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MLB addresses pace of play in AFL

A countdown clock was one of several new rules put in place for Arizona Fall League games this year. Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

PHOENIX -- When Mark Appel was pitching at Stanford, coach Mark Marquess occasionally dusted off a time-honored baseball principle to remind the Cardinal players that no lead was big enough to feel safe and no deficit too overwhelming to overcome.

"He would always say, 'There's no clock in this game' -- meaning, 'The game is never over. If you're up by 10 runs, you can't run out the clock. You're still going to have to get the final three outs," Appel said.

Against that backdrop, Appel experienced a bit of culture shock while pitching for the Salt River Rafters in the recently completed Arizona Fall League. When he stared in at the catcher, he saw fingers flashing signs. But with a glimpse toward either dugout or to left-center field at his team's home venue, Appel could see three counters winding toward a conclusion. "20 ... 19 ... 18 ... 17." It was a digital mandate not to dawdle.

As the average game time surpassed three hours this season, Major League Baseball embraced the idea that it might have a burgeoning problem. What better place to seek solutions to the issue of time creep than in the AFL, a six-week finishing school for prospects each October and November?

"From all the evidence we've had in the Fall League, this has been a real positive as far as gathering information. That's what we have to do first before we figure out what's going to work at the major-league level."

Joe Torre, MLB's executive
VP of baseball operations

In the fall of 2013, MLB experimented with expanded replay and the Rule 7.13 home plate-collision directive in the Fall League. This year it tried to indoctrinate top prospects in the art of baseball with a minimum of fidgeting, staring, batting-glove tugging, rosin-bag tossing and otherwise unproductive downtime.

Any rules changes will require a cooperative effort between the commissioner's office and the players' association. MLB spokesman Pat Courtney said the pace-of-game initiative is being discussed at the owners meetings in Kansas City this week and that there will be "ongoing internal and external conversations" between MLB and the union over the next couple of months.

Joe Torre, MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations, said he was encouraged after checking out an AFL game or two last week.

"I was impressed," Torre said. "I wasn't a real fan of clocks. But the players are all informed on what we're doing, and the games have been a lot crisper to watch. From all the evidence we've had in the Fall League, this has been a real positive as far as gathering information. That's what we have to do first before we figure out what's going to work at the major league level."

Move it along, guys

The AFL, which wrapped up Saturday with Salt River's 14-7 victory over the Peoria Javelinas in the title game, focused on six areas in an attempt to slow the inexorable tide toward marathon baseball.

• Hitters were required to keep one foot in the batter's box throughout each at-bat, except in the case of a foul ball, wild pitch, chin music that made a hitter sprawl out of the box, passed ball or a handful of other minor disruptions.

• The one-foot-in-the-box rule didn't apply at Salt River Field at Talking Stick, where the 20-second clock ensured that pitchers and hitters would tend to business as quickly as possible. When a pitcher allowed the clock to lapse, the umpire signaled ball. When the hitter was at fault, it resulted in a strike.

There was no mandate for pitchers to be set or actually deliver the ball in 20 seconds. The countdown clock stopped when a pitcher began his motion in the windup or began to come set in the stretch. Otherwise, baserunners would have been able to time each pitcher's delivery and steal at will.

• On intentional walks, the catcher flashed four fingers and the hitter immediately jogged to first base.

• Teams were allowed a total of three mound conferences per game. Although that might sound oppressive, MLB officials said it was rare for a team to even make two visits during Fall League games.

• A maximum 2:05 break was in effect between innings, and hitters were required to be in the box by the 1:45 mark.

• A 2:30 break applied during pitching changes. Like the 2:05 stoppage between innings, that's the same guideline used in MLB regular-season games. But umpires made a stricter effort to enforce it in Arizona.

If events in the Fall League were any indication, the new pace-of-game procedures are a work in progress. Each day, it seemed, brought another twist or unexpected circumstance for AFL players and managers to ponder.

In Appel's first outing, he was busted twice for letting the 20-second clock lapse. It happened once when the runner on first made a false break toward second and Appel stepped off the rubber. It happened again when he overthrew the catcher on his final warmup toss and 15 seconds ticked off the clock before one of his teammates retrieved the ball.

The three-conferences-per-game rule also has prompted some debate. What happens when the pitcher throws a fastball when the catcher is expecting a curve and they need confer at the mound to get things straight? Should that count against a team's allotment?

"I think umpires have discretion on cross-ups, when it's a safety thing," said Colorado prospect Ryan Casteel, a catcher who played first base in the AFL. "But when a pitcher is struggling and you want to go out and give him a blow, it can be tough. You have to think, 'Is this a spot where I really want to use that timeout?' I'm not a huge fan of that [rule]. But if they think it's going to work, hopefully they can make some adjustments to make it worthwhile."

Andy Haines, who managed the Salt River team in the AFL, said umpires did a superb job enforcing the new rules while handling their other responsibilities. But he thinks umpires need the latitude to exercise individual judgment in unforeseen situations.

"I tell people, 'It's more complex than just having the clock,'" Haines said. "All these variables come in, and baseball plays happen. I don't want to speculate for MLB, but I think it's hard to make it that black-and-white. I want the umpire's discretion involved. You don't want a game decided on a technicality."

Quicker pace, leisurely game

A lot of baseball insiders routinely distinguish between time of game and pace of game. MLB can abide a 13-11 game with 30 hits and eight walks that drags on for three hours, 50 minutes. The 3-1 game with eight hits that runs for 3:30 is more of a turnoff to fans.

Case in point: Game 3 of the American League Division Series, when Baltimore's Bud Norris spent 4 1/3 innings staring at his spikes, stepping on and off the rubber and otherwise lulling fans into a collective coma. It took the Orioles and Tigers 2 hours and 4 minutes to score zero runs, bang out four hits and complete four innings. The game was symptomatic of the entire postseason, when games lasted an average of 3:26:18. Only the 2009 postseason featured longer running times.

Washington Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon might have been referencing games like this in July, when he told the Washington Post that he doesn't watch baseball on TV because it's "too long and boring." But the aversion to long, dull games spans generations. Atlanta Braves president of baseball operations John Hart, who is 66 years old and has been in professional ball since 1969, thinks a balance needs to be struck between quickening the pace of play without disrupting baseball's natural flow.

Hart contends that there's a place for gamesmanship between the lines. He flashes back to the deciding game of the 1995 American League Championship Series, when Cleveland's Dennis Martinez controlled the pace in a 4-0 win over Seattle and Randy Johnson.

"Dennis was great at being able to slow the game," Hart said. "He would get in a jam and take 45 seconds or a minute. He'd get on the mound, step off, wander around, call his catcher out and kind of stop the tempo. There's an art in that, if you will. We're all talking about pace of game, but here's a guy out there who's trying to play the game and we've got an artificial clock on him. That kind of bothers me a little bit.

"On the other hand, if guys are hustling on and off the field, there's nothing wrong with that. I'm also very tired of watching guys step out of the box and wander around and double-glove it. I like to see a fast-paced game, and I think everybody is interested in taking a good look at it."

Taken to an extreme, the focus on time-saving could lead to some frightening scenarios. Can MLB even contemplate the idea of a base on balls in a pivotal spot in the World Series because a pitcher allowed the 20-second clock to expire?

"I can just picture big situations," Appel said. "It's bases loaded and one out and you need to get a big out here. You fall behind 2-0 and you want to step off and relax and get a breather. You don't want to get behind 3-0. You need to get a strike. But if you're on the clock, you don't have that time to take a step back and relax."

As a long-term endeavor, MLB's best bet might be to ingrain positive habits in younger players in hopes of breeding more Mark Buehrles who simply get the ball and throw it. In turn, that will produce hitters who need to make sure they're vigilant rather than adjusting their batting gloves at the plate.

Maybe baseball's new focus on time management will lead to a return of the bullpen cart, as relievers feel compelled to arrive at the mound more quickly. It might even put a damper on the practice of hitters waiting to leave the on-deck circle in anticipation of their "walk-up" music. But it took years for the two-hour, 30-minute game to become the 3-hour game. It's going to take a while to reverse the trend.

"Baseball has been tried and tested over 100 years to get us the game we have now," Appel said. "What does the pitch clock affect? It just affects the length of a game. If that's the biggest thing we're concerned about, I feel like the rules of baseball are pretty good."