PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Jeff McNeil thinks he’ll adapt quickly to baseball’s big shift — really, an anti-shift.
“I’m playing a normal second base now instead of in short right field. I’ve been playing second base my whole life so it shouldn’t be too hard to adjust to,” the New York Mets All-Star infielder and big league batting champion said.
Spring training opens Monday in Florida and Arizona for players reporting early ahead of the World Baseball Classic, and the rest of pitchers and catchers will start workouts two days later.
Following an offseason of record spending in which the New York Mets approached a $370 million payroll, opening day on March 30 will feature three of the biggest changes since the pitcher’s mound was lowered for the 1969 season:
— Two infielders will be required on either side of second base and all infielders must be within the outer boundary of the infield when the pitcher is on the rubber.
— Base size will increase to 18-inch squares from 15 inches, causing a decreased distance of 4 1/2 inches.
— A pitch clock will be used, set at 15 seconds with no runners on base and 20 seconds with runners.
“This has been an eight-year effort for us,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said Thursday, thinking back to when the first experiments were formulated. “I hope we get what our fans want — faster, more action, more athleticism.”
Spring training started a month late last year because of the lockout, and many players scrambled for deals as camps opened. This offseason has proceeded more normally and some of the focus will be on stars with new homes: Jacob deGrom (Texas), Justin Verlander (New York Mets), Trea Turner (Philadelphia) and Xander Bogaerts (San Diego).
Some teams also have new bosses in Bruce Bochy (Texas), Matt Quatraro (Kansas City), Pedro Grifol (Chicago White Sox) and Skip Schumaker (Miami). What they face is far different from the challenges thrown at John McGraw and Connie Mack, or even Earl Weaver and Billy Martin.
Baseball’s timelessness spanned a century and a half in a sport obsessed with its sepia-toned history of flannel-clad pioneers.
“In baseball, there’s no clock,” Richard Greenberg wrote in his Tony Award-winning play “Take Me Out.” “What could be more generous than to give everyone all these opportunities and the time to seize them in, as well?”
Turns out, all those dead minutes became an annoyance in an age of decreased attention spans and increased entertainment competition.
The average time of a nine-inning game stretched from 2 hours, 30 minutes in the mid-1950s to 2:46 in 1989 and 3:10 in 2021before dropping to 3:04 last year following the introduction of the PitchCom electronic device to signal pitches.
“Pitch clock, I’m thrilled about,” Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash said. “Speed the game up. They get too long. If we’re playing the Red Sox or playing the Yankees, they turn into four-hour ballgames.”
Use of a slightly stricter clock in the minors (14/19 at Triple-A and 14/18 at lower levels) cut the average game time from 3:03 in 2021 to 2:38 last year.
“My guess is in April you’re going to probably see some incidents. It’s inevitable,” Cleveland manager Terry Francona said. “Hitters are going to step out or somebody’s going to get a ball.”
With the rise in shifts and higher velocity pitches, the batting average dropped from .269 in 2006 to .243 last year, its lowest since the record of .239 in 1968. Batting average for left-handed hitters was .236 last year, down from .254 in 2016, when lefties were one point below the big league average.
Defensive shifts on balls in play totaled 70,853 last season, according to revised totals from Sports Info Solutions. That’s up from 59,063 in 2021 and 2,349 in 2011.
“I think for left-handed hitters, we’re trying to put the game back where it was historically,” Manfred.
McNeil, a lefty batter, is the big league batting champion and likely to benefit from infielders repositioned back to where they were before the Analytics Era.
“When they do shift me, I just hit against the shift. And when they don’t shift me, I just hit,” he said. “When they do give me a giant hole somewhere, then I’m going to pad to get the ball through there and try to get my single.”