“[The shuffle will] definitely a little faster,” Soto chuckled when he arrived at spring training this month. He admitted that he hasn’t yet choreographed himself to see if he’ll need to speed up the glide or shorten the look. Like most of the players and coaches who have come to Arizona and Florida, Soto wasn’t sure how much and how the new rules MLB is implementing this year will affect him. Everyone knew the shot clock, bigger bases and ban on infield at-bats were coming this spring. No one is sure how they will change the game for individual players or in general.
Major League Baseball expects the shot clock to speed up games that have recently stretched to more than three and a half hours on average. He hopes the larger bases (18 square inches instead of 15 square inches) will help avoid collisions, and maybe even help runners steal an extra base or two by cutting a couple inches off their run. He hopes that banning the change will lead to more views, more action, and less excess. And he hopes that by the time Opening Day rolls around, everyone will be so used to the new rules that they’ll forget they’re new.
“It’s almost impossible to find a rule change that’s significant for every player to say ‘this is a good thing.’ It’s just not possible. Even the people who work with me in the commissioner’s office, we are traveling to have meetings with players and [MLB staffers and former players] Raúl Ibáñez and CC Sabathia would disagree on what the shot clock would do for pitchers instead of hitters,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said Wednesday in Phoenix. “It’s the nature of our game, the way the player [group] is subdivided. What we’ve tried to do is proceed slowly, experiment to feel like we have a good handle on what the rules are going to produce. And that experimentation has the benefit that many, many players have the opportunity to play under these rules in the minor leagues.”
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This week in spring training, it’s the teams and the players who are experimenting.
The San Diego Padres de Soto, for example, brought large digital clocks to the field where their pitchers played catches this week to give them an idea of how much time they will have on the mound. Backfields in Arizona and Florida were populated with the biggest bases, a change that was more jarring to some, including Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who said they looked like a “pizza box” than to others.
Laminated signs were taped to the clubhouse doors outlining the basics of the rules in large print. Many teams held meetings with the players to make sure they understood the guide. Others, like David Bell’s Cincinnati Reds, wanted to make sure their coaches fully understood the rules before attempting to explain them to players.
“We almost had a big meeting with our team today and we decided against it because we want to make sure we understand them correctly. We’re going to spend a lot of time with people in player development who have experienced it. So we’re going to educate,” Bell said Wednesday. “So we’re going to try to figure out how to turn them to an advantage.”
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Everyone seems to have their own questions about how the rules will change things, or their own expectations of how much they need to care about them. Shohei Ohtani, the only player who will regularly experience the shot clock implications from the batter’s box and pitcher’s plate, said through his interpreter that the new rule is “the biggest hurdle” he is “trying to overcome in this moment”. Clayton Kershaw said he assumes someone at Los Angeles Dodgers spring training will let him know if he isn’t moving fast enough.
“There are so many new rules that I couldn’t even tell you what they are. I just know we have a shot clock or whatever you want to call it. I’m going to try not to get my shot clock violated,” Kershaw said. “That’s really all I know. There are no turns either, so hit the ground balls where there are no people. I don’t know. Someone will tell me at some point what to do.”
Padres third baseman Manny Machado speculated that the trade rules, which require two fielders to have their feet on the ground on either side of second base when the pitch is thrown, will open up more holes for their left-handed teammates than usual. what will it be for a right-hander like him. But he smiled at the thought that he himself won’t have to run to short right field as part of defensive trades as he has done in years past.
“Definitely defensive, I won’t have to run anymore,” Machado said with a smile. “…I was running a lot of yards a game.”
His manager, Bob Melvin, considered the impact the rules could have on umpires, who will now have to keep track of the shot clock and turns and more, on top of everything else.
“They’ve been piling stuff on them for a while,” Melvin said, noting that nearly a dozen veteran referees retired before this season, wondering if part of the reason was that they would now have to be timekeepers, too. “Spring training is going to be just as important to them as it is to us.”
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Spring training games begin next weekend, at which time everyone will get their first look at what MLB’s new rules look like on a Major League Baseball field. To the extent that there is consensus on its impact, both coaches and players seem to think that younger players will be less affected. If they played in the minor leagues for the past few seasons, they still played under these rules as test subjects. But for those who have spent years with their own in-game schedules, adjustments will be required.
“I and [Bryce] Harper talked about that a bit last year. It’s going to be difficult for us,” Machado said. “We like to take our time there.”