the beauty of the game – you don’t have that as much in football or basketball – but in baseball you have matchups, the strategy. It makes for a more enjoyable experience.

“I personally don’t care how long the games are. I just enjoy watching them.”

Kevin Thomas can be contacted at 791-6411 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: ClearTheBases

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