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Arizona Fall League players testing rule changes to speed up MLB games

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SCOTTSDALE – As Texas Rangers prospect Sam Wolff walked out to pitch the sixth inning of a recent Arizona Fall League game, he faced more than just the batter at home plate and the umpire behind it. On both sides of his view, timers counted down 20 seconds to tell him how long he had to deliver his next pitch.

“At first, the pitch clock was kind of in the back of my mind a little bit,” said Wolff, a 23-year-old pitcher for the Surprise Saguaros. “But 20 seconds is a long time.”

He and others playing at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick are the first to test one of six rule changes Major League Baseball has proposed to speed up games. This is the only stadium testing the pitch clock, but the other rules, applying to the time allowed for pitching, hitting and conferences, apply to all parks.

In addition to the pitch clocks in Wolff’s view, batters and spectators can view one in the outfield.

“More than anything, I was interested to see how the game was going to go,” Wolff said. “It is a little different to see the clock winding down, but you have plenty of time to get the pitch off.”

According the Elias Sports Bureau, the average nine-inning baseball game lasted 3 hours and 2 minutes in 2014. The average length of games at Salt River Fields, where the pitch clock is in effect, has so far been 2 hours and 35 minutes.

As the public outcry for a faster game continues to grow, the MLB has responded by creating a Pace of Game Committee, which announced the experimental rules Oct. 1.

“The Pace of Game Committee is eager to test various ideas – ranging from the incremental to the dramatic – in order to learn more, and we are fortunate to have a setting in which we can do exactly that,” Commissioner Bud Selig said in a news release announcing them.

The proposed changes:

• Pitchers have 12 seconds to throw if the bases are empty, and 20 seconds if the bases are occupied.

• A batter must keep one foot in the batter’s box at all times unless a foul ball occurs or the umpire grants the batter time.

• Managers declare intentional walks, sending the hitter directly to first base rather than having a pitcher make four soft tosses to the catcher well away from the hitter.

• Time between innings is limited, with a batter required to be in the box by one minute and 45 seconds and the pitcher required to throw before two minutes and five seconds. Failing to do so results in a called ball called against a pitcher and a strike called against the hitter.

• When a new pitcher comes in, he must deliver his first pitch within two minutes and 30 seconds or be penalized with a called ball. This includes substitutions between innings.

• Teams are limited to three timeout conferences per game, including extra innings.

Patrick Cantwell, a 24-year-old catcher for the Surprise Saguaros, caught for three different pitchers in the game at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. He said it wasn’t difficult to adjust to and that, despite some challenge replays, the game moved swiftly.

“I don’t think it changes the approach of the pitcher,” he said. “I don’t think it bothered the starters too much. When they come in the game, they have their routines and know what they need to do to be ready.”

Cantwell said the 2 minutes and 30 seconds to substitute pitchers was a challenge for some relief pitchers who are used to having more time, but he said the changes have been handled well by everyone involved.

“The umpires let a few things slide. They’re still learning it, too,” he said. “But it’s fairly simple and I don’t think it will be too difficult to grasp.”