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OC Register: Hoornstra: For pitchers managing MLB’s timer, past is not precedent

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This is a story about Pitcher A and Pitcher B. I’ll keep them anonymous for now because their names are less important than their relationship to an often-discussed but still underappreciated aspect to baseball in 2023: the pitch timer.

Both pitchers are considered “fast” in comparison to their peers. How they became fast is another matter. Pitcher A was already fast by 2022 standards. His average time between pitches, according to Statcast, was 15.1 seconds. Since pitchers now have 15 seconds to throw from the time they receive the ball from the catcher with the bases empty, and 20 seconds with runners on, Pitcher A did not have to adjust his tempo to comply with the new rules.

Nonetheless, Pitcher A sped up – by a lot. Only two pitchers (excluding position players) have been quicker to deliver the baseball this season. He’s down to 11.7 seconds (bases empty) or 16.0 seconds (runners on), according to Statcast.

Now consider Pitcher B. He needed to speed up. At 18.0 seconds between pitches with the bases empty, and 20.7 seconds with runners on base,  an adjustment needed to be made. This year, he’s the fastest-working pitcher on his team, at 12.8 seconds (bases empty) and 14.3 seconds (runners on).

Care to guess which pitcher had the better month of April? (Tick, tock, tick, tock…)

OK. Let’s compare their stats before and after the pitch clock:

Pitcher A in 2022: 3.49 ERA, 3.65 FIP, 1.19 WHIPPitcher B in 2022: 3.26 ERA, 2.95 FIP, 0.99 WHIP

Pitcher A in 2023: 6.91 ERA, 6.30 FIP, 1.60 WHIPPitcher B in 2023: 2.19 ERA, 1.99 FIP, 0.97 WHIP

You might think that Pitcher B was deliberate about changing his methods. I was curious too, so I asked him. (Hint: it’s Dodgers reliever Brusdar Graterol.) Turns out, he hasn’t put a minute of thought to the new rules.

“I’m keeping my time in mind, always,” Graterol said. “I always pitch quick, quick, quick.”

Pitcher A was in town this week too. (Hint: it’s Philadelphia Phillies right-hander Taijuan Walker.) You might think he was at a natural advantage to his peers because he was already pacing himself within MLB’s limits. If so, he hasn’t taken advantage of it yet.

Walker said he wasn’t even aware that he was speeding up. He’s had to be reminded to slow down. He’s still trying to internalize it.

“I think it’s kind of hurt me a little bit,” Walker said of the pitch clock. “I’ve always been kind of quick but having the pitch clock up, I’m even quicker now, which isn’t good. Get behind in the count 2-and-0 quickly, I think it speeds up even more. So I think I have to be a little more conscious, knowing that I have more time than I think I do.”

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that a sport played without a clock for more than a hundred years did not confer an internal timing mechanism on its participants. Forget minutes and seconds – baseball players are infamous for not knowing what day of the week it is. Whatever internal timing mechanism a pitcher has, it’s going to take him more than a month to unlearn a lifetime of repetitions.

One retired player I interviewed said he would be a fan of the pitch clock, but an even bigger fan of shorter commercial breaks. Why? Players are eager to switch sides between innings, to keep moving, to maintain a brisk pace. They want to get home at a reasonable hour as much as any fan.

Yet as the commercial breaks grew longer, the players’ pace slowed as a matter of practicality. There was no need to get on the field too quickly, make extra throws and take extra steps. So they took their time getting on and off. Their between-innings lolligagging transferred into the games, between pitches. That’s his theory as to why the pace of games ultimately slowed to a crawl.

“We hated playing national games,” he said, because of their longer commercial breaks.

The upshot is this: Timing is entirely a subconscious exercise. Slower-working pitchers are not failing in 2023 because they are slow. Faster pitchers are not thriving because they work fast. Adapting to the pitch clock is merely another mental skill players need in their toolkit, and we can’t use the past to project how well they will use that tool in the future.

Keep that in mind when Adam Wainwright (16.8 seconds between bases-empty pitches last year) and Justin Verlander (20.1 seconds) make their debuts in the weeks to come. How quickly they threw last year won’t affect their success. How quickly they throw this year is a skill each and every pitcher must master.

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