Get ready for speed baseball at Funko Field.
The Everett AquaSox open their 2022 Northwest League season Friday night when they welcome the Eugene Emeralds to town, and when they do they’ll be playing under some experimental rule changes, the most significant of which is the implementation of a pitch clock to speed up the pace of games.
Everett, which is the Seattle Mariners’ affiliate in the High-A Northwest League (it’s back to its original name following one season as High-A West), is subject to three rule changes that are being implemented through most of Minor League Baseball as Major League Baseball tests ways to speed up play, increase action and improve player safety. Among the rule changes are the limitation of defensive shifts and the use of larger bases. However, the most noticeable change is the addition of the pitch clock.
The ever-increasing length of games at all levels of professional baseball has long been a topic of conversation. Games in Everett last season were almost all over three hours long, and sometimes much longer.
The pitch clock is designed to address that issue. Pitchers are allowed 14 seconds between pitches with the bases empty and 18 seconds between pitches when runners are on base, while batters will need to be set in the batter’s box with nine seconds remaining on the clock. A violation by the pitcher results in a ball and a violation by the batter results in a strike.
“I don’t think it’s that big of a deal at all,” said Everett opening-night starter Isaiah Campbell, who noted he played under a pitch clock while at the University of Arkansas. “I think it’s good for the game to speed up the game a little bit and get things moving along, because games are long already. I don’t think it’s going to bother any pitchers. It’s actually quite a bit of time in between pitches, so it shouldn’t be an issue for anybody on this team.”
The pitch clock was tested in Low-A West (now the California League) last season. Sox manager Eric Farris just happened to be managing Seatle’s Low-A West affiliate in Modesto last year, so he’s seen the pitch clock in effect. Farris said games were regularly shortened to the 2:30 range because of the pitch clock, and Major League Baseball said games in Low-A West saw a reduction in average length by more than 20 minutes.
“We felt the effects of that big-time last year, and it was great,” Farris said. “There was an adjustment period for the players, but I don’t have any doubt that these guys will transition into it easily. At the end of the day it makes the games quicker, keeps the action going and I definitely think it’s a good thing overall.”
The pitch clock will be displayed in three locations at Funko Field, with one positioned in center field and two behind home plate.
In conjunction with the pitch clock, a limit has also been placed pickoff attempts. Pitchers are allowed just two pickoff attempts or step-offs per plate appearance, with additional attempts resulting in a balk. Not only will that shorten games, it will encourage stolen-base attempts.
“That’s going to be something different,” Campbell said. “For me it’s not going to be a huge difference because I don’t like pickoffs anyway. I’m more a guy who likes to hold the ball for varied times, so it’s not going to be a big adjustment for me. But there are some guys who like to pick off and hold runners that way. It’ll be interesting how they use it in a game, they’re going to have to use it more strategically because once they get to two then runners know they can’t pick off.”
While the pitch clock is all about the game’s length, the shift limits are designed to increase the number of balls in play. Batting averages have plummeted as defenses have taken advantage of greater data available on hitters, moving additional fielders into the path of where batters tend to hit the ball. Now minor-league teams will be required to have four defenders in the infield when a pitch is delivered, with two on either side of second base. A violation results in a ball, unless the hitter swings and gets a better outcome.
“Over the last four or five seasons we’ve worked so hard with our minor leaguers in getting them comfortable with positions where big leaguers shift according to the hitter at the plate,” Farris said. “It’s taking it to a little more of a traditional approach and I don’t mind it. But I don’t think we’re going to see too many affects, and honestly in the minors we have so much less data than the big leagues that the shift was used a lot less.”
Finally, the bases are slightly larger than before, as they’ve grown to 18-inches square from 15-inches square. The larger bases result in a flatter surface, meaning base runners will be less likely to momentarily lift off the base following a pop-up slide. The larger size also reduces the chance of contact between a baserunner and a fielder. As a side benefit, it shortens the length between first, second and third bases by six inches, making stolen-base attempts slightly more likely to be successful (the distance between home plate and first and third bases remains 90 feet).
“(Wednesday’s first practice at Funko Field) was my first look at them and they are humongous,” Farris said. “But I’m all for making this game safer. When you’re trying to get two feet on that bag the way it used to be, especially if you have big feet, it can lead to injuries. It is clearly bigger and there is 100% more room for baserunners to run through the bag comfortably and position players to get the foot out.
“Keep making the game quicker and keep making the game safer and it’s all right by me.”