06 Feb New Rules Could Be a Hit
Above: Miners John Baker (photo credit: Phil Hoops)
Skylands Stadium won’t be the same this year. Two strange new additions will be obvious as soon as fans reach their seats. The game of baseball won’t be quite the same either. That will be obvious as soon as the first pitch is thrown.
From now on, forget about pitchers taking their own sweet time on the mound in between pitches. And forget about hitters taking their own sweet time adjusting all their gear and wiggling around in the batter’s box.
Those days are gone.
The 2023 baseball season will begin a new era in the Major Leagues and in the Frontier League, the nation’s largest MLB independent partner league. Beginning this year, both the pitcher and the batter must obey the new “pitch clock” that will be displayed in every ballpark, or else they’ll face an instant penalty of a called “ball” if the pitcher takes too long or a called “strike” if the hitter isn’t ready to hit in the batter’s box.
Visitors at Skylands will quickly notice one countdown clock behind home plate for the pitcher and infielders to see and another clock in the outfield for the batter and catcher to see.
And the new manager of the Sussex County Miners likes the new rules.
“I’m all about pitching and defense, and the clock helps them both,” said Chris Widger, a Big League catcher for 10 years who managed a Kansas City Royals Double-A team last year.
“Pitchers pitch better when they get the ball and pitch. We’re not really talking about hurrying up, we’re just eliminating all the wasting of time. And defense definitely plays better when they’re not standing around all day in between pitches and waiting all day for the pitcher to finally pitch.”
Major League Baseball experimented with the pitch clock last year in affiliated minor leagues and the results were clear: The pace of play quickened, and the overall length of games decreased. In the 2022 experiments, game times were reduced by an average of 26 minutes per game.
In 2023, the Miners and the rest of the Frontier League will operate under several new rules:
— If there are no runners on base, the pitcher must begin his motion to deliver a pitch within 14 seconds in between pitches.
— If there is at least one runner on base, then the pitcher has 18 seconds.
— If the pitcher takes too long, then the umpire calls a “ball.”
— The batter must be ready to hit at the 9-second mark. If not, then the umpire imposes a “called strike.”
In the Major Leagues, the rules will be slightly different: The pitch clock in the Majors will allow 15 seconds with no runners on base and 20 seconds with at least one runner on base, and the batter must be ready at the 8-second mark.
One other new rule will be identical in both the Majors and in the Frontier League:
The pitcher will be allowed two “disengagements” from the pitching rubber per at-bat, either merely stepping off or throwing to a base to attempt a pickoff. If a pitcher leaves the rubber a third time, that disengagement must result in a successful pickoff, or else it will be called a balk and the runner will advance.
The Frontier League will have a “grace period” and umpires will just issue warnings on both the pitch clock and pitcher disengagement rules for the first two weeks of the season, then full enforcement will begin on Tuesday, May 30, when the Miners will be at home at Skylands hosting the Quebec Capitales.
Frontier League president Eric Krupa said in a statement announcing the new rules that they “will increase the pace of Frontier League games and provide our fans a more enjoyable experience when they come out to our ballparks or watch our games on Flo Sports.”
In previous years, the league had already created rules calling for the batter to keep a foot in the batter’s box between pitches and to limit the number of pitching mound visits, all in efforts to quicken a game’s pace and shorten its overall length.
“It’s what fans have been telling us that they want,” said Widger, who takes over a Miners franchise that finished 54-41 last year, knocked out of playoff contention in the final week of the season.
“The clock will be a little strange at first, but we’ll all get used to it. Players will like it, I guarantee you. Some pitchers may not love it right away, but they’ll get used to it, too.”
Meanwhile, 51-year-old Widger is spending the winter in his lifelong home of South Jersey shaping up this year’s Miners roster, while also working part-time as an electrical contractor with his father-in-law. His wife is a teacher, and he has a 23-year-old son playing rookie ball in Texas, a daughter attending college in Delaware, and an 11-year-old daughter he picks up each day from middle school.
MINER NUGGETS: In recent trades with their local rival, the New Jersey Jackals, the Miners obtained two real iron men in first baseman Dalton Combs and catcher Jason Agresti. Combs, a 28-year-old lefty, played in all 94 Jackals games last year, finishing second in the league with a .354 batting average and tying for No. 8 with 77 RBI. Agresti, 26, was behind the plate in 87 games, batting .287 after leading the team in hitting the previous year… Last year, the two Garden State teams faced off 12 times; this year, it will be nine times – three at Skylands and six at the Jackals’ new home in Paterson’s historic Hinchliffe Stadium. The Jackals’ home opener at Hinchliffe will be against the Miners on Saturday night, May 20.
By Carl Barbati, former sports editor of the New Jersey Herald, Daily Record and The Daily Trentonian.