If you head out to Hi Corbett Field for the Arizona Wildcats’ opening series, you’re liable to see something a little different. And we’re not just talking about the revamped UA roster.
College baseball has implemented several significant rule changes for 2019. Many are geared toward speeding up the game. Coaches are fully in favor of some, lukewarm (at best) about others.
With Friday’s opener against UMass Lowell still a few days away, Arizona head coach Jay Johnson and pitching coach Dave Lawn took a break from spring training to break down the new rules.
Johnson and Lawn have more than 40 years of combined experience as college baseball coaches. They know the sport as well as anyone.
Here’s what they had to say about some of the biggest changes. Their comments have been lightly edited for context and clarity.
Change No. 1: The defensive team’s coach can signal for an intentional walk without the pitcher having to throw four balls. MLB adopted the same rule in 2017.
Johnson: “I love it. That type of play shouldn’t impact a game. Sure, I would take it if we won a game if somebody airmailed an intentional walk. But the intent is to make a strategic move to put your defense in a better position to be successful.
“Most of the speed-up rules I’m not for, but this one was a quick yes. It takes some unnecessary drama out of the game.”
Lawn: “Way back in 1991, when I was coaching at Cal, we were in a one-run game in the bottom of the ninth against ASU. We brought in a freshman named Eric Ludwick. We get to a base-open situation. We put (the batter) on, (Ludwick) throws it off the backstop and we lose. And I thought to myself, ‘It’s my fault, we never practiced it.’ Literally, since 1992, it’s always been a part of our bullpen regimen. This year obviously it’s not. I suppose it’s just one less thing to worry about.”
Change No. 2: Limiting defensive conferences on the mound to six per team for a regulation game (three with coaches, aside from pitching changes). Additionally, the offensive team may not hold a conference while the defense is doing so.
Johnson: “It limits the learning opportunity for the player during the game. So I’m not in favor of it because of that. As far as not allowing the offense to meet while the defense is meeting, it’s ridiculous. It’s like Sean Miller playing against somebody, the other team calling a timeout and our basketball team has to stand out on the floor. I don’t understand the rationale behind that. We’ll continue to utilize all of our visits and our timeouts to put ourselves in the best position we can.”
Lawn: “Every kid is taught, your pitcher goes ball one, ball two, ball three, ball four, usually a shortstop or second baseman’s going to come in, grab the resin bag, pat him on the butt and try to simmer him down. You’re kind of undoing that ingrained thinking. Just being a baseball player, that’s what you do.
“We’ve put in place a system. We prefer just the catcher, and we’ll send you out because we’re keeping track. But I think more than anything where it’s going to affect things (is) if you want to change your signs with the runner at second. We’ve got a plan in place where we can do a certain thing to alert the pitcher and the defense.
“It’s gonna be interesting. I predict it’s going to be kind of rocky for some. Going back to Aug. 20, this has been a topic (for us). Knock on wood, we don’t have any hiccups on that. I feel pretty good where we’re at.”
Change No. 3: A batter will be penalized with a strike if, in the umpire’s judgment, he makes an intentional move to be hit by a pitch, regardless of where the pitch is located. Previously in that situation, the pitch would be ruled a ball if outside the strike zone. Also, those rulings will be treated like ball-strike calls and cannot be argued.
Johnson: “I understand what they’re trying to do. The only problem I have with it is, we shouldn’t be rewarding a pitcher with a strike when he threw a ball. I don’t think it’s in the game’s best interest. I thought keeping the hitter at the plate was a perfectly good solution if they didn’t feel like he made an attempt to move.
“You can’t argue or even ask for clarification on it. I hope they’ll be patient. ‘Can you at least tell me what you saw?’ I hope somebody just reminds me of that the first time I instinctively go to the plate for clarification.”
Lawn: “You’re putting the umps in a pretty tough spot. What if it happens in a big spot with two strikes?
“I feel like those things will be hyper-officiated early, and it’ll settle in once people have a little feel for the rule. The thing that’s scary is it’s going to be treated like arguing balls and strikes. I’m like Marvin Milquetoast when it comes to umpires the last 15 years. I don’t say hardly anything. But head coaches do.
“It’ll be interesting. We’re going to read about bases loaded, 3-2 count, (the ball) hits (the batter) and ballgame. Walk-off. But for the defense.”
Change No. 4: Elimination of the “fake to third, throw to first” play. Pitchers now will be charged with a balk if they attempt that move.
Johnson: “Love it. Defensively, I don’t think it’s an issue. Offensively, I think it opens up some things that you could do in a first-and-third (situation) without trepidation of that being in there.”
Lawn: “The way we described it to the pitchers, third base is now treated the same as first base. You can pick to third base. You just can’t fake-pick to third and come back, or do like we used to do all the time if we thought the other team might be thinking about squeezing with a right-handed pitcher. If you (make a move toward third), you have to throw it.
“We used to have a sign for it when we wanted them to do it. We’re just not going to do it. I think you’ll see teams start to run a little more first-and-third offense. You don’t fear the ‘53’ move.”
Change No. 5: Expanding the existing list of plays subject to video review and establishing a coach’s challenge process. Instant replay currently is not utilized in the Pac-12 during the regular season. It is used during SEC league games and NCAA postseason games and could be implemented in the Pac-12 as soon as 2020.
Johnson: “I would guess, now that we have a year to plan for it, it’s something that most of our schools will be in favor of. It passed after everything was kind of set for the year. I don’t think it’s cheap to install.
“The NCAA Tournament in 2016, it would have benefited us greatly. We would have one more of those plaques sitting up there.”
(Arizona’s Cody Ramer was called out at the plate in Game 3 of the ’16 College World Series finals on a play that wasn’t subject to review at the time. Ramer appeared to be safe. The Wildcats lost by one run.)
Lawn: “It’s gonna eliminate all the drama and the arguments. Get it right. It’ll be interesting to see when our league (has it). The SEC (does). They’re all in on everything in that conference. We’re all in here at Arizona, but it doesn’t make sense for one team to have it and the others don’t. That’s the real flaw. Either everybody do it, or nobody do it. But postseason for sure. They have the technology.”