MESA, Ariz. — Right here, in this moment, Major League Baseball’s new rules had the Chicago Cubs in a bind. The bases were loaded. The catcher was calling for a pitch. The pitcher was shaking him off. It happened again. And again.
If this were 2017 or any baseball season before, it was the type of moment where a catcher would walk out to the mound and confer with his pitcher. They’d agree on what to throw and get back to work. But this year, MLB’s new pace-of-play rules have limited mound visits to six per game. And even in spring training, players and teams are trying to get used to the reality of being more conservative with their mound visits — and more creative with their solutions.
It’s a big adjustment for a game that relies so much on situational communication. And especially for pitchers and catchers, whose ability to understand each other is a fundamental tenet of successful baseball. Especially as the game gets more information-heavy. But there was no understanding in this moment.
“Pitch was thrown,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “Grand slam was hit. That’s what I’m concerned about.”
There are quite a few players, managers and coaches who aren’t thrilled with the new mound-visit limit. Maddon doesn’t hide the fact that he’s on that list.
“When the catcher and the bench know the right method and the pitcher is just not on board. The inability to communicate that thought, that’s what bothers me,” Maddon said. “I’m really curious about all this. I don’t think enough has been made that the most important concern is that the pitcher and catcher are not on the same page.”
Now that spring-training games are in full swing, the new rules aren’t just theoretical anymore. They’re a living, breathing part of the game. And like any part of the game, they’re free to be experimented with, so that teams can most deftly operate within the letter of the law.
That means teams are getting creative to find loopholes and building plans to communicate better, while also discovering “what happens if …” situations they hadn’t yet considered.
“There are some ways to accomplish the goal of a mound visit without having a mound visit,” says veteran catcher A.J. Ellis, who is now with the San Diego Padres.
While the new rules limit mound visits from managers, pitching coaches and position players, it’s the visits from catchers that have players most concerned. They’re essential to the pitching side of the game, players would argue, and limiting the mound visits in hopes of shaving a minute off a game may actually do more harm than good.
“It’s going to be tough not to be able to go out there whenever I want,” says Padres catcher Austin Hedges. “It’s a big part of the catcher-pitcher relationship. It just makes the pre-game meetings more important. You gotta be on the same page before the game starts. When things get a little bit out of control, something doesn’t have to be said because it’s already been said.”
Planning is great, but leave it to the Cubs to already be thinking of more radical ideas.
“We’ve talked about anytime somebody puts a ball in play, the pitcher immediately runs back to the catcher to back-up home,” said veteran catcher Chris Gimenez. “Because that way you can talk when the ball’s not in play still.”
Ellis has an idea that’s less radical but could still be effective in the right moment.
“There are some ways as a catcher that I can slow the game down. Just don’t give a sign. Let the pitcher breathe a little bit longer,” Ellis said. “You can’t throw until I let you know what’s happening.”
And since baseball decided to forego the pitch clock this year for the mound-visit limit, Ellis taking his time there won’t be an issue. Not for now at least, but the pitch clock could still be coming. Until then, teams will continue to adapt as best they can because everybody in the game — even the umpires — are still getting a grasp on every little situation.
“We set some things up from a sign perspective to eliminate the need to go conference,” Padres manager Andy Green. “So we had that flowing into camp. Still, umpires don’t have complete clarity on if you can [visit the mound] or if you can’t at certain points in time. It needs to be ironed out.”
One example: In a game Monday, an umpire got clipped by a ball. Ellis was catching and walked out to the pitcher’s mound to give the umpire some time to regroup. In a real game, would that count as one of the six mound visits? Should it? This was a courtesy to an umpire, not a time to talk to strategy.
“I asked the third-base umpire,” Ellis said. “He said, ‘I don’t know, but I’ll call and find out.’ I know umpires really appreciate getting 45 seconds to clear the cobwebs a little bit.”
That’s another reason why players will tell you mound visits sometimes live in a gray area that doesn’t necessarily jibe with pace-of-play rules.
“I think limiting visits from the dugout, that’s a good change,” says Cubs pitcher Mike Montgomery. “Limiting visits from the catcher, now that becomes problematic. It’s dangerous for the umpires. If you’re not on the same page, you’ll get more umpires catching 95 mph fastball off the mask.”
The new rules do allow umpires to use their discretion to allow “brief mound visits” if a catcher indicates and his pitcher are crossed up on signs. But how often and when that will be allowed is still another thing that will be left open for interpretation — and that will likely evolve throughout the season.
“Just like the slide rule did, just like the collision rule did, the neighborhood play, all that stuff started to evolve as time passed,” said Green, the Padres’ manager. “This will evolve. For us right now, it’s just being cognizant.”
But being aware only gets you so far. Pregame meetings only work to a degree. In crucial moments, in real games, when go-ahead runners are on base or grand slams are a possibility, teams will always prefer mound visits to the alternative.
“Nothing, nothing — nothing— is more effective,” Maddon said, “than an eyeball-to-eyeball conversation in that moment.”
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