'Timeless game': Tigers decry pace-of-play proposals

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — Michael Fulmer probably isn’t the right guy to ask about pace-of-play issues.

“I pride myself on under three-hour games,” he said Thursday, before embarking on the Tigers’ Winter Caravan. “I think we had one game under three hours in the first month of the season last year and it was my start. I let everyone know that. I was the one working quickly.”

Tigers starter Michael Fulmer says mound visits by the catcher are important. “More times than not, when a catcher comes out, it’s for signs or strategy,” he said. “It’s important what he has to say. He’s not out there telling jokes or asking what you’re having for dinner.”

Major League Baseball will impose a pitch clock on pitchers this season and likely will limit mound visits to one per inning for players, managers and coaches. The players’ association already has voted down commissioner Rob Manfred’s initial proposal.

Manfred and union chief Tony Clark are expected to meet this week to work toward a compromise. But Manfred has made it clear he doesn’t need the players’ approval, and will implement the changes without the union’s consent.

Average game times last season climbed to a new high, 3 hours, 5 minutes. The specifics of the proposal aren’t finalized, but Manfred proposed 20 seconds between pitches in all situations and 30 seconds between batters.

“Don’t let anybody on base and the games will go quicker,” Fulmer said. “Pitch better and the games will be quicker.”

Easy for Fulmer, the former American League Rookie of the Year, to say. The general consensus among Tigers pitchers is they are opposed to the clock, especially when the penalty for infraction after one warning would be a ball added to the count.

“You start doing that, then you kind of take away the integrity of the game,” Alex Wilson said. “Baseball is a timeless game. We’re the only timeless sport. I think we should keep it that way. And as players, we voted to keep it that way.”

Nobody, Wilson said, is against shorter games.

“We understand fans want quicker games, more action,” Wilson said. “But at the same time, you’ve got to think about injury risks. Once you take something away from the game, what does it leave you with?

“What kind of show are going to get if you are playing speedball?”

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With nobody on base, most pitchers agree that 20 seconds between pitches is plenty. It gets a little stickier when there are runners on base, particularly in the later in innings when the game is on the line.

“I am sure there will be some way to wiggle around it,” Jordan Zimmermann said. “If the pitch clock is winding down, you can step off and it should have to reset or something like that.”

A pitch clock could have an impact on a pitcher’s ability to manage the running game, as well. One tool pitchers use to hold runners on base is to hold the baseball for a few beats and vary their times to the plate.

“What, are they going to take away the hold sign?” Zimmermann said. “You have a guy at second base, so you look in for the sign, you get the hold sign, you check back on the runner, you peek at the pitch clock?

“I don’t think it’s going to work.”

The Tigers are going to have a mostly young pitching staff. And even though some already have worked with a pitch clock in the minor leagues — it’s been used in Double-A and Triple-A since 2015, the big-league game can speed up on a young pitcher in a hurry, without seeing a clock ticking down out of the corner of their eye.

“I am not totally for it,” said Rick Anderson, the longtime Twins pitching coach now the Tigers’ bullpen coach. “I’ve always talked with pitchers that nothing can happen until you throw the ball. But before you throw the ball, you’ve got to get under control, and control what you want to do in your mind.

“I just hope they don’t force these kids to work quicker and their thought process isn’t on the pitch or what’s going on in the game. I just hope it’s done the right way.”

Tigers pitcher Matthew Boyd says “working fast shouldn’t be a problem for anybody. And that’s our goal, collectively, as a team.”

Starter Matthew Boyd has struggled the last two years with keeping the game from speeding up on him. Once he simplified his delivery and was better able to repeat his mechanics and command his pitches more consistently, he became one of the team’s most reliable pitchers at the end of last season.

The last thing he needs, you’d think, is to be rushed by a pitch clock.

“You want to dictate the game, dictate the tempo and make people hit on your terms,” Boyd said. “Working fast shouldn’t be a problem for anybody. And that’s our goal, collectively, as a team. It’ll be interesting to see, but I don’t think it’ll have too much of a bearing. I don’t think personally that it will affect me.”

The veteran pitchers will take a wait-and-see approach to it.

“I am not going to go about my business any differently,” Wilson said. “We will see how the cards lay over the first month or so. If I am getting warned or fined, I will have to make an adjustment.

“But going into the year, I am not going to change anything because there is a clock.”

Veteran starter Mike Fiers agreed.

“If it’s a rule, then you have to abide by it,” he said. “But I just want to go out and pitch and not worry about it. These are the kinds of things that take you away from what you need to focus on — like getting guys out. This game is hard enough. You’ve got to respect the rule, but you don’t want to get too far away from your game.”

What seems to bother the pitchers and coaches more is limiting the mound visits. Previously, catchers and infielders could visit the mound as often as they needed to. Managers and coaches always had to make a pitching change on the second visit.

Under the proposal, there would be just one visit allowed — regardless if it’s by a player, coach or manager.

“That’s the only part I disagree with,” Fulmer said. “More times than not, when a catcher comes out, it’s for signs or strategy. It’s important what he has to say. He’s not out there telling jokes or asking what you’re having for dinner.”

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With teams being more proficient at stealing signs from the catcher, pitch signs are more complicated and being changed more frequently. Thus, more mound visits have occurred to make sure the pitcher and catcher are on the same page.

“There is a reason for mound visits,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “I know sometimes it gets out of hand, but for the most part, mound visits are important. They are to discuss strategy. There are times when I have to go out there to check on my pitcher to see if he’s OK.

“So if you talk to your pitcher once, you can’t go back out there if you think he might be hurting? How are they going to stop that?”

The mound visits that are slowing the game, Gardenhire said, are the ones caused by pitchers and catchers who can’t agree on what pitch to throw.

“You get the pitcher and catcher who can’t get it together; he keeps shaking off the sign, then the catcher has to go out,” Gardenhire said. “Those are the mound visits you got to rid of. You have to get the pitchers and catchers on the same page.”

The league is working on technological ways to curtail the sign stealing, especially the clubhouse video room espionage. But still, the game can get dangerous when the catcher and pitcher get crossed up on pitch calls.

Just ask umpire Quinn Wolcott, who was drilled in the chest by a pitch from Tigers pitcher Buck Farmer last September, a fastball that catcher John Hicks, who had called for a breaking ball, never touched.

Limited mound visits could increase the chances of missed signs.

“They better start putting head phones on pitchers and catchers then,” Gardenhire quipped. “This is still about winning games. Not about the clock. There are a lot of things that can go wrong here because we are trying to speed up the game — and I get it.

“But we still have to make sure we don’t screw the game up.”