For more than a century of Opening Days, Major League Baseball held treasured status as the only major team sport not governed by a clock. America’s pastime was always unique in — and at times even proud of — its ability to pass time, to proceed unhurried by reality until the game decided it was complete.
But under sunny skies in Washington and Boston, Chicago and New York on Thursday afternoon, a digital clock with yellow numbers gleamed behind home plate and in center field. It was the first day MLB’s potentially transformative new rules were used across the field, including a limit on how long pitchers can take between pitches, a ban on infield shifting and bigger bases.
The first official pitch clock violation came in Chicago, where Cubs starter Marcus Stroman watched a 1-2 count on Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich become a 2-2 count when he took too long to deliver his pitch in the third inning. Baltimore Orioles outfielder Austin Hays became the first hitter to be charged with a violation, assessed a strike in the fifth inning at Fenway Park in Boston.
MLB executive vice president of baseball operations Morgan Sword, who has spearheaded the effort to implement and oversee the rules changes, was at Yankee Stadium for their debut. So was Theo Epstein, the former curse-breaking general manager turned MLB consultant, another key figure in the effort to rejuvenate the game for a modern era.
Sword admitted he was nervous. He didn’t sleep much Wednesday night, he said. He even stopped by to ask how the Yankee Stadium pitch clock operator was feeling in the hours before the game.
“Locked in,” Sword reported.
It didn’t take long for the new rules to affect action at Nationals Park, where Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. led off the game with a sharp single to right.
One of the less-talked-about rule changes implemented this season limits pitchers to two disengagements from the pitching rubber — taking their foot off, basically — per plate appearance with a runner on first base. Nationals left-hander Patrick Corbin exhausted both of his with consecutive failed pickoff attempts after getting ahead of the next hitter, Matt Olson, 1-2. Knowing that a third unsuccessful pickoff attempt by Corbin would result in a balk, Acuña took a sizable lead and stole second base with ease two pitches later.
Some games, such as the pitchers’ duel the Yankees and San Francisco Giants played in the Bronx, were hardly affected by the rules at all — other than, of course, the fact that it ended in 2 hours 33 minutes, a half-hour less than the average nine-inning game last season. (Last year’s Yankees opener, an 11-inning game, lasted nearly four hours.)
Starter Gerrit Cole seemed unaffected by, if not aided by, the pitch clock as he became the first Yankees Opening Day starter to strike out 10 batters, fanning 11. Giants starter Logan Webb seemed similarly undeterred. He struck out 12.
At times, hitters were the ones who seemed hurried. More than once, Yankees reliever Wandy Peralta started his motion while Giants hitters were still pulling the bat back into their stances.
In Arlington, Tex., baseball’s new rules had little obvious impact on the Texas Rangers’ come-from-behind win against the Philadelphia Phillies, 11-7, at Globe Life Field, where the teams combined for 22 hits and the game lasted a little more than three hours.
Rangers starter Jacob deGrom, a splashy offseason acquisition, did not fall victim to the pitch clock but factored into an interminable half inning, in the top of third, with Philadelphia designated hitter Kyle Schwarber at the plate. The inning was delayed when umpires huddled to discuss whether deGrom had committed a balk. They determined he had not, but restless fans booed the stoppage, and Schwarber, clearly displeased with the interlude, struck out swinging.
The new rules were felt off the field, too. Sitting in the radio booth during the fourth inning of the Nationals and Braves game, announcer Charlie Slowes marveled at how quickly the game was moving. Corbin had struggled through the first two innings throwing more than 60 pitches. Before the clock, that might have taken an hour and a half. But the game was in the fourth inning and still only a little more than an hour old. The game, which the Braves won, 7-2, ended in 3:07. That’s 24 minutes shorter than the Nationals’ Opening Day loss last season, which featured the same number of pitchers (11).
“It’s a game changer,” Slowes said.
In exchange for that speed, radio listeners traded the anecdotes about players and the stories and small talk that used to fill the time between pitches. There would be no more out-of-town scoreboard segments, Slowes said, and the broadcast would sound more like a basketball call, during which there is constant action.
“All the prep you used to do with facts and players, you might use 10 percent," Slowes said. “Now you might use zero. Vin Scully would have trouble spinning a yarn.”
Slowes’s partner, Dave Jageler, said he could barely look down at his scorecard between pitches because he was watching the clock and the umpire. If the umpire called a time violation, he wanted to be able to say whether the infraction was on the hitter or the pitcher.
“If you want to say anything, it’s got to be concise,” he said.
Things felt slightly harried on the concourse, too. Though not in direct response to the arrival of the pitch clock, the Nationals introduced several grab-and-go concession stands with self-service kiosks in hopes of reducing the amount of time fans spend waiting in line this season.
For all the anticipation, the rules were not entirely new. Recent minor leaguers experienced one or more of them as MLB tested them there. And everyone had spring training to adjust and feels things out. MLB officials circulated through Grapefruit and Cactus League clubhouses, soliciting feedback and determining how the rule changes were affecting play in unintended ways.
MLB listened and adjusted accordingly, implementing more stringent performance rules for bat boys and bat girls, whose hustle could now play into potential violations. They agreed to a common-sense approach to pitches that brush hitters back or send them sprawling out of the box, clarifying that pitch clock operators should wait to start the timer until that hitter has collected himself. The same will now be true when a pitcher covers first — the clock won’t start until he has made his way back to the infield.
Similar tweaks are likely to follow as the season unfolds. In the New York Mets’ game against the Marlins in Miami on Thursday, Jeff McNeil was waiting for his teammate, Pete Alonso, to get to first base after a walk.
Umpires called a strike against McNeil, saying he was not in the batter’s box quickly enough. Given that Mets Manager Buck Showalter is prone to postgame calls to major league officials about far smaller violations, MLB seems likely to address that occurrence moving forward.
In Los Angeles, the notion of a quicker game clashed with the local tradition of arriving about an hour late.
Dan Weller, 47, was dismayed to learn that it was already the fifth inning of the Dodgers’ opener against the Arizona Diamondbacks when he and his family arrived shortly after 8 pm.“We were listening on the radio and couldn’t believe how fast the game was going,” said Weller, who commuted from Orange County.
The Dodgers’ rout of the Diamondbacks was the last game to end on Thursday, and it did so by 9:45 on the West Coast. There has been some concern about how the shorter game times will dampen alcohol sales.
In a heavy-imbibing section on the club level of Dodgers Stadium, bartenders reported, perhaps unscientifically, that they sold the same amount of alcohol, just in a much shorter time. “It’s been a mad rush all of a sudden,” said bartender Kenia Martinez, and the towers of spent michelada cups and Estrella Jalisco cans on patrons’ tables suggested that they were pacing their drinking with the sped-up game.
But when the bar cut off patrons near the end of the seventh inning – just after 9 pm – the bartenders and their manager had to quell a rebellion of Dodgers fans whose internal clocks told them they were just getting started drinking. “The game went by too fast!” protested one patron, who gave his name as Robin. Rejected in his attempt to buy a spicy margarita, he said he was unaware of the new rules causing the speedy game until a reporter informed him.
Patrons begged, beseeched, bickered with and tried to bribe bartenders to break the rules and serve them later than regulations. A bartender named Ruben said that on a day full of changes, this was a sign of things staying the same. Ruben said of the 7th inning desperation: “This is my life 81 nights a year, man.”
Janes reported from New York; Strauss and Allen from Washington, D.C.; Wang from Arlington, Tex.; and Garcia-Roberts from Los Angeles.