Pitchers moving slower than ever despite MLB’s pace of play push

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Marcus Stroman. (Chris Carlson/AP)

TORONTO – One of the more subtle and least discussed changes Marcus Stroman made on the mound this year is a deliberate slowing of a pace that used to rank among the quickest in baseball. The Toronto Blue Jays right-hander remains among the fastest workers in the game with an average of 22.6 seconds between pitches, according to Fangraphs’ pace calculation. But that’s two seconds slower than 2016 and four seconds off his blazing pace of 18.7 in 2015.

Much like the additions of a varied leg kick and a hitch in his delivery, taking a bit more time between pitches is 100 per cent by design for Stroman. With some help from Troy Tulowitzki during spring training, he trained himself to work at a slightly more relaxed pace.

“I’m not conscious of it to the point of saying to myself, ‘Hey, I need to be two seconds slower.’ I’m just really trying to slow the game down out there,” says Stroman. “In my mind, I’m just working more controlled. Now, I’m aware of my delivery, where last year, I’d just get the ball and go, get the ball and go, get the ball and go.

“I’m focused on things in my delivery, I’m focused on making sure my core is engaged, making sure my leg kick is over the rubber, making sure I’m doing certain things so my pitches are at their best. That’s essentially why I’m slower,” he continues. “I’m not going out there saying I need to be slower. My pace is slower. My timing is different. Sometimes I pause, so that can be another reason. But I’m just trying to do everything in my power to get everything in my body where it needs to be on every pitch.”

Whether by design like Stroman or not, pitchers across the game are doing the same thing, dragging the average time between pitches up to 23.8 seconds through the weekend’s play, nearly 2 1/2 seconds slower since Fangraphs first start calculating pace in 2007.

In concert with more pitches being thrown – the average is 297 through the first 2,240 games this year, up from 289 in 2015 – it makes sense that none of the 30 big-league clubs are averaging less than three hours a game for the first time. The average length of a game in the majors is now three hours nine minutes, up five minutes from 2016 and 14 minutes from 2008.

Little wonder then that Rob Manfred has made speeding the pace of play a focal-point issue, with Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reporting last week that the commissioner and the players’ union were seeking common ground on a pitch clock for next season.

“You don’t want to disrupt the pitchers. You want to make sure they’re able to do their jobs and think their way through things and not feel rushed,” says Blue Jays right-fielder Jose Bautista, speaking generally about pace of play and not specifically about pitch clock. “But I think everybody, from what I can perceive in the public opinion, is hoping to find a way to speed up the games. We wouldn’t mind that, either, as players. It’s just finding out the right way to do it without screwing up anybody’s routine or ability to perform during games.”

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What’s intriguing about this year’s pace numbers is that even some pitchers who are traditionally fast are working a bit slower.

Take Chris Sale, for example. The Boston Red Sox left-hander ranks fifth among qualified pitchers at 20.8 seconds – Carlos Martinez of the St. Louis Cardinals is quickest at 20.1 – but is nearly a second slower than last year’s 19.9. R.A. Dickey is at 21.4 with the Atlanta Braves after pitching at 19.1 last year. And while last year six qualified pitchers averaged less than 20 seconds, this year there are none.

Marco Estrada ranked 11th last year among qualifiers at 20.7 seconds but this year is up to 22.9, a two second change he didn’t even notice and can’t explain.

“I feel like I’m doing the exact same thing, it doesn’t feel like I’m doing anything different,” he says. “I’m not a guy who’s going to walk around the entire mound and rub the ball up after every pitch. I like to stay on the mound and as soon as I get the ball back, I like to be ready to make the next pitch. I don’t like thinking about stuff so I don’t like walking around the mound. It annoys me when guys take forever to pitch, also, so I try not to do that.”

Theories on why the game is slowing down run across the spectrum.

More foul balls. More gamesmanship between batter and pitcher. More disagreements between pitcher and catcher. More pitches at max effort demanding more recovery. More coaches encouraging pitchers to take as long as they need without worrying about defenders getting stale behind them.

And it’s not all on the pitchers, either.

Fangraphs calculates the pace metric by taking the difference between the first and last pitches of a plate appearance and dividing that by the number of pitches minus one. While the stat excludes mound visits and pickoffs, it doesn’t differentiate between a pitcher asking for a signs reset or a hitter fidgeting with his batting gloves.

“I notice, watching on the bench, how long it takes guys to get in the box. It’s like, come on, let’s go, know what I mean?” says Blue Jays lefty J.A. Happ. “I imagine as a hitter, a guy out there on the mound taking his time, could potentially lull him to sleep a bit. Or at least irritate him. I generally feel, just go.”

Happ is up to 22.8 seconds from 21.4 last year and feels he’s throwing balls out more frequently this year, saying they too often return oblong after being put into play.

Another theory is that the increased use of relievers is a prime factor in spiking up the average.

Among pitchers to have logged at least 30 innings this season, the four slowest pitchers are Pedro Baez of the Dodgers at 30.6 seconds, Bud Norris of the Angels at 30.4, Aroldis Chapman of the Yankees at 30.1 and Chris Beck of the White Sox at 30 flat.

Given that relievers tend to be used in medium or high leverage, it stands to reason they may want to take a bit more time between pitches.

“I’m worried about my process and my focus. If that takes me 25 seconds this pitch and then 20 seconds the next, it’s not something I’m trying to do. It’s when I feel comfortable and ready to rock to deliver my best pitch to the plate,” says Blue Jays reliever Dominic Leone, who’s at 26.2 seconds this year, down from 26.7 with Arizona last year.

“There’s something to be said about being able to slow the game down. When things get moving too fast, especially as a pitcher, you do have to take that time. I very rarely vary my times in between pitches. It depends on how the game is going and where you want to take the game. As a pitcher, you’re in control.”

Regardless of role, Stroman believes slowing things down can give pitchers an edge.

“Pitchers are becoming a little smarter, maybe, starting to realize timing, starting to realize that slowing the game down plays in your favour not only mechanically, but also in the sense that hitters don’t want to stand in that box for too long,” he explains. “They want to be in a rhythm, too, just like you want to be in a rhythm. Essentially, if you get the ball and go the way I did last year, hitters get in that same rhythm, too, it’s easy for them. They’re not sitting in the box, their hands stay consistent. There are a lot of things that play into it.”

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On the flip side there’s Brett Anderson, who has consistently been among baseball’s fastest workers, an approach he takes for one simple reason.

“Because baseball is boring,” he deadpans. “No – well, that’s partially it. It keeps your defence on your toes. You see when guys work slow, it’s a labour of love, you see the fielders on their toes, or kicking the dirt, like let’s go, let’s go. Good, bad or indifferent I want stuff to happen quick and I think that contributes to some of the plays made behind me. People are behind me, they’re ready to make plays and I like to keep the game as quick as possible, get in the dugout and give us a chance to score some runs.”

The veteran left-hander joined the Blue Jays on a minor-league deal in August after his release from the Chicago Cubs and made his debut Aug. 29 with 5.2 innings of one-run ball. Afterwards, he says a handful of his new teammates approached him and said they appreciated his pace – which this season is 19.7 seconds – and enjoyed playing behind him.

“It creates a certain flow to the game where you know stuff is going to happen and it’s going to happen quick,” Anderson says. “You always like to hear that. To have those other voices saying they appreciate what you do and how you go about things is nice to hear.”

Tampa Bay Rays ace Chris Archer has gotten similar feedback from position players who have told him, “the quicker the pace, we’re more inclined to make the play.” Yet the right-hander’s pace has been all over the board during his six years in the big-leagues, ranging from 21.6-25.6 seconds.

This season, he checks in at 23.9.

“I don’t really think about it,” he says. “If I’m really rolling and the catcher and I are on the same page, I’m probably going to be closer to 22-23. If there’s a situation, guys on base, and me and the catcher are trying to think through this, then it might slow down to 27-28. I’m not consciously saying I need to be fast, or I need to be slow. I’m just more let the situation dictate what the pace is going to be.”

A 20-second pitch clock has been in use in the minor-leagues since 2015 and could be a potential model for the big-leagues. Under the rules implemented in double-A and triple-A, a pitcher must begin his windup or the motion to come set before time runs out, with violations penalized by a ball being awarded to the batter. With men on base, a pitcher can step off and reset the clock.

Talk of it makes Archer cringe.

“I like how baseball is played,” says the all-star. “It’s a chess match and chess is more of a thinking man’s game, there’s more strategy, it takes longer than checkers. And I realize there is a clock in chess, but the beauty behind baseball is the strategy and that takes time. So I really am not a huge proponent of altering or adding for a number of reasons. I just don’t see the benefit. OK, it’s going to cut down five minutes from the game. And then what? We’re going to get more fans? I don’t know.”

Anderson experienced the pitch clock while rehabbing in the minors and though the pace demanded would not have bothered him, he didn’t feel it was as intrusive as some believe it will be.

“It is kind of weird having the clock and time determined in baseball because it’s obviously not traditional,” he says. “But it didn’t really affect anything or anybody for the most part when I was down there. It might take a start or two if you’re not used to it, but once you get your internal clock (in sync) with the other clock, you know the time you’ve got to go.”

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A primary point of contention about a pitch clock is that it will force both pitchers and hitters to drastically change their routines and processes on the field. The challenge will be in finding a way to implement a system that is as minimally disruptive as possible.

Stroman echoes the concerns of many players when he says he doesn’t think at all about pace when he’s on the mound. “If it got to the point where I had to rush myself in my delivery, I think that would be a bit ridiculous,” he says.

The transition for someone like Stroman could be especially difficult now that he’s found success by slowing himself down after essentially never coming off the rubber in previous seasons. During spring training, Tulowitzki stood in on some of Stroman’s bullpen sessions and would create situations for the right-hander, saying things like, “Stro, a run just scored. Compose yourself and take a breath.”

“This was more a mental challenge from Tulo that he imposed on me, because last year he’d see when things didn’t go my way, I’m a very aggressive guy and I’d want to go, go, go,” says Stroman. “When I’d go back and look at those pitches, my mechanics were everywhere because I was frustrated, I was flustered, I was out of rhythm. Now I’m taking my time, taking my breath. David Price is a big guy into getting his breath so he’s composed for every single pitch, so I’m focusing on that more and I feel like I’m seeing the results because it’s helping the quality of my pitches. I feel like I’m not missing as much. I feel like my pitches are less flat. I feel like that’s been instrumental.”