MARYVALE, Ariz – The team bus outside the visitors’ clubhouse at American Family Fields of Phoenix was warmed up and ready to go at 3:30 Saturday afternoon.
The upside of the MLB’s new rules was obvious in one statistic – 2 hour and 21 minutes, the time of game for the Dodgers’ first Cactus League game under the new rules.
“I thought it was good,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “I think we had one (pitch-clock) violation, I think there might’ve been four overall, but it didn’t really affect the pace. I thought it was great. Pace was really good.”
Roberts said he noticed that players were “engaged and watching the game” Saturday to see how the new rules played out.
“I guess, everyone was tuned in to the pitch clock,” he said. “They were watching the baseball game so that was good. As far as takeaways, I think they realized that it wasn’t as big of a deal as we talked about, which is a credit to them.”
Outfielder David Peralta was on the receiving end of the first pitch-clock violation, earning a walk when Brewers left-hander Alex Claudio didn’t deliver his full-count pitch in time.
“It’s different. But you gotta adjust to whatever the rules are,” Peralta said. “First game, so we’ll see how it’s gonna be tomorrow. But I got the walk. It was gonna be ball four anyways, but who knows if I would have swung at the pitch.”
Pitching coach Mark Prior said he expects the Dodgers to be on both sides of violations as pitchers learn to adjust.
“We’re learning,” he said.
Keeping track of the pitch clock is just one more responsibility for the catcher.
“It’s a little bit of an adjustment,” Dodgers catcher Will Smith said after Saturday’s first run-through. “It’s something I have to keep track of a little more. Every pitch, making sure we’re on time. But it wasn’t too much.
“Every pitch you’ve got to know where you’re at. So every pitch I’m looking at that. … You get a sense of where it’s at. It’s more getting used to when it resets, when it’s 30 seconds instead of 15 (runners on or bases empty), when it’s a foul ball when does it start. It’s more getting used to that.”
The other obvious change this season is the shift ban. Teams must keep two infielders on each side of second base with all four on the dirt, not the outfield grass.
James Outman was the first Dodger to benefit from that rule change. He singled through the right side in the second inning.
“A little weird,” Freddie Freeman said of stepping in the batter’s box and not seeing the right side loaded against his left-handed swing.
“It’s kind of nice. You’re taught your whole life to hit the ball up the middle and the last six or seven years you’ve been out doing that. Now you might get some more hits up the middle. I think lefties are going to be very happy across Major League Baseball with no shifts. But it was a little weird not seeing three guys on the right side. That’s how it looked when I was coming up. Now 13 years later, it’s going back to that.”
The increased size of bases is less noticeable, but Peralta said there is definitely a difference.
“It’s crazy,” Peralta said. “It’s more easy to hit the base and everything because you don’t have to be worried ‘I’m gonna hit in the middle’ or something. When you see the huge extra-large pizza box, it’s easy to hit it.”
With a number of Dodgers’ position players heading to the World Baseball Classic next weekend, Roberts said those players – Freeman, Smith, Peralta, Mookie Betts, Austin Barnes, Miguel Rojas and Trayce Thompson – will likely get more playing time in the first week of Cactus League games.
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With Smith and Barnes leaving, Roberts said top prospect Diego Cartaya will catch in the second half of games every other day.
Gavin Lux and Miguel Vargas aren’t going anywhere and Roberts said the pair will play together “quite often” in the Cactus League as a way to “build that relationship” between the Dodgers’ new shortstop-second base combo.
Roberts also said he plans to use Betts at second base this week. Betts is expected to play there for Team USA in the WBC.