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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

MLB is quite serious about keeping batters in the box to speed up games

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred pauses as he answers

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred pauses as he answers a question about new rules aimed at speeding up play of baseball games among other major topics of conversation at spring training media day Monday, Feb. 23, 2015, in Phoenix. Credit: AP / Ross D. Franklin

Clay Buchholz knew about Major League Baseball's imperative for quickening the pace of games this season. He just didn't expect to be one of its first targets -- for his offending behavior at the plate, no less.

As the Red Sox's Opening Day starter against the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park, Buchholz had the unusual assignment -- for an American League pitcher, anyway -- of having to bat in the season's first game.

The fact that Buchholz went 0-for-3 wasn't all that surprising. A few days later, however, he was shocked to get a letter from the Commissioner's Office stating that he was in violation of the sport's new speed-up rules.

"Second inning, stepped out of the batter's box," Buchholz said Saturday morning at Yankee Stadium, citing the letter. "I don't even remember doing it."

Why would he? Hitting is difficult enough for those who try to do it on a full-time basis, and cracking down on a pitcher who's merely hoping to survive at the plate may seem like nitpicking.

But the mailing of these warning letters shows just how serious new commissioner Rob Manfred is about shaving minutes off the national pastime. And based on the very early data available, the initiatives seem to be working.

Keep in mind this is a small sample size, obviously. But through Thursday, according to MLB's in-house tracking, the average time duration of the first 43 nine-inning games was 2 hours, 51 minutes -- more than 10 minutes shorter than a year ago at a similar point. Last season, through the first 42 nine-inning games, the average length was 3 hours, 4 minutes.

That's a significant drop, and probably beyond what Manfred was hoping for with the new guidelines, which basically force players to keep one foot in the batter's box and also tightly monitor the window between innings to keep it at 2:25 for locally televised games, 2:45 for national.

"I think there's a couple of things," Manfred told CNBC this past week. "I think we had gotten a little sloppy, frankly, about inning breaks. Those breaks had slid to be in [three minutes] somewhere, and that's just dead time if you're a fan watching it on TV or in the ballpark.

"And player habits are another issue. Guys get in the habit of stepping out of the box. It becomes part of their routine. We're trying to do a little retraining on that front."

That "retraining" is what makes this a work in progress. And although players are doing their best to comply, it's not as easy as it may sound.

David Ortiz doesn't seem quite as militant in his objection these days as he was during spring training, when he ripped the batter's box restrictions. He appears to be making more of an effort to stay between the lines. Others, such as Carlos Beltran, didn't realize just how strict it would be.

"Honestly, I'm not a guy that walks around outside the batter's box that much," Beltran said.

Or so he thought. Until Beltran, like Buchholz, received a letter last week from the Commissioner's Office telling him otherwise.

Beltran was just as surprised as the Red Sox pitcher, but he is not sure what he could have done differently. Plus he doesn't want to start worrying about something else between pitches.

In some cases, forgetful hitters have wandered away before scrambling to hurriedly jab their foot back in the box, looking as if they're playing Twister.

Chase Headley, the Yankee responsible for adding another four hours to Friday night's game with his ninth-inning homer, believes he's found a way to remind himself about the batter's-box mandate. Headley basically stays at the perimeter, toeing the line's edge, before settling back in to hit again.

"I think it's gone smoothly," Headley said. "Nothing too drastic."

Headley appreciates that the umpires leave the hitters alone during the at-bat and don't harass them about remaining in the box, aside from maybe extreme circumstances. But MLB has been intensely vigilant about these new regulations from the season's opening pitch, even establishing its own pace-of-game department to track footage from every game and identify the offenders.

For now, through the end of April, the letters are just warnings. But that will change come May, when fines will accompany those notices to repeat offenders.

Can financial penalties alter future conduct? Especially when attempting to change routines developed over decade-long careers? That remains to be seen. And some older players aren't so sure it's possible in the short term.

Said Beltran, "They're going to make a lot of money, I guess."

And this is only Phase 1 of MLB's plans. With digital clocks already installed at every ballpark, pitchers likely will be put on a timer at some point in the future, and the penalty for that would be immediate: a ball added to the count. That's a fairly stiff sentence. The wrinkle is being tested in the minor leagues this season.

Speeding up the pace is a priority, but as Selig said before him, Manfred has to preserve the integrity of the game at the same time. So far, it appears the two things are not mutually exclusive. There hasn't been much of an outcry yet about the new initiatives interfering with anyone's performance.

Trimming all those minutes has been a fairly seamless process, and the players have barely noticed. Except for those letters on the commissioner's stationary.

Said Buchholz, "I'm going to frame it."

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