Reliever Darren O’Day, the Orioles’ player union representative, has been closely involved in discussions this offseason between Major League Baseball and its players about making games faster.
These talks have become contentious, and at the quarterly owners meetings taking place in California over the next three days, pace of play will definitely be a topic of conversation, especially as commissioner Rob Manfred has the power to implement a 20-second pitch clock for this season under the game’s collective bargaining agreement.
O’Day said making a pitch clock a part of the game isn’t so easy because there are so many intricate parts to the pitch-to-pitch sequence that go unnoticed, including combating opponents stealing signs.
“There’s a lot that goes into that,” O’Day said at Orioles FanFest on Saturday. “Maybe we’re having a hard time with signs. We have teams that are stealing signs with video cameras now, so our sign system has to get more elaborate, so now it’s taking longer for us to get the pitches in.”
Other than implementing a 20-second pitch clock, MLB can also implement a 30-second clock between plate appearances and limit mound visits — whether that be from a manager, pitching coach or teammate — to one an inning. Those tweaks would be aimed at getting game times under three hours. Regular-season games averaged a record 3 hours, five minutes last season.
The pitch clock appears to be the main sticking point with the players union. Manfred and union chief Tony Clark last met last week, but have yet to reach a common ground on pace-of-play adjustments for 2018.
“So for me to have a pitch clock when I’ve got bases loaded and this is a major league baseball game … there are guys on base, I’m facing Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, you don’t want to be, ‘Oh, gosh, here we go,’ ” O’Day added. “So I’m not really excited about some aspects of it. I think it’s going to come in some form or another. We can find something we can agree on hopefully. But luckily I’ve been in part of the negotiations with MLB, so I’ve seen how it’s evolved and hopefully we’ll get something done.”
The act of stealing signs has been a part of the game for years, and there’s no rule against doing it except when it’s done with the help of electronic devices. Last year, the Boston Red Sox were fined an undisclosed amount for using an Apple watch to steal signs, and Manfred used the incident to warn clubs that future transgressions would result in stricter punishments, possibly including the loss of draft picks.
O’Day is one of the more methodical pitchers in the game. Among relievers with at least 50 innings last year, his average of 29.5 seconds between pitches was ninth slowest in the major leagues. He said if a pitch clock — which was introduced at the high minor league levels in 2015 — is implemented, it would force pitchers to use loopholes to get the time they need between pitches.
“I don’t want to be slow,” O’Day said. “I really don’t. Sometimes there’s external factors that influence that. … You’re going to see guys using loopholes. Like if you step off, the clock resets, so I can stand there for 19 seconds and the catcher’s going to show me five different signs, whatever, 10 signs, and I’m going to step off. Nobody wants to see that, and then you’re going to see the whole process over. I don’t know. You’re going to have to do something if it happens. I don’t think that’s the way they want to do it, but if they feel that strongly about it, I guess they might have to.”
Unlike previous measures to speed up games, the new adjustments would affect the outcomes of games. MLB implemented clocks between innings before the 2015 system that regulated when pitchers can throw their final warmup pitch and when a hitter must be in a batter’s box. Those rules also regulated when a batter can step out of the box. Violators were warned for a first offense, then fined, and as the season went on, players were OK with racking up fines.
But the newest pace-of-play amendments would charge a ball to a pitcher who doesn’t initiate his delivery by the end of the clock and a strike for a batter who isn’t in the box by the time the clock runs out.
Orioles center fielder Adam Jones, who is among the slowest batters in the box between pitches (his average of 25.8 seconds between pitches ranks 27th among qualified hitters and second on the Orioles behind Tim Beckham’s 26.3 seconds), understands the desire to speed up games, but isn’t in favor of a clock.
“I know they are trying to speed up the game,” Jones said Saturday. “I don’t know. There are just so many things about it. I get what they’re trying to do, but at the same time, you can’t speed up an artist. And that’s my answer to that.”
Ultimately, the commissioner can implement the new rules without the union’s approval, but he’d like to avoid that, especially as this offseason has become a testy one as many free agents remain unsigned with a little more than two weeks until most teams report to spring training.
MLB’s most recent proposal includes creating an 18-second pitch clock for this season that would be on only when the bases are empty. A 20-second timer with runners on base would be added for 2019. The clock would not be used for the pitch after a foul ball or an umpire calling time, and there would be no penalties this year during spring training or April. Starting in May, each player would receive a warning for a violation, and penalties would not start until a team's third violation in a game. A 35-second timer between at-bats would also be implemented, and while there would not ball-strike penalties for violations this year, frequent violators could be subject to discipline. A player, manager or coach leaving the bench to argue a violation call would be automatically ejected.
“I guess if they feel strongly enough about it they could,” O’Day said about the possibility of MLB implementing rules without union approval. “I haven’t gotten any updates recently, so I’m not sure where it’s at right now. I know they talked last week. I just don’t want them to do anything that fundamentally changes the game.
“I know everything needs tweaking every once in a while, but watching MLB Network and seeing them talk about baseball in the late ’60s and just watching and hearing Earl Weaver talk about why baseball is the greatest game because you can’t just run the clock out, I was thinking, there’s never been a clock in baseball for all its history,” O’Day said. “You just hope there’s another way we can speed up games than having a shot clock.”
MLB also proposed to place a runner on second base at the start of the 11th inning of the All-Star Game, and every inning after in a tied game, as well as in tied spring training games from the 10th inning on, according to the Associated Press. Spring training games, which don’t often go beyond 10 innings as predetermined by the teams involved, would be ended after 10 frames.
This rule would be used only in exhibition games, and the players union — hoping it will limit injuries in games that don’t count — is expected to approve the proposal. There are no plans to carry that rule beyond exhibition games.