Overlooked aspect of MLB pitch clock: How will batters use their timeout?


Overlooked aspect of MLB pitch clock: How will batters use their timeout?

The timeout dilemma is another new, though mostly overlooked, addition to the baseball landscape in 2023.

The new pitch clock is in effect. Pitchers have 15 seconds to deliver the baseball with the bases empty, 20 with someone on base. Pitchers get two “disengagements” per batter — basically, any time they step off the pitching rubber, whether just to take a moment or to make a pickoff throw — per plate appearance.

That’s been discussed relentlessly during the spring, mostly in the context of how the goal of the rule is to increase stolen base attempts by limiting a pitcher’s ability to keep the runner close at first base.

At the plate, batters have to be in the box, looking at the pitcher, with eight seconds on the pitch clock. They don’t get two disengagements. Batters get one timeout per at-bat. That’s it.

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So every time hitters step to the plate during the 2023 season, they have to ask themselves, “When should I take my timeout? Am I going to take a timeout this at-bat?”

It’s a new wrinkle, and one that’s prompted a lot of thought and conversation.

“You have to take it strategically,” Blue Jays cleanup hitter Daulton Varsho told me Wednesday, during his new team’s workout day at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. “Obviously, that’s a learning curve. We’re going to have to understand when to use it and take our chances, because we only get one per at-bat. You’ve got to use it at the right time.”

It’s more than just a new quirk.

“It’s creating a whole new version of the game,” Diamondbacks infielder Josh Rojas said a few weeks ago. “You’re strategizing when to use your timeout, when not to. Pitchers learning to use their step-off, and running the clock all the way down to zero and making the hitter wait. There’s going to be a lot of different strategies employed, which is going to be cool to see.”

Figuring out the right time for a timeout means factoring in a ton of variables.

A few hours after I asked Varsho for his thoughts, I asked St. Louis manager Oli Marmol if his team had an organizational philosophy — the Cardinals have lots and lots of organizational philosophies — on how they wanted batters use timeouts.

“It’s player by player, just a comfort thing, whenever you feel like you have to gather yourself,” he said. “Some guys, it won’t affect them at all. Some guys will use it in the same count almost every time, and we started to see some of that in the spring.”

Spring was experimentation time for hitters, and for some, that’s still happening.

“I did take one my last at-bat (of spring),” 2023 NL MVP Paul Goldschmidt said Wednesday. “I thought, ‘Oh, I’d better call time one time.’ But I didn’t get as much practice as a lot of guys, playing for Team USA (in the WBC), so it was a little different.”

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A fun wrinkle of the spring conversations and experimentations: In this case, it was the minor leaguers who had the experience, and the established major leaguers who were seeking advice. The pitch clock was in effect during the minors last year.

“There were a lot of those conversations early on about how it worked for them, how it’s going to be enforced,” Goldschmidt said. “There’s always a lot of gray areas in these rules, and just kind of figuring out all that.”

So, let’s look at a couple of factors, and get MLB hitters’ thoughts.

For games only on local broadcasts, the time between innings is just 2 minutes 5 seconds.

That’s not a lot, especially if a guy leading off an inning is coming in from the outfield, or wants a quick word with a teammate or coach before stepping into the batter’s box and trying to hit a 98-mph fastball.

“I’ve played with taking a timeout as soon as I get up there, just wasting it right at the start,” Rojas said. “There was an at-bat to start the inning the other day where I felt rushed, coming from defense, getting your stuff on and getting up there, with your eyes on the pitcher before eight seconds — it all felt so rushed. So the other day I played with getting up there, letting the clock run all the way down to nine seconds, then calling it. So they’ve got to reset it, goes back to 15.”

He paused and smiled.

“I liked it,” he said. “I won’t really call many timeouts, so I’ll be OK using the first one at the start so I don’t feel rushed, then going from there.”

As spring training went on, you started to see more batters take that approach.

“I know a lot of guys feel rushed coming in from the field and going up for the first at-bat,” Varsho said. “I only took it a couple times, only because I’m normally a guy who just gets in the box and stands there anyway. I kinda find my own rhythm.”

I spoke with Cubs second baseman Nico Hoerner in mid-March. At the time, he said he had yet to take a timeout in a game, but he did have thoughts.

“I’ll probably save that time call for when I have two strikes,” he said. “I’ve talked through it with guys who played in the minor leagues last year, see what worked for them, what stood out. It’s interesting stuff.”

And it wouldn’t just have to be for two-strike counts, but anytime he’s uncomfortable.

“I think I’ll just keep it in my back pocket,” he said with a grin, “for a weird thing that comes up or when something goes awry.”

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The pitchers might be the ones throwing the baseball, but the best hitters in the game still feel like they’re in control of their time at the plate. The timeout could be used to regain that control, if the pitcher starts to gain the edge.

“The more the hitter is in the driver’s seat as far as time goes,” Rangers first baseman Nathaniel Lowe said this spring, “the better chance you have.”

Lowe offered an example.

“Sometimes you’ll get these high-tempo guys, like Robbie Ray, who’s going to get the ball and pitch in a hurry,” he said. “Do you want to call time at the beginning, and then all of a sudden you’re at his tempo the rest of the at-bat? Or do you want to save it for another pitch? It’s just what the game calls for at the time.”

The day before Opening Day, Blue Jays manager John Schneider offered similar thoughts.

“I think the biggest thing is understanding that the hitter should still be in the driver’s seat. I think the league has done a good job of not letting pitchers quick-pitch them,” he said. “Whenever there is a time limit on something, the overall thought process is to go faster and you can kind of lose sight of what you’re doing. We’ve talked to the guys about controlling your at-bats, controlling your heartbeat and, when you really think about it, it’s just baseball.”

After speaking with some hitters, it’s pretty clear that they don’t intend to use the timeout often. But every at-bat is a different animal. Some are quick, just a pitch or two.

But some are mini-marathons, and after a couple of foul balls on max-effort swings, that’s probably a pretty good time to catch your breath.

“In a long at-bat,” Arizona’s Seth Beer said, “sometimes you need to use them because you really do need a break, especially when you’re swinging a lot.”

It’s all rather fascinating.

“There’s a time to use it, and we’ll figure it out,” Goldschmidt said. “It’s going to be just a little different for everyone, and it’s going to play itself out now. I mean, spring training’s one thing, but the regular season’s different. We’ll see some things that we’re not used to seeing, and hopefully everyone will adapt.”

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