2017 is an important year for Cardinal pitchers, and the recently confirmed rule changes should affect how we see the future for pitchers.
In his February 21st press conference, Commissioner Rob Manfred stated that despite the players’ association’s resistance, he will be imposing multiple rule changes for the 2018 season. These changes will likely include a 20-second pitch clock, the elimination of the traditional intentional walk, a limited number of mound visits, and, perhaps most critically, an adjustment to the strike zone.
The Intentional Walk
Commissioner Manfred hopes to cut down on downtime by eliminating the physical pitches needed to intentionally walk a batter, allowing teams to send the batter to first with a declaration instead. While this is a valid concern to help the league appeal to a wider audience, the change would have too little impact to realistically justify the change.
Intentional walks happen roughly once every three games, and this rule would save only 45 seconds to a minute per occurrence. This has been the standard at the amateur level, but it is necessitated by a lack of physical infrastructure and limited time. Since the MLB has no such constraints, there is no appreciable benefit to changing the existing rule.
In fact, we may lose the opportunity for miracles or horrific errors that tend to occur only in the most pressure saturated situations. Eliminating the pitches for intentional walks suggest that those 4 pitches are trivial, but that is a statement that is patently false.
Without a more concrete statement dealing with the number of mound visits, it is impossible to determine how much of an impact it will have on the pace of the game. That said, Limiting mound visits will definitely impact the game, but whether or not it is limited to a per pitcher or per-inning or even per-game count will determine the magnitude of the effect it can have.
We will most likely only see the results of this change in high-risk situations, especially in the later innings of pennant relevant or postseason games when managers are trying to squeeze the most out of every situation.
20 SECOND CLOCK
It is an entirely valid complaint that implementing a timer will eliminate player control of the pace, which is incredibly important to any pitcher trying to establish a rhythm, but I don’t anticipate it affecting anyone too adversely without runners on base.
Any pitcher whose pace is affected by a timer will be uncomfortable for some time until adjusting, but when you consider the role baserunners play this change can have a significant effect on strategy and holding runners.
If a hard cap is introduced to time between pitches it will inevitably introduce a timing element to base stealing that does not, and should not, exist organically in baseball.
In a situation with a good baserunner on first or even in a first-and-third situation it is a perfectly valid strategy to hold the baseball after coming set. A long hold. This can allow you to watch the batter as well as the base runner for any tells or unintentional twitches that might indicate that they have a steal or a hit-and-run called.
When there is a 20-second timer, will the baserunner be able to count down the time and potentially predict the exact time of delivery if the pitcher takes too long to the plate? A pitch clock eliminates variables that the baserunner needs to be aware of, and I, along with many others, feel that this, in particular, is counter to the spirit of the game.
If this change is implemented it will eliminate some of the dynamism of pitchers, and it can even cripple the efforts of pitchers with slow deliveries or ineffective pick-off moves that rely on timing variability to hold runners. Even with a trial in the minor leagues, this rule has the potential to change foundational elements of the game that, in my mind, dilutes the authenticity of the game.
The strike zone change will reverse the change made in 1996, changing the bottom of the strike zone from the bottom of the kneecap to just above. This change will likely take a year or two to realistically affect how the batters approach at-bats, but, depending on individual pitching style, it may drastically affect certain pitchers’ performance if they cannot make an adjustment to their style.
Last year, Adam Wainwright voiced his disagreement with the proposed changes. As a pitcher that relies heavily on pitches in the bottom third of the strike zone, this is an opinion that likely mirrors that of many pitchers in the league.
Thankfully, these changes did not come during his absence, and he will have a chance to adjust without being thrust immediately into an unfavorable situation from the disabled list immediately after his Achilles injury.
Now for the good news. These changes provide Carlos Martinez a great opportunity to differentiate himself from the league and attain even greater heights. He already favors using his plus fastball inside to set up devastating off-speed pitches. He stays in the bottom half of the zone, but he depends more on horizontal location and movement rather than vertical variety.
If he can continue to establish himself on the inside corner, he will achieve roughly the same level of success. But, If in the coming months, he further takes advantage of his velocity and starts using a high four-seam as a potential out pitch, he can gain much more than he stands to lose from the adjusted strike zone. This same philosophy can easily be applied to any pitchers with above average velocity.
Changes in the strike zone will most strongly influence the development of younger pitchers. In fact, even with his recent injury, Alex Reyes may be able to offset some lost time if he can adjust his strategy and style to add some dimensionality to his pitching and take advantage of the new rule set.
In rehab, he will be isolated from the effects of the changes, but he will be able to prepare as well as any other pitcher in the league. Luke Weaver, who will have a great opportunity in Reyes’ absence, is a pitcher that lives even lower than Wainwright, and as a result, he may have trouble adjusting to the change. Weaver’s success will be rooted in his ability to locate even more accurately and consistently in order to overcome the loss of real estate below the waistband.
Baseball at the professional level has become stagnant in many ways due to the dominance of the current generation of pitchers and a gradual shift in the prevailing culture of the league. With these changes, hardcore and casual fans alike can look forward to a new direction and a much-needed reshuffle that can introduce character and story to the league.
Players and die-hard fans will always resist change to the game, but change maintains relevancy and assures us that thought and care is still being invested in the game.
Photo captured by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports