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With the new pitch clock, times are changing for the M-Braves

Published: May. 2, 2022 at 8:27 PM CDT
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PEARL, Miss. (WLBT) - It did not take long for Coleman Huntley to realize that a new world order was upon him.

Making his Double-A and 2022 season debut back on April 10 against the Montgomery Biscuits, the right-handed reliever was called on in the middle innings to protect a 6-1 Mississippi Braves lead. There were no noticeable nerves as Huntley proceeded to record outs without allowing much traffic on the base path.

Then all of the sudden, with a baseball still in his glove, the home plate umpire signaled for time and called a ball.

The pitch clock got another victim in the first weekend of its existence.

“I was just in the zone as I was pitching, I wasn’t even paying attention to the clock,” says Huntley who recovered nicely, giving up just one earned run over two and a third innings in what turned out to be the M-Braves first victory of the season.

Still, when it initially happened, he couldn’t believe it.

With Minor League Baseball instituting the pitch clock for AA and AAA this season, the coaches and pitching staff simulated scenarios with it throughout spring training. But for a group of guys who have gone about pitching their entire lives without an arbitrary time restraint, it’s going to take more than a month or so of practice to kick old habits.

“After I had thrown the pitch, I walked too close to the catcher,” Huntley says. “Now. I have to kind of stand on the (mound) just so I don’t run out of time.

“Realizing you have to change up what you’ve been doing forever, it’s a little bit of a shock.”

In a lot of ways, this shock to the system has been a long time coming for a sport that has been trying to desperately trying to find ways to speed up games in hopes of garnering the attention spans of a society that thinks 280 characters in a tweet is too long.

And if speeding up games is the only objective, early returns show that the pitch clock has been a success. According to a report from The Athletic, the average game time through the first month of this season has been two hours and 39 minutes -- a full 20 minutes shorter than what it was a year ago without the clock.

However, the sudden transition has thrown quite a monkey wrench into arguably the most meticulous position in all of sports.

“I understand that they want to speed up pace of play,” Huntley points out. “But we need to make sure that it doesn’t affect the way the game is played.”

The application of the clock is not that complex.

When the bases are empty, the pitcher has 14 seconds to deliver a pitch. With runners on base, it bumps up to 18 seconds. If a pitch isn’t thrown within the timeframe, a ball is added to the count.

So it speeds up the process significantly, and in some cases, discourages pitchers from shaking off the first sign a catcher calls for, even if it isn’t a pitch he may be comfortable with. And if the clock is running close to zero, it can give base runners a chance to better time a pitcher’s delivery for an early jump on the base paths.

“It works in their favor because they know you are going to have to pitch,” says Atlanta Braves #10 prospect Jared Shuster, who notes that you can step off the mound or have the catcher call time to reset the clock.

“I’m lucky because I usually work fast anyway, but not being able to hold as long (with runners on), that’s been the biggest adjustment for me so far.”

However, like with anything in baseball, there are ways to manipulate the rules to your own advantage.

M-Braves pitching coach Bo Henning had some previous experience with the pitch clock while coaching in MLB’s Arizona Fall League. One of the first things he noticed was that the start of the clock, like a strike zone, is dependent on the umpire -- some have a quick trigger, others don’t.

He also realized that the clock puts pressure on the hitter as well, because they too have to be in the box and ready to go before time runs out.

“You see the difference where hitters don’t have a chance to breathe as well,” explains Henning. “If you’re going in there and making your pitches, you’re the person who has the ball and is in the driver’s seat.

“Those first three or four games, it was a little chaotic, but after that, it seemed to work itself out.”

That is the hope in all of this.

Once the digestion period of the pitch clock wears off, Minor League Baseball will gradually accept it and press on. But the larger question remains... does the pitch clock soon get the call up to MLB?

It would not be the first time the Majors use the lower levels as a guinea pig. Seven-inning double headers and the ghost runner on second base in extra innings are some recent examples of successful minor league trials. Larger bases and limits to shifting are currently being tested.

As for the pitch clock, Huntley feels like the move to MLB is inevitable. And he’s not opposed to that happening, it just needs some tuning.

After all, for as different as things seem this season for pitchers, the fundamental principle remains the same.

“Pitching in generals comes down to executing pitches,” Huntley says. “You can either make an excuse or adapt and overcome.”

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