How MLB pitch clock is impacting baseball's 'unwritten rules'

Pitchers and hitters are still getting accustomed to MLB's new rule changes with Opening Day only weeks away.

Let the games begin.

MLB instituted its pitch clock this spring with the intention of acclimating players before Opening Day. The rules are simple: pitchers have 15 seconds to start their delivery toward home (20 seconds with runners on), while batters must be in the box and alert to the pitcher by the eight-second mark.

So far — and this has been a surprise — more hitters have been called for violations than pitchers.

"We’re trying to let [hitters] know they have more time than they think," said Blue Jays manager John Schneider, "and [they can use] their timeouts appropriately. Things like that. But yeah, definitely pitchers are a little bit more well-versed right now."

Nathan Lukes was the latest Blue Jay to get burned on a time violation. The 28-year-old was tardy getting into the box Tuesday versus the Pirates, resulting in a third strike being called against him. He insisted he was simply allowing the umpire time to get set behind the plate. Regardless, the ump was notified of a violation, and Lukes was called out.

This incident raises an interesting debate. What happens in these grey areas, where the traditional courtesies of baseball were so entrenched? Waiting for the umpire is one thing, but what happens when uncontrollable elements factor in? Kevin Gausman said he was literally blown off the mound by wind during his first spring start. If he couldn’t get the pitch off, would that constitute a violation?

What about the weather? Sloppy, rainy games require pitchers to clean their spikes or touch up the rosin bag. Chris Bassitt talked about cold-weather games being a nuisance for pitchers, who constantly need to blow into their hands.

The fuss surrounding the pitch clock exists on normal weather days, too. Schneider talked about Alek Manoah — who averaged 20.7 seconds between pitches with the bases empty last year — needing some time to adjust. Ultimately, the skipper said he envisions Manoah being smart enough to "manipulate" the pitch clock.

Manipulation is an interesting word choice. Remarkably, this rule, which was expected to ruin pitchers’ timing, is now being utilized as a weapon to get hitters out. For example, New York Mets starter Max Scherzer, a notorious competitor, used the pitch clock’s promptness to blitz his way to a strikeout this spring. First, he held the ball to force the hitter to burn his only timeout. After that, he rushed into his delivery as soon as the batter stepped in, blazing a heater by him.

Not everyone is a madman like Scherzer, though, and Manoah is considering showing some mercy. The 25-year-old pitcher described how he might approach the pitch clock system after his start against the Minnesota Twins on Wednesday.

"I feel like there's still a respect factor," Manoah said. "[Twins hitter] Tyler White blew his timeouts in both at-bats, and I could’ve pulled a Scherzer on him, but ... I think he needed to use those timeouts because I was working very fast, and he didn't have a chance to think."

To Manoah, there’s a collectiveness in the game of baseball that makes him think twice about gaming the system.

"At the end of the day, we're all in this together," he said. "We're trying to win ballgames, but I don't want nobody to wear a pitch if he’s not even knowing it's coming. Guys are trying to feed their families. I'm gonna keep that respect level as much as I can."

MLB's new pitch clock has been the talk of the town since spring training began. (Reuters)
MLB's new pitch clock has been the talk of the town since spring training began. (Reuters)

It’s a slippery slope, and Manoah will navigate it as the season goes along. Remember, though, he’s a fierce competitor, too.

"If there's a gritty game and I need to sneak in a slider quick or something, yeah, I might," the right-hander said. "But for the most part, [I’ll] try and keep the respect level and just use the clock to my advantage when I can. Whenever the umpire wants to call strike three if he's not in the box ready, I'm gonna take it."

There are tons of variables in this equation on top of the fact that it’s spring training and players are still adjusting. But this brief trial period has made one thing clear: the pitch clock era is here to stay, and the chaos is only getting started.