SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Now that Major League Baseball has settled on some pace-of-play changes for 2018, the focus can shift to a bigger and more pressing concern: rampant unemployment.
It has been evident for a while that players don't care for the pitch clock, and any hopes of a negotiated settlement to introduce the clock in 2018 were destined to go down to the wire. When dozens of free agents are still looking for work, it's not the best time for conciliation and dealmaking.
So with Cactus and Grapefruit League games scheduled to begin Friday, commissioner Rob Manfred listened to his pragmatic side. He refrained from forcing the clock on the players, settled for a limitation on mound visits and put the onus on players to start bringing games home at a brisker pace this season.
Pace of game is a big issue for Manfred and MLB owners as they try to sell the game to a younger demographic in an age of limited attention spans and bountiful entertainment options. It was on the radar in 2015 when MLB introduced new guidelines requiring hitters to keep one foot in the batter's box. Game times initially declined. But there has been some major backsliding over the past two seasons, so it was time for Plan B.
Manfred has enough purist in him that he has resisted the call from some owners to consider a limitation on relief appearances or other changes that might substantively change the game. Baseball began using a pitch clock in the minor leagues in 2015, but Manfred has made it clear from the outset that he's much more comfortable using a clock in the big leagues if players are on board with the idea -- rather than having to unilaterally implement it against their will.
A restriction on mound visits is an easier sell. With the possible exception of marathon replay reviews, nothing makes the crowd's eyes glaze over like a parade of mound conferences.
"I'm all-in on [limiting] the number of visits to the mound," said San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy. "I've said for two-three years, that's one of the biggest reasons this game is slowing down. Players are trying to help out the pitcher, but throughout the infield, guys are going to the mound. Catchers are going to the mound, and the pitching coach is going out there.
"As far as the game clock, that's going to be a tough one to where everyone is comfortable. Everyone has a ritual and it takes a little time, so it's probably good that they're taking a step back before they do something too drastic and players will have to adjust too much."
In a perfect world, spring training is the best place to work out any kinks with a rule change, but it's not going to happen in Florida or Arizona. The next time Buster Posey visits the mound to confer with Madison Bumgarner about a pitcher-batter matchup at Scottsdale Stadium will be a first.
Still, even the most routine changes can have far-reaching consequences in baseball, and the mound-visit rule is no different. Catchers and pitchers routinely confer to make sure they're in sync before the next pitch. But as Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell points out, catchers also visit the mound routinely to stall for time while relievers warm up in the bullpen. Now that MLB is keeping count, managers will have to adjust and find a way not to force pitchers to enter a game when they haven't had a chance to get loose.
"[The limit on] mound visits affects a lot of people, in my opinion," Counsell said. "It affects the catchers. It affects everybody in the bullpen, and the manager and pitching coach's decisions. I think it could be a little bit of a health issue, too. But I do hope we can improve the pace and make it work.
"It's going to require some change for all of us. There are times when we slow the game down so we can get players ready in the bullpen. If we're not able to slow the game down, that means we might have to get players ready sooner, or throwing more up-and-downs. It could be more, 'Get ready, stop, get ready, stop.' That's something we monitor and we're very cognizant of down in the bullpen. This, to me, is going to add to what we ask [from pitchers]."
For the moment, players and the commissioner's office are engaged in a collaborative effort toward a mutual goal of bringing games home in less than three hours. Next spring at this time, who knows? Monday's official statement from Tony Clark of the players' association was supportive of Manfred's principal goal, with enough of an undercurrent of resistance to suggest this issue isn't going away.
"Players were involved in the pace-of-game discussion from day one, and are committed to playing a crisp and exciting brand of baseball for the fans," Clark said. "But they remain concerned about rule changes that could alter the outcome of games and the fabric of the game itself -- now or in the future."
This time around, the players avoided being subjected to the rule change they dislike the most. Next year, they might not have a choice.