Pitchers are adamant: MLB's pitch clock will give them an edge over hitters. Will spring training games prove it?
DUNEDIN, Fla. — Chris Bassitt waited all of two pitches before he turned the pitch timer against his new Toronto Blue Jays teammate, George Springer. On Thursday, in the very first at-bat of his live batting practice session against Toronto’s heavy hitters, the veteran right-hander stared in with plenty of time left on the new countdown clock being implemented by MLB this season, then he held the ball — tick, tick, tick — until there was only one second left. Then he coiled and fired.
Famously armed with a broad arsenal of pitches and strongly held ideas about how to deploy them, Bassitt’s name often comes up in conversations about pitchers who might struggle to cope with the addition of the 15- or 20-second pitch timer. But, in fact, he’s one of many pitchers expressing confidence that hitters will actually have a tougher time adjusting to the change.
“I think we're going to quickly realize,” Bassitt said, “that it's more so going to be, ‘How can we use this against the hitters?’”
Across MLB spring training camps, teams have been focusing on the new rules in live batting practice sessions — game-like setups in which pitchers face hitters with no defense behind them. Everybody is practicing new habits, but pitchers (as always) get the first move in this particular game of chess.
“Pitchers are going to try to start to use it as a weapon,” Blue Jays manager John Schneider said, citing feedback he heard from minor-league players and coaches who have played real games with the timer.
Their optimism is understandable, but it’s undeniable that there will be more to think about on the hill in 2023. Bassitt, in the same session, waited too long on at least one pitch, and pitching coach Pete Walker called out that it would have been an automatic ball.
In a similar live BP on Wednesday at Atlanta Braves camp, ace Max Fried sliced and diced his teammates in his first simulated inning before feeling a little rushed in his second. After Ronald Acuña Jr. blasted a home run onto the berm deep in left field, a perplexed Fried said the timer was already down to four when he looked up. Eventually, he yelled to ask who was running the clock.
Braves manager Brian Snitker said later that Fried had a point — it appeared they might’ve been starting the timer earlier than the rules dictate — but his moment of frustration was telling.
“I think there'll be some getting used to it,” Snitker said.
We’ll get the best indication yet of how the pitch timer will affect the game — and the balance of power between pitchers and hitters — when teams play their first spring training games Friday and Saturday. Pleading your case with the clock operator will no longer be an option.
Hold for an advantage?
In gaming out how to exploit the pitch timer, Bassitt and his fellow moundsmen have zeroed in on the less discussed bright line in baseball’s new countdown: Eight seconds. At eight seconds, hitters are required to be in the box and alert. At that point, pitchers can fire the ball to the plate — ready or not — or simply hold it and make the batter squirm.
“The hitters are the ones who do something in between every swing, every pitch,” Blue Jays starter Kevin Gausman said. “There's a way for us to make it an advantage for us. We've just got to figure out what that is, right? Whether it's like, do we wait until one second to throw the pitch? Or do we want to throw it super quick? So that they're thinking, like, 'I can't try to time it up,' right?”
Most players and coaches, though, expect hitters to figure out the eight-second rule expediently. New York Yankees superstar Aaron Judge got his first taste of the timer in live BP this week and had to snap into the habit.
“I completely forgot about it until about three pitches in, and then I had to kind of check myself because I was getting into the box around eight or nine seconds,” Judge said. “That'd be strike one, strike two, strike three on me.”
Will he have to actively work on that for long? Unlikely.
“I think once we play a couple of games,” he said, “get a couple at-bats and just get used to it, I think the game will flow right through.”
Perhaps the method of choice will be the staredown, the set and freeze, the hold.
“I think the guys that are comfortable enough holding the ball, that's going to be key,” Schneider said. “I always say, an eight-second hold you never saw. Someone was calling time, or someone was stepping out. So that's kind of back in place.”
New York Mets star Max Scherzer likewise said the timer plays right into his hands because he is training himself to toy with hitters’ expectations.
“It just drives them crazy holding the ball,” he told Yahoo Sports. “Hitters crave rhythm so much.”
Slowing down when the game speeds up
Adjusting to the new rules isn’t simply a matter of throwing the pitch or getting in the box sooner.
The timer also adds limits on how many times pitchers can throw pickoffs or simply step off. With two “disengagements” allowed per plate appearance — unless you want to risk an automatic runner advancement if you’re unsuccessful on a third attempt — the calculations and stakes around each pickoff have changed.
“Whereas in the past, the old saying [was], ‘Don’t show ‘em your best,’ now it’s like, 'Every one you pick, it better be your best,'” Gausman said. “You only have two to work with. So it’s definitely going to add a new element to trying to get through a game.”
There will be unforeseen ripple effects, little moments and routines no one would’ve considered strategic until now. Snitker mentioned that some hurlers will have to break themselves of the habit of “following the ball” or walking toward the plate after delivering a pitch.
“There’s going to be stuff that comes up this spring that MLB hasn’t even thought of,” Gausman predicted. “You’re going to have some veteran guys over the course of the season that are going to get into it with some umpires.”
How long does a pitcher have to regroup after a play on which he covers first? How far can catchers stretch it before returning the ball to the pitcher? The leeway, or lack thereof, in judgment calls about rule enforcement will be the biggest lesson taken from game action.
But more than anything, games will provide the first real look at all the factors mixed together. What happens when you combine the heightened pressure of controlling baserunners — or driving them in — with the dwindling clock?
“It'll just be harder to slow the game down when you need to,” Blue Jays reliever Trent Thornton said.
Snitker said he is planning to coach his catchers to use a mound visit to save flustered pitchers before they step off and waste one of their disengagements, while Schneider, the Toronto manager, was considering how hitters should use their one provided timeout per at-bat after he noticed catcher Danny Jansen jump into the box at the nine-second mark “with that ‘oh, crap’ look on his face.”
“I think where you're gonna get into some tricky spots is where, you know, a guy gets into an eight-, nine-, 10-pitch at-bat, and he’s battling. He’s trying to collect his thoughts and his heartbeat, and he gets in there right around eight [seconds],” Schneider said. “You just don’t want that third strike called that way.”
A new wrinkle with PitchCom
MLB is adding one technological accommodation for those stressful moments. Pitchers will now have a transmitter in addition to a receiver in the PitchCom system that debuted last season. If they want, they can dictate the pitch to the catcher instead of the other way around, upending a procedure roughly as old as … well, baseball.
Most, however, view that only as an emergency measure. Fried, the Braves ace, experimented with calling his own pitches during his session this week, but Snitker doesn’t expect that to be the norm in games. Gausman and several Blue Jays relievers said they viewed the practice as a last resort if they’re running short on time.
But Bassitt, with his multitude of pitches and tendency to shake off catchers, sees an opportunity.
“My initial thought is like, ‘All right, I'll call my own game.’ And we'll basically have a sign where the catcher can override me,” he said, noting that he’ll try it out in spring training before making any final decisions. “If I can call my own game, and you have to sit there for eight, 10 seconds to be ready, it's going to be a very uncomfortable adjustment for hitters.”
Even if it seems counterintuitive, the idea that pitchers will get the jump on hitters tracks in the current landscape. It would be only the latest in a series of structural, unavoidable uphill climbs for major-league hitters. They are already scrambling to shrink data and technological gaps and struggling to find the balance between making contact and doing damage against the hardest, bendiest stuff the game has ever seen.
“Game’s about pitching, right?” Schneider said. “So always give them the advantage at first, and the hitters kind of catch up.”
Hannah Keyser contributed reporting to this story.