AFL contest with clocks plays at speedy pace

Rafters-Saguaros tilt is first contested under time limits, new rules by committee

AFL contest with clocks plays at speedy pace

SCOTTSDALE -- When Major League Baseball announced its new Pace of Game Committee, Tuesday night's Arizona Fall League contest between the Surprise Saguaros and the Salt River Rafters may have been exactly the type of game it was envisioning.

While one game -- featuring the debut tests of the 20-second pitch clock and the 2-minute, 5-second limit between half-innings -- is too small of a sample size to draw any conclusions off of, the 2-hour, 14-minute game had to have pleased the committee.

"It's a little different, takes some getting used to," Salt River Rafters center fielder and Astros prospect Andrew Aplin said. "I think it's more on the pitching, a little bit more frustrating on the pitching side because they get in a hole, 3-0, they like to step off, get their composure and bounce back so they can throw three strikes in a row, but it's hard for them to do that when they have to watch the clock."

Tuesday's game at Salt River Fields was the first in which the new pitch clocks and pace-of-play initiatives were enforced.

Five clocks were on display -- two behind home plate, one at the edge of each dugout and one in left-center field -- to alert the players of the time left to either throw a pitch or get ready for the next inning.

Additionally, in all games played at Salt River Fields this season, teams have two minutes and five seconds between innings, and they are limited to three "time out" conferences per game. That includes meetings between pitchers and catchers, coaches and pitchers, and coaches and batters.

While those three rules are only being enforced at games held at Salt River Fields, other experimental rules are in place throughout the AFL.

No-pitch intentional walks, in which the manager signals to the home-plate umpire with four fingers to intentionally walk a batter, are being tested at all AFL venues, though no intentional passes have been issued through the first week of the season.

For all AFL games except those held at Salt River, batters are required to keep at least one foot in the batter's box unless there is a foul ball, a hit batsman, an umpire timeout, a runner attempting to score, a drag or push bunt, a wild pitch or passed ball. The batter may also step out of the box if the pitcher leaves the dirt area of the mound after receiving the ball or the catcher leaves the catcher's box to give signals.

"It's definitely different," Salt River Rafters catcher and Astros prospect Tyler Heineman said. "We've got to get used to it. It might make the pitchers rush a bit when they're coming in from the bullpen in-between innings. It might take away from their first couple of pitches because they're out of gas."

For the bulk of Tuesday's game the pitchers and batters navigated the clock with limited struggles, but there were exceptions. Three automatic balls were called when pitchers did not deliver within the allotted 20 seconds.

In the top of the first, Astros top pitching prospect and former No. 1 overall Draft pick Mark Appel was called for an automatic ball while working out of the stretch.

The runner on first -- Padres fleet-footed prospect Mallex Smith -- danced off the bag with just four seconds remaining on the clock. Smith got Appel's attention, and when the right-hander stepped off to look at the runner, the clock expired and a ball was called.

With pitchers forced to throw the ball to the plate or to first within 20 seconds, the step-off has essentially been eliminated, and Aplin said it is something runners on base can possibly take advantage of.

"You can read that, especially from second when [the clock] is right in your view," Aplin said. "We'll see how that plays out as it goes on, see if they change the spotting of the clocks or what not. But for right now, we're just taking it as it is and dealing with it."

William Boor is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @wboor. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.