As MLB makes tweaks to pitch clock, Mariners still trying to figure out best approach

PEORIA, Ariz. — A week ago, Jarred Kelenic found himself down 0-2 in the count to Rangers ace Jacob deGrom on a pair of nasty breaking balls. As he’s done often this spring training, Kelenic asked for his one timeout in the plate appearance after getting two strikes on him.

He needed time to collect his thoughts and slow things down, particularly with a runner on first base.

But it was deGrom, who had allowed a triple to Kelenic on a 0-2 count in the first at-bat, that slowed things down.

Kelenic stepped into back into batter’s box and was ready to hit in about four seconds. Per MLB’s new pitch-clock rules, a batter must be ready to hit and looking at the pitcher in eight seconds. With a runner on base, deGrom had 20 seconds to deliver the pitch. He was ready when Kelenic was ready.

Instead of delivering pitch with time to spare, deGrom stayed in the set position and didn’t move. He held the ball and looked at the clock behind home plate and waited. Kelenic waited in his stance trying to stay relaxed. The 10 seconds that ticked off seemed interminable.

Finally, with one second remaining, deGrom fired the pitch toward the plate. The inside breaking ball froze an already static-standing Kelenic, who thought it was a ball, for a called strike three.

“It’s freezing the hitter, which isn’t fair,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “That’s an advantage to the pitcher.”

As part of a four-page memo that was sent to teams and leaked to the media, MLB has made some minor tweaks to the rules pertaining to the pitch clock to combat that sort of gamesmanship as well as adjustments based on player response.

“On one hand, we are prepared to make adjustments based on input,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred told reporters on Tuesday before the WBC championship game. “On the other hand, we want to give it a chance to see how it plays out exactly over a period of adjustment in some regular-season games before we make any significant alterations.

Under the modifications, a hitter will notify the umpire he’s ready to hit after taking a timeout. It can happen before he steps into the batter’s box. So now, Kelenic can ask for a timeout, collect himself, ask for the clock to be started and get into the box a few seconds later, limiting the amount of time that pitcher can hold the ball.

“There’s a lot of guys, myself included, that are trying to get in the box early,” Cooper Hummel said. “I think if the pitcher is good at messing with timing, they’re going to do that. I’m kind of surprised that a lot more pitchers weren’t doing that. Like the perfect chance is when a guy would call a timeout and gets back in the box and you’ve got 20 seconds or 15 seconds just to hold it.”

Even with the new rules, there is still a chance for a pitcher to hold it for 7 or 8 seconds, which can still make hitters uncomfortable.

As a catcher, Hummel would want his pitcher to do that: “I want him to hold the ball as long as he can and make the hitter stiff in the batter’s box. Guys that are already statues in there are going to not like it.”

As a hitter, he isn’t allowing that to happen even with the rule tweaks.

“I’m of the mindset that I’m never going to call a timeout where a pitcher could gain advantage,” he said. “If it’s 3-2 and he’s trying to hold, I can call time. But if I call a timeout on 0-1, 0-2 or 1-2, he’s got potentially 3 or 4 more pitches in at-bat to get me out.”

Hitters don’t want to get into the batter’s box too early so a pitcher can hold the ball, but they also don’t want to wait too long and feel rushed or get an automatic strike called. 

“I’m still trying to figure out the best timing,” Sam Haggerty said. “When you make a rule change like that, you knew guys were going to try to exploit it. They’re going to try to take advantage of it. That’s only natural. And baseball will combat it with other sets of rules and some parameters and some restrictions.”

A.J. Pollock ran into a different sort of an issue when he wouldn’t engage with the pitcher immediately by picking his head up, believing that pitcher might quick-pitch and throw the ball as soon as he lifted his head — something Max Scherzer has done this spring. It led to a disagreement with the umpire, who charged him with a timeout and Pollock getting aggravated, saying, “I didn’t ask for a timeout.”

“It went back and forth and it was a younger umpire,” Servais said. “I think this has affected the hitters more than the pitchers.”

Per The Associated Press: The average time of spring training games was down 25 minutes from 2021 to 2 hours, 36 minutes. Violations per game were 1.03 during the past week, down from 2.03 during spring training’s first week.

The other rules modifications include:

  • If a catcher ends the inning at the plate, on base or on deck, the home-plate umpire turn off the 2-minute, 30-second clock in between innings at 30 seconds if the catcher is making “a reasonable effort” to get on the field. If that happens, a catcher would be allowed to receive one warm-up pitch from the pitcher and throw down to second.
  • If a pitcher is away from the mound following a play — either covering a base or backing up throws to a base in foul territory — the 30-second clock between hitters will be delayed and not start until he’s back on the infield grass or fair territory.
  • If a hitter’s equipment is knocked out of place following a big swing or a brushback pitch or it a player hits the dirt getting out of the way, umpires will delay the start of the clock or wave off an early start to the clock.
  • If the PitchCom unit used for electronic communication of signs between a pitcher and catcher malfunctions, players must immediately inform umpires, who will stop the clock.

Perhaps the most amusing aspect of the memo, there will be new standards enforced for bat boys and bat girls and their ability to retrieve equipment to speed up the game. The league plans to evaluate the performance of bat boys and bat girls and could ask for them to be replaced if their performance is considered substandard.

More cuts from camp

The Mariners reassigned catcher Jacob Nottingham and infielder Jake Schiener to minor league camp.

Nottingham and Scheiner are expected to end up with Triple-A Tacoma. Nottingham provides veteran catching depth along with Bryan O’Keefe, while Scheiner can play both corner infield positions.

Veteran outfielder Leonys Martin was released. He could try to hook on with another MLB team or go back to Japan where he has played the last 3 1/2 seasons.

With the roster moves, the Mariners have 40 players in their major league camp: 31 roster players and 9 nonroster invitees.

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