When the New Orleans Zephyrs’ 2015 season starts on Thursday, it will bring a change different from that of the roster, coaching staff or upgrades to the ballpark.
This season, Major League Baseball is implementing a 20-second pitch clock in Classes Triple-A and Double-A in an effort to improve the flow of games. If the experiment works, the pitch clock could end up in Major League Baseball.
Zephyrs second-year manager Andy Haines saw the clock up close with River City of the Arizona Fall League. A pitch clock was used for the Rafters’ home games last season. It forces pitchers and hitters, whose repeated stepping out of the batter’s box also adds time between to pitches, to keep an at-bat moving.
Unlike football, basketball, hockey and even boxing, baseball has existed for well over a century without a clock.
“Some (Fall League players) obviously weren’t very familiar with it,” said Haines, who guided River City to the league title. “Change is tough on anybody. A lot of them weren’t real fond of it. Some guys said ‘I don’t notice; I work real fast, anyway. Some of them were pretty vocal; they didn’t like it.
“At the Triple-A level, there’s going to be some resistance simply because guys have played a long time without a clock.”
Major League Baseball has watched the game go from the most popular among fans to one of the least popular. Perhaps a reason is people who have grown up in the Internet era are accustomed to a quicker pace.
However, Haines said MLB, in conducting its experiment during the Fall League, was adamant its goal was not to shorten games.
“They wanted to determine the pace of play,” Haines said. “They wanted things happening during the game. They didn’t want the down time. They wanted less standing around. The pace picked up a bit. However long the game took, they wanted things happening during that time.”
Television networks have decried the length it takes to play pro baseball games. And over the years, they have gotten longer. Last season, for example, the average Zephyrs home game lasted 2 hours, 57 minutes. Five years ago, Zephyrs media relations director Dave Sachs said, Z’s games lasted an average of 2:37.
Haines said some of his pitchers worked too slowly for his liking, but that ineffective pitching, and thereby more offense, usually is the reason games last long.
Haines also said his Fall League team’s games were not noticeably different in length of time than other games. He’s hopeful, though, that data from the games will be used to help this season in Triple-A.
With the clock, a pitcher gets 20 seconds to pitch from the time the catcher throws the ball back to him. If the clock expires, either a ball is charged to the hitter or a strike to the batter.
“My hope is that they let the umpires manage it,” he said. “In the Fall League, if that clock hit zero, it was no ‘Hey, this happened or that happened.’
“There are nuances of the game that are so hard to dictate with a clock that is so black and white.”
Baseball’s pace increase will force adjustments concerning the on-field fan games and promotions that are a huge part of Minor League Baseball, Zephyrs General Manager Mike Schline said.
“We’re going to have less time with warmup pitches and such, between innings,” he said. “It’s going to be a learning curve for everybody.”
The Zephyrs, nonetheless, have a good lineup of promotions, he said. There will be proven ones such as Star Wars Night and Bark In The Park, when fans bring their dogs to the ballpark. However, there will be more appearances by personalities. On April 12, for instance, the personalities from the Animal Channel TV show “Pit Bulls and Parolees” will appear.
The Zephyrs also have moved up the starting time of Monday-Wednesday games from 7 p.m to 6 to draw more families. One reason those are low-attendance days, Schline said, is fans often don’t leave the ballpark until after 10 p.m. Starting an hour earlier should help alleviate that.
The addition of drink rails proved to be a big hit at the recent Wally Pontiff game, Schline said. The top seats on Zephyr Field’s main, bottom seating area were taken out and replaced with a metal bar table-type amenity that stretches all around the stadium. It allows fans to stand, drink and socialize while also taking in the game.
Claiborne shelved by shoulder
Former Tulane pitcher Preston Claiborne, a reliever, has a slightly injured shoulder and the parent Miami Marlins will monitor him for two weeks before he joins the Zephyrs, Haines said. The Zephyrs, he said, will have a new rotation of starting pitchers.