“[The shuffle will come] definitely a little bit quicker,” Soto chuckled when he arrived at spring training this month. He admitted he had not yet tested his choreography to see whether he will need to hurry the slide or shorten the stare. Like most players and coaches who arrived in Arizona and Florida, Soto wasn’t quite sure how much and in what ways the new rules MLB is implementing will affect him. Everyone knew a pitch clock, bigger bases and a ban on infield shifts were coming this spring. No one is quite sure how they will change the game for individual players or on the whole.
MLB hopes the pitch clock will speed up games that have stretched to more than three hours and 10 minutes in average length. It hopes the bigger bases (18 inches square instead of 15 inches square) will help avoid collisions — and maybe even help runners steal an extra bag or two by cutting a few inches off their trek. It hopes banning the shift will lead to more hits, more action and less stodge. And it hopes that by the time Opening Day rolls around, everyone will be so used to the new rules they will forget they are new at all.
“It’s almost impossible to find a rule change that is meaningful that every player would say, ‘This is a good thing.’ It’s just not possible. Even people who work with me in the commissioner’s office, we’re traveling around having meetings with players, and [MLB staffers and former players] Raul Ibañez and CC Sabathia would disagree on what the pitch clock was going to do for pitchers as opposed to 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 have tried to do is proceed slowly, experiment so that we feel we have a good handle on what the rules are going to produce. And that experimentation has the benefit that many, many players actually have a chance to play under these rules in the minor leagues.”
At spring training, the teams and players are experimenting.
Soto’s San Diego Padres, for example, brought big digital clocks out to the field where their pitchers played catch this week to give them a sense of how much time they will have on the mound. Back fields in Arizona and Florida were populated with the bigger 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 doors in the clubhouse outlining the basics of the rules in large font. Many teams held meetings with their players to make sure they understood the guidance. Others, such as David Bell’s Cincinnati Reds, wanted to make sure their coaches understood the rules completely before trying to explain them to players.
“We almost had a big meeting with our team today and decided not to because we want to make sure we understand them properly. We’re going to spend a lot of time with people in player development who have experienced it. Then we’re going to educate,” Bell said Wednesday. “Then we’re going to try to figure out how to make them an advantage.”
Everyone seems to have questions about how the rules will change things — or expectations of just how much they need to worry about them at all. Shohei Ohtani, the only player who will regularly experience the implications of the pitch clock from the batter’s box and the pitching rubber, said through his interpreter that the new rule is “the biggest hurdle” that the Los Angeles Angels star is “trying to clear at the 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, 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 to not get a shot clock violation,” Kershaw said. “That’s really all I know. There’s no shifts, either, so hit groundballs where people aren’t. I don’t know. Somebody will tell me at some point what to do.”
Padres third baseman Manny Machado speculated that the shift rules, which require two fielders to have their feet on the dirt on either side of second base when the pitch is thrown, will open up more holes for his left-handed-hitting peers than it will for a righty like him. But he did smile at the idea that he won’t be required to run out to short right field as part of defensive shifts as he has in years past.
“Definitely defensively, I won’t have to run anymore,” he said with a grin. “… I was running a lot of yards per game.”
His manager, Bob Melvin, considered the impact the rules might have on the umpires, who now have to keep track of the pitch clock, shifts and more on top of everything else.
“They’ve been piling things on them for a while now,” Melvin said, noting that nearly a dozen longtime umpires retired before the season and wondering whether part of the reason was that they would now have to be timekeepers, too. “Spring training is going to be just as important for them as it is for us.”
Spring training games begin next weekend, at which point everyone will get their first look at what MLB’s new rules look like on a major league field. To the extent that there is consensus about their impact, managers and players alike seem to think younger players will be less affected. If they played in the minors over the past few seasons, they played under these rules as test subjects anyway. But for those who have spent years on their own in-game schedules, adjustments will be required.
“Me and [Bryce] Harper talked about it last year a little bit. It’s going to be tough for us,” Machado said. “We like taking our time in there.”
A previous version of this article said that MLB games had stretched to 3.5 hours.