If you’ve ever attempted to learn a foreign language as a teen or an adult, you’ve probably noticed a strange phenomenon: you learn as much about your first language as your second. We take for granted certain rules and customs when writing or speaking our native tongue if it’s the only language we know. By looking at a language from the outside, we can appreciate all its nuance.
This is precisely what happened to Kyle Barraclough when he attempted to play baseball with a pitch clock for the first time. Barraclough, 31, had appeared in 280 major league games and 160 in the minors – all without a pitch clock – before May 4 in Salt Lake City. The new clock greeted him like an alarm screeching at dawn.
“I’m not a very fast-paced worker,” said Barraclough, who has since been recalled by the Angels. “I gave up a leadoff double to start the (seventh) inning. It was the perfect storm: first time on the pitch clock, giving multiple signs with a guy on second, also my first game in a couple weeks.”
His first thought: “This is going to take some getting used to.”
Barraclough isn’t alone. For the first time, Triple-A hitters and pitchers are being penalized for being late this season. A pitcher has 19 seconds to deliver a pitch without runners on base and 24 seconds with a runner on. A hitter has seven seconds to get set in between pitches. An automatic ball (for pitchers) or strike (for hitters) awaits the offenders. Anecdotally, there have been plenty of offenders to go around in the season’s first month.
This was to be expected, particularly among veterans who are closer to the end of their baseball careers than the beginning. The supposed sanctity of baseball as the only sport without a clock might be more ingrained in an older player – not unlike someone learning a new language at, say, age 31. There are many nuances to be mastered.
Take one new pace-of-play rule that seems rather anodyne on the surface: Pitchers are prohibited from stepping off the rubber more than twice per plate appearance. This includes any attempts to throw over to first base with a runner on. The proper term for this is “disengaging” with the rubber.
For Barraclough, the “disengagement rule” bothered him more than the clock itself. Why? It penalizes pitchers more than it benefits runners, few of whom are adept at stealing bases. Most runners don’t warrant more than two throws, so why penalize all pitchers?
The main penalty is psychological, Barraclough said.
“If things start snowballing, now there’s no ‘take a step off, take a deep breath, slow things down.’ There is no slowing things down,” he said. “Otherwise you’re going to get penalized for it.”
The psychological penalty cuts both ways. Hitters get one chance to call time during each plate appearance before they are penalized with a strike. Veteran catcher Chad Wallach, whom the Angels promoted last week, said he observed more automatic strikes called against batters than automatic balls called against pitchers.
Angels infielder Luis Rengifo was playing for Salt Lake a couple of weeks ago when he fell behind in the count 0-and-1 without a single pitch being thrown. It was his first plate appearance of the game, and Rengifo said he was a bit too slow getting in and out of the dugout for the clock. He was mad.
That at-bat, Rengifo said, ended with him hitting a double.
Then on May 7, Rengifo batted against Tacoma Rainiers pitcher Asher Wojciechowski with the bases loaded and the Bees down four runs.
“The pitcher waited like 30 seconds,” Rengifo recalled. “The umpire called a ball. I’m ahead 1-0. (Wojciechowski) threw me a fastball away, and I hit a homer.
“Some pitchers like (the rule). Some pitchers don’t.”
Other pitchers seem to dart between love and hate in the same outing. After being demoted by the Angels, Jose Suarez made his Triple-A debut with Salt Lake on May 6. He was penalized with an automatic ball in the second inning. Barraclough, who was in the bullpen that night, remembered Suarez settling in quickly after that.
For the Tacoma hitters tasked with facing Suarez that night, there was no use disrupting his timing. The Triple-A pitch clock doesn’t allow for it, save the one timeout plate appearance each hitter is allowed.
“(Suarez) started moving lightning fast and was rolling, pitching well,” Barraclough recalled. “The hitter in the box is on time, but Suarez is coming set as the guy is just getting ready and calls time. Now (Suarez) has to get back in and the hitter has to get in – standing – (because) the second he’s ready to go, (Suarez) is ready to throw.”
In that way, the clock introduces an element of rhythm that did not previously exist in the sport, the kind of nuance that makes learning pitch-clock baseball feel like a foreign language. This might be more true for participants than spectators. Still, the Triple-A experiment portends a noticeable adjustment period if the pitch-clock rules come to the major leagues.
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Here’s the wild thing: at the end of the day, some players might prefer this version of baseball to the clockless iteration.
“It’s too soon to say,” Wallach said.
“Individually, I hated it,” Barraclough said. “But then when the games were ending in 2½ hours … The game definitely moves a lot quicker.”
Players expect to receive formal surveys from MLB to gauge their opinion of the new rules at some point; this was the case when the Triple-A leagues experimented with larger bases last year. The rules might deserve some tweaking. An extra second or two won’t add a noticeable amount of time to the game and might make the players a bit more relaxed.
One rule of thumb applies to both players and fans struggling with the idea of baseball with a clock: Give it time.