SCOTTSDALE – One consequence of the new rule change has been overlooked. That involves dramatically opening up the running game and how runners are now kept on base.
This is part of a new agenda for the coming season, and Major League Baseball has altered the landscape with a pitch clock, bigger bases, and the requirement of all four infielders be placed on the infield dirt at all times. The intent is to produce more runs, engage the causal fan and raise the level of excitement.
Beginning with the opening of the preseason schedule this weekend, the new rules are implemented immediately. Already, pitchers, in current bullpen sessions and throwing live batting practice, are executing against the pitch clock. With no runner on base, pitchers have 15 seconds to release the ball once this is returned from the catcher. With runners on base, the release point is 20 seconds.
Yet, there is a profound change at work and this affects catchers as well. If a runner reaches any base, by walk, hit, hit-batter, force out or catchers’ interference, a pitcher can throw to keep the runner close only two times during each subsequent at-bat that inning. After that, the runners are free to take off and the running game is duly impacted.
In the case of the Arizona Diamondbacks, this segment of the game is influenced and that’s because of the competition and potential playing time. The incumbent behind the plate, Carson Kelly, is coming off a season in which club officials believed they needed an upgrade to the position.
In perhaps the biggest trade in the off-season of any team, Arizona sent outfielder Daulton Varsho to Toronto for catcher Gabriel Moreno, one of the Jays’ top prospects. Going forward, Moreno appears to be the favorite, but Kelly, coming off a season in which he hit .211, says he’s ready for the challenge. Plus, Kelly only threw out 23 percent of runners in 2022. With the expected increase in the running game, that number could drop.
“The addition of Moreno is good and he’s a good player,” Kelly said in the Diamondbacks’ clubhouse at Salt River. “Getting to know him since spring training began is great but I’m out and do what I do. Plus, I train in the off-season to play every single day.”
Last season, Kelly went down with oblique and abdominal issues in various parts of the season and appeared in 104 games. While the injuries were early in the season, the 28-year-old native of Chicago struggled. On July 4, Kelly was batting .135 but recovered to finish with that .211 batting average with seven home runs.
Contrast that to Moreno, who spent most of 2022 at Buffalo, the Jays’ AAA affiliate. In 62 games, the 23-year-old hit .315, and in 25 games with Toronto, Moreno hit .319. In five minor league seasons, he had a career .310 batting average.
As with Kelly, the running game should present a unique challenge. At Buffalo, Moreno threw out 18 attempts in 44 tries. Numbers aside, the pair appear to complement one another.
“I’m preparing myself mentally to catch as many innings as I can,” Moreno said in the Salt River clubhouse through an interpreter. “I like the way I am behind the dish. I like the way I throw to the bases. I’m always able to maintain myself to what is going on in the game. After a few days (in camp), I’m getting to know the pitchers here and getting that good chemistry.”
For his part, field manager Torey Lovullo said he is acquainted with Moreno and indicated playing time among his catchers is a work in progress.
“Moreno comes to us with a great deal of hype and attention of being a fine prospect in the Jays’ system,” Lovullo said. “We want him to take a page from our book and take the next necessary steps to be what we need him to be. He’s on this way to do that right way. I want him to go out there and continue learning and know our concepts. We want him to get used to his new teammates by being himself. I think he has some unique talents behind the plate, and he has the ability to barrel up the baseball. I know that will take place and I don’t want him to force things. Just want him to be himself.”
Here at the start of spring training, Lovullo said he was undecided on the playing time for each Kelly and Moreno. One aspect appears certain. The days of a catcher at the major league level of catching 140 games or more are now reserved for the history books.