Players must pitch in to avoid pitch clock

This is only the beginning. New Commissioner Rob Manfred wants a pitch clock, the players know it, and the players will fight it.

The players are reluctant to change the way the game is played on the field, and that reluctance was an underlying theme in the pace-of-game initiatives announced jointly on Friday by MLB and the players association.

Only warnings and fines will be used to penalize players who violate the new rules, including the one that requires hitters to keep one foot in the batter’s box unless one of a group of exceptions occurs.

No strike will be called on a hitter who steps out. No ball will be called on a pitcher who dawdles on the mound. No fines will be issued in spring training or in April, and only flagrant violators will be disciplined.

The idea is to change player habits, not penalize them. Makes sense, but former Commissioner Bud Selig would blather year after year about enforcing the rules to improve the pace of game, and nothing ever changed.

The difference now is that Manfred seems hellbent on addressing the problem, making it his first major initiative. The newly installed timers — one on or near the outfield scoreboard, the other on the façade behind home plate near the press box — will measure breaks between innings and pitching changes. The new restrictions on those pauses alone should help eliminate dead time.

The real question, though, is whether the players will indeed change their habits, or simply give us more of the same old, same old. Well, if they are serious about avoiding the pitch clock, which will be used for the first time at Double-A and Triple-A this season, they will need to adjust.

The players union expects that the pitch clocks in the minors will train the next generation of players to develop better habits, perhaps reducing the need for the devices at the major-league level. Meanwhile, sources say, major-league pitchers will start receiving data this season about how quickly they work. The slowpokes will face no repercussions, but the union’s hope is that they, too, will be motivated to pick up their pace.

Skeptical? You should be — bad habits are difficult to break, particularly when they are longstanding habits, formed when the players were kids. They will remain difficult to break under a penalty system that is minimal by design and provides little incentive to change.

Of course, umpires are a critical part of this dance, too, and not just with the players. Under the new rules, managers will ask for replay from the dugout instead of the field (thank goodness). Just as different umps take different approaches to breaking up pitcher-catcher meetings on the mound, different umps will employ different standards with managers calling for replay.

Baseball is mindful of all that and will take the same measured approach with the pace-of-play initiatives that it did upon introducing its instant replay and home-plate collision rules last season. Unintended consequences are a concern. The initiatives are a work in progress. In-season adjustments may be required.

For now, the intentions on both sides are good. The pitch clock, though, is the elephant in the room, looming over the sport. The players likely will view it as an unnecessary provocation, an attack on the game between the lines. I’m not sure they’re wrong. But if they want to stop Manfred, they need to do their part.

Pick up the pace. Play by the new rules.