Nats starters enjoying faster tempo with pitch clock

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – It’s all anyone wants to talk about this spring training, whether you’re in Florida or Arizona: Major League Baseball’s new rules for the upcoming season.

The one rule that has garnered the most attention is the pitch clock, which has affected nearly every part of the game.

The most noticeable effect it has had is on the length of games. Spring training games across the major leagues are averaging just under two hours and 40 minutes. The average length of a spring training game in 2022 was just over three hours.

But the clock doesn’t just affect the pitchers on the mound. It affects the catchers, the defense in the field, the batter in the box, the next batters up, the pitchers in the bullpen and the coaches in the dugout.

It’s been an adjustment period, for sure. In Nationals camp, the starting pitchers have enjoyed getting used to the pitch clock and the faster tempo it brings.

“I like the faster play. I try to work fast,” Patrick Cobin said last week after his first spring training start with the clock. “I think I worked fast before there was this clock. Just try to go out there, get used to it. From what I hear from a lot of the minor league guys who had it last year, it takes a little bit to get used to, and once you do, you don't really think about it. I think the first time out of the stretch, I looked at the clock, I was a little bit late getting on there, and then after that I was able to correct that and kind of hold for a little bit. Maybe try to work that in our advantage. I feel everyone's pretty pleased with the pace of play.”

“Today was much better,” echoed fellow lefty MacKenzie Gore after his second start. “I felt like I got on the mound early and I could hold the ball and I held runners a little better. So that was much better today.”

The Nationals, of course, have a lot of young starters (and relievers) who got their first taste of the clock during its trial period in the minor leagues last year. Even with that experience, it has still taken some time for them to adjust in spring training. But they are quickly picking it up while working faster.

Last year, Nationals starters led the major leagues by averaging 17.8 pitches per inning, i.e. not being efficient by throwing strikes and pitching to contact. So far this spring, Nats starters are averaging 10.47 pitches per inning, ranking in the top half of the league in terms of efficiency.

“I think it's been pretty good. It's definitely quick,” Josiah Gray said after his second spring training start. “There were a couple of times today I looked up and it was, like, three seconds left. So just got to adjust to that. But for the most part, I think it's been pretty good. It keeps the game going. Not a lot of sitting around, so you got to kind of be on your toes. And I think as pitchers, we can take advantage of it. The more we're kind of just ready to go and we know what pitch we want to throw. So after two innings, I think it's pretty good and it's gonna be exciting to see where it is during the regular season.”

Pitchers across the league have already tried to take advantage of the pitch clock, none more so than former Nats ace Max Scherzer.

Ever the competitor, Scherzer clearly had a plan for how he was going to use the clock to his benefit coming into spring training.

In his first start of spring with the Mets, coincidently against the Nationals, Scherzer manipulated the pitch clock by coming set early and then either throwing very quickly or holding onto the ball until the very last second, forcing the batter to use his one timeout early in the at-bat. Once the timeout was no longer an option, the rest of the at-bat was totally in Scherzer’s control.

He would go on to strike out five Nationals in just two innings. (But credit to the Nats, who came back five days later with a plan against Scherzer and his use of the pitch clock, and scored seven runs on him in one inning.)

“Yeah, I saw it all on Twitter,” Gray said of Scherzer with a laugh. “It looked like he's taken advantage of it, as he should. That guy has all the tools in his bag. I think even today, I held with, like, three seconds on or something like that to one of their hitters and then just dropped in a curveball strike. So the more you can kind of just get in their head and keep them flat-footed, why not? It's a matter of you and the hitter, and we can use it to our advantage sometimes.”

With the adjustment period seemingly closing, the next step for Nats starters is using the clock to their advantage, as Scherzer has. They are realizing they can mess with the tempo and timing of the at-bat to throw hitters off-balance.

“I've been a hitter before and I know what it feels like to get quick-pitched and stuff,” said Cade Cavalli, who was a two-way player at the University of Oklahoma. “So now with this clock, we as pitchers can take advantage of it. Work quick, and then also at the same time we can have a long hold and get those hitters in their legs, get them a little dead. So we're just trying to make them feel uncomfortable, that's it. And I think this clock is allowing it.”

The trick will be balancing how they manipulate the pitch clock between the game plan and in-game feel.

“I don't think it changes the way we gameplan based on how we're going to pitch guys,” Cavalli said. “But in the moment, you can feel if a hitter's sped up, or if he's really comfortable and you want to slow him down and get his legs a little stunned. I think that we can tell that. You just gotta pitch that way based on the feel of the game.”

How can you tell when a hitter is uncomfortable?

“For me, it's really in my belly,” Cavalli said. “I just trust my gut about how I think that they're feeling. And I'm always trying to think along with them as well because I know they're trying to think with me. So it's kind of like a game of chess. It's fun.”

Through the first 11 matchups of spring training, Nationals games have averaged two hours and 27 minutes in length. They are moving faster. And so are the starters.

You can take the results of early spring training games with a grain of salt. But it looks like Nats starters are pitching more efficiently and throwing strikes, which was going to be the focus this spring anyway, with or without the clock, after throwing in the strike zone only 40.6 percent of the time last year.

“The game does go a little quick, especially when they're swinging a lot,” Corbin said. “But like I said, I've always worked kind of quick. I think it will be a little bit tougher on guys that, maybe out of the 'pen or guys that aren't used to working that fast. But that's why we have this in spring training and hopefully get used to it. I think they've done a good job, even leading up to this, having the clocks out for bullpens in live (BP). I don't think it's going to be that big of an adjustment.”

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