BOSTON — The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees averaged 3 hours, 23 minutes a game during their first three-game series in 2018, complete with two brawls, a near no-hitter and two routs, and although the games lasted longer than Major League Baseball desires, the good news is that no one came close to violating its new rule.
Yep, mound visits.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred decided not to implement a pitch clock this year, but in exchange, got the player union’s approval to limit teams to six mound visits a game in the latest attempt to speed up the pace of play.
Two weeks into the season, the behavioral changes are drastic, even if it hasn't resulted in a huge change in pace of play.
Major league games are averaging 3.78 mound visits per game this season, down nearly half from 7.41 visits a year ago, according to MLB data.
Meanwhile, the average time of a nine-inning game has decreased to 3 hours, 1 minute, a tad quicker than last year's record 3:05 mark but still about 10 minutes too long for Manfred's desires.
The mound visit totals do not include pitching changes, but rather visits by coaches, managers and teammates that do not involve a new pitcher or pinch-hitter. Extra visits are allowed for extra innings, and any team that exceeds the limit will be forced to remove its pitcher.
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“I like it,’’ says Yankees manager Aaron Boone, who took over a team notorious for its constant kibitzes on the mound. “It forces people to be more button-up, and have the ability to communicate without necessarily having to go to the mound. We still encourage (catchers) Gary (Sanchez) and (Austin) Romine, even early in the game, not to be afraid of a visit. If there’s something significant early, go.
“In our first game here, we used four visits in the first five innings. Sometimes, you feel like you’re holding back, but we tell our guys that if it feels important enough, go. I think you’re seeing a real difference.’’
Yet, that feel-good sentiment certainly is not shared by every pitcher and catcher, saying there already have been repercussions.
Several home-plate umpires have been hit with errant pitches this season simply because of cross-ups in communication between the pitchers and catchers, including Wednesday night, when home-plate umpire Hunter Wendlestedt was hit around the face.
“That was a cross-up that probably doesn’t happen if you take a mound visit,’’ Red Sox starter David Price said. “I’ve seen that happen a number of times this year where a runner gets to second base, a pitcher or catcher forgets what sign you’re using, and the umpire gets hit. It puts more pressure on catchers just trying to remember all of the signs people are using.
“So, I think it’s going to be like the [ballpark] netting. It’s not going to change until one of those umpires get hurt. Once that happens, they’ll say, OK, let’s go to nine visits.’’
Red Sox manager Alex Cora also is wary about the increase in times pitchers and catchers may get crossed up going over signs with runners on base, saying it’s nearly impossible for catchers to retain all of the changes in revised sign systems.
“Oh yeah, you’re going to see it happen,’’ Cora said. “Everyone is so worried about stealing signs and whatever, and the systems are getting more complicated. Guys want to be so creative, and it backfires. You see the cross-ups at least once a week.’’
The biggest fear in game management, Boone and Cora say, is making sure their catchers aren’t afraid from going to the mound because of the limitations. If there’s a critical situation, or confusion, they’re encouraging their catchers not to worry about how many visits are left in the game.
“Sometimes, the catchers don’t want to go out there because we have only six,’’ Cora said. “I tell them, “Guys, if you have to go, just go.’ If it’s a game-changing thing, mechanics, or signs, you don’t want them to be cautious. I’ve told them if you don’t go out there and do what you’re supposed to do, and all of a sudden they hit the ball off the wall and score, it’s on you.’’