Blue Jays preparing for likely pitch clock in 2018

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TORONTO – In 2015 and 2016, before Ryan Tepera had established himself as a dependable big-league reliever, the Blue Jays constantly shuttled him back and forth between triple-A and the majors.

For the most part his job description stayed the same regardless of where he pitched: enter in relief and allow as little damage as possible for an inning or two. But one thing did change for Tepera. While pitching at Buffalo he had to deliver a pitch within 20 seconds or be charged with a ball.

“It was a ridiculous thing,” Tepera said. “I really wasn’t aware of it that much. I wasn’t thinking about it. I actually got called a couple of times on it and I wasn’t too happy about it, I’ll tell you that. I hope they don’t incorporate that, but I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Tepera’s teammates were similarly unsure about the likelihood of a pitch clock when asked about the possibility at the Blue Jays’ Winter Fest Saturday, but MLB seems determined to implement one. Because the league proposed the change last year, it can impose pace of play changes unilaterally, without MLBPA approval.

“My preferred path is a negotiated agreement with the players, but if we can’t get an agreement we are going to have rule changes in 2018,” commissioner Rob Manfred said at the GM Meetings in November.

One way or another, the Blue Jays are mentally preparing for the likelihood that a 20-second pitch clock will be implemented with the bases empty. Another proposed change would limit mound visits to one per pitcher per inning by a manager, coach or player. To manager John Gibbons, that change appears more problematic than the pitch clock itself.

“I don’t like seeing catchers going out to the mound all the time,” Gibbons said. “But there’s some times you need it whether it’s changing the sign or bringing a new kid up here first time up.”

Under the proposed rules, teams would have to make a pitching change if one pitcher gets two visits in the same inning. While catchers such as Willson Contreras and Gary Sanchez visit the mound routinely, Russell Martin prefers to be selective.

“To be honest I’m not a big visit guy,” he said. “When I go visit it’s usually to give a break for the pitcher or we’re in a tough situation. I’ve never really believed that I can go to the mound and have this 10 seconds of wisdom that’s going to help the guy execute this amazing pitch.”

Instead, Martin visits pitchers to change the momentum of the game or give his pitcher a breather if his heart rate has spiked after covering bases. As such, the proposed rule change wouldn’t impact him much.

Nine-inning games averaged three hours and five minutes during the 2017 regular season, and 3:29 during the post-season. A pitch clock could keep fans more engaged, so Martin’s remaining open-minded about the possibility.

“I don’t want to just say something and regret it,” he said. “Baseball’s baseball. They’re trying to make it a faster game and more enjoyable for fans and that’s what it’s all about. You want the fans to be happy, but at the same time you want to keep the integrity of the game the way it is.”

Last spring, as baseball instituted the automated intentional walk, many observers spoke out critically, including Martin. Once the season began, the change was barely noticeable, but the average time of game still increased by five minutes. Now, more changes are looming.

“Typically, I think humans tend to adjust,” Martin said. “(The pitch clock is) going to be a little adjustment period. Hopefully it works and there’s no issues, but we’ll see.”

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As for Marcus Stroman, he’s not at all concerned about the pitch clock.

“To be honest with you, man, I don’t think about it at all. I show up every fifth day and do all I can to win,” Stroman said. “That’s all I’m concerned about. I really don’t focus on anything on the outside. I know what it takes for me to be elite out there and that’s what I do. All the outside noises and factors are completely irrelevant.”

Relatively speaking, Stroman’s a quick worker, with an average of 22.5 seconds between pitches. Tepera, however, took 28.3 seconds between pitches in 2017—the 31st slowest pace among all relievers.

By opening day, slow-working pitchers could be a relic of baseball’s past. In the meantime, there’s a full spring for pitchers, catchers and managers to get accustomed to some subtle but significant rule changes.

“I’m sure there’ll be some bitching and moaning about it,” Gibbons said. “But if it becomes the rule then you’ve got to follow it.”

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