MESA, Ariz. — Before the top of the second inning, the scoreboard above the left field bleachers displayed yellow text on a green background, with a title of: “Pitch Timer Rules.”
Just minutes before, Tristan Beck took too long to deliver a pitch to Cody Bellinger, earning an automatic ball. With a runner on first base, Beck had 20 seconds to throw a pitch to Bellinger.
That at-bat also featured a defense more traditionally positioned — with shortstop Brandon Crawford up the middle, second baseman and Thairo Estrada with his heels on the right field grass, against the former National League MVP who saw shifts in 90.5% of his at-bats last year.
Sloan Park, the Chicago Cubs’ spring training ballpark designed with shades of Wrigley Field, was on Saturday a testing ground for the Giants in an inflection moment of change for Major League Baseball. For the first time, the Giants played under the new set of rules that will usher in the next era of baseball.
The Giants’ 10-8 loss included at least three pitch clock violations — one each from Tristan Beck, Sam Long and Casey Schmitt — and constant wrinkles. The game, despite the 3:06 run time, moved rapidly as the idling between pitches vanished.
“It’s definitely faster,” Crawford said after he left the game. “There are little things that are probably dumb about it. But that’s going to be part of the game.”
“The pace is nice,” Kapler said. “And obviously, it slowed down considerably, but under the circumstances, I think it’s going to be a really good rule for baseball. Going to make things faster, more enjoyable for the fans. Just a better brand in my opinion.”
LaMonte Wade Jr., Casey Schmitt and Blake Sabol each hit home runs off Adrian Sampson, a Cubs starter who posted a 3.11 ERA in 21 big-league starts last year. Their contributions were each notable in various ways, but the rule changes hung over everything.
Last spring, the Giants were coming off a franchise-record 107 wins and, like the rest of the sport, dealt with a lockout-interrupted winter.
This spring, the Giants will try to put their previous 81-81 season in the past. They’ve contended with sky-high expectations set from an offseason defined by superstardom that never materialized. They brought in seven free agents, none of whom are named Aaron Judge or Carlos Correa.
Like the rest of the sport, they’ll deal with a dizzying amount of rule changes sprung on baseball all at once.
“I anticipate us being very inquisitive,” manager Gabe Kapler said Friday about how his club will approach the new rules at first. “Curious, asking a lot of questions, not worrying about not knowing. So, yeah: if I was to anticipate anything, I’d anticipate us being intellectually curious around the rules and seeing what happens.”
In Sloan Park, the Giants were certainly curious. Kapler and Cubs manager David Ross held an extended pregame meeting with the home plate umpire pregame to go over rules and make sure they could ask questions during the game. Crawford kept a running dialogue with the umpire stationed at second base who reminded him to avoid placing his heels on the outfield grass.
“That was one thing I didn’t even realize I did, but I just have to be conscious of,” Crawford said.
He also sought clarification on other rules, such as hitters calling timeout, he said postgame. The 36-year-old shortstop said he felt a little rushed in the batter’s box, but hopes afterwards felt more comfortable.
Everyone, even those with experience with the clock in the minors, will need a learning curve with the pitch clock era. Beck started a count 1-0 and and Schmitt began a count 0-1 before doing anything (batters must set up in the box before the clock hits eight seconds). Long got docked for taking too long to warm up between innings.
“The umpires were on top of it,” Sabol (2-for-3, double, HR) said. “There wasn’t any leeway. It’s not like they’re giving us any break-in period…they’re being pretty strict on it.”
Schmitt, in his first Cactus League game, dazzled with a pair of stellar defensive players. The exciting prospect charged one hopper and flipped to second for a double play, and later dove behind the third base bag for a back-hand, popped up and slung a one-hopper across the diamond in time.
Lauded for his glove, Schmitt is expected to start 2023 in Triple-A. The MiLB Gold Glover has emerged as one of the most promising prospects in San Francisco’s system.
Schmitt slid over to shortstop against some Cubs left-handed hitters, with Crawford playing as tightly to the second base dividing line as possible. Teams must always have two defenders on each side of second now, a change likely to improve batting averages on balls in play — particularly for pull-hitting lefties.
With bigger bases (and a disengagement limit), both veteran Stephen Piscotty and young speedster Bryce Johnson swiped bags. Baserunning could become a more egalitarian game.
But no rule will have a more sizable impact than the pitch clock.
Chicago’s starter, Marcus Stroman, rarely let the clock tick down into the single digits. Many Giants batters hardly left the batter’s box between pitches. Eric Hosmer called time once with the clock dwindling because he was spooked about the time crunch.
“It was a great hold,” Sabol said of the Hosmer mix-up. “It was a really long hold. I’ve been in that situation where I’m getting ready to hit, you’re getting a little antsy and all that. I think he felt uncomfortable.”It was still baseball, after all. San Francisco’s non-rostered pitcher, Drew Strotman, allowed six runs without recording an out not because of any rules, but because he couldn’t throw strikes. The Giants fell behind not because of a clock, but because they committed six errors.
The results of Cactus League games don’t matter. How quickly the Giants can adapt will.
“I felt it was normal,” Wade (1-for-2, HR) said. “I didn’t feel anything different.”