Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition

Getting in the swing of things

- By Ronald Blum

PALM BEACH, Fla. — Jeff McNeil thinks he’ll adapt quickly to baseball’s big shift — really, an antishift.

“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 Mets All-Star infielder and big league batting champ 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 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 ½ 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.”

“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 2021 before dropping to 3:04 last year following the introducti­on of the PitchCom electronic device to signal pitches.

“Pitch clock, I’m thrilled about,” Rays 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 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 said.

 ?? JOHN MINCHILLO/AP ?? Opening day will feature big changes for baseball. One change will be the use of a pitch clock to speed up games.
JOHN MINCHILLO/AP Opening day will feature big changes for baseball. One change will be the use of a pitch clock to speed up games.

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