A behind-the-scenes look at how the pitch timer works
HOUSTON -- The slugger went deep, then the console went beep.
As Central Missouri infielder John Prudhom crossed home plate Saturday after hitting a towering two-run home run in the first inning of a game at the Houston Winter Invitational at Minute Maid Park, Billy Cannon pressed the button that initiated the 30-second timer between batters, and a little beep chirped in the press box.
Cannon is what's known as a Field Timing Coordinator (FTC), a formerly low-profile position that, with the arrival of the pitch timer at the Major League level in 2023, is suddenly infused with importance. That's why Cannon was one of about 110 FTCs in attendance at the Division II tournament hosted by the Astros over the weekend. They were brought here by MLB to put what they've learned about the role to practice before the season starts.
"It's integral," Cannon said of the immersive experience, in which he operated the official timer for the first two innings of the game between the Central Missouri Mules and Montevallo Falcons before handing the controls off to another trainee. "I feel 10 times better now about it, even after just doing two innings."
At any given time during the three-day, six-team tournament (in which the MLB pitch timer rules were put in place), as one FTC ran the official timer, 18 others sat elsewhere in the Minute Maid Park press box with consoles of their own, simulating the pitch timer operation.
Each instance in which they hit a button to stop or start the timer, the beep sounded. So the FTCs could hear, in real time, if their stops and starts were ahead of or behind the pack. And as unusual or unexpected in-game situations arose, MLB staff was on hand to answer questions on how the timer should be handled.
"We think this is a really valuable time and experience for them and for us," said Joe Martinez, MLB's vice president of on-field strategy. "And Spring Training is going to just build on that. All of this is going to be important so that, once we reach the regular season, we can hit the ground running and hopefully there are minimal disruptions and confusion."
The FTC position itself it not new. It has existed since 2015 to run the timer for between-innings breaks, pitching changes, mound visits and replay challenges.
But the 2023 advent of the pitch timer rules suddenly makes the FTC one of the most significant non-uniform people at the park. And there's more to the job than you might realize.
Here are the five keys to being an effective FTC.
1. Know the rules
The pitch timer is 15 seconds with the bases empty, 20 seconds with runners on base. The timer starts the moment the pitcher receives the ball and stops the moment he goes into his motion.
That latter part can be tricky.
"When you're in the full motion, you [stop the clock] based off the first movement of your foot," said Matt Rosenbaum, an FTC based in Arizona. "When you're in the stretch, some of these guys still like to do their first foot movement, but you're not stopping the clock until the leg actually lifts. So if you're focusing specifically on the hips when they're in the stretch, then you're not going to stop at the right time."
The FTC must also be the arbiter of when the 30-second timer between batters begins. If, for example, there's a base hit to the outfield, the timer won't start until the ball is thrown into the infield. And as noted above, after a homer, it begins when the guy who went deep touches home plate.
Generally speaking, an FTC must have awareness of the whole field. If there's a foul ball into the stands and the right fielder has just run to the side wall in pursuit of it, the pitch timer does not begin until the fielder has returned to his position. The clock must also not be running if, say, the umpire is brushing off home plate or a hitter is handing off his equipment to a coach after notching a hit.
"If you know the game of baseball," said Cannon, who works Rangers games in Arlington, "it's a lot easier to have that common sense and concentration."
2. Experience is important
Only one FTC is needed to run the timer for a game, but there are anywhere from three to seven FTCs in the mix per Major League market (depending on the number of teams). They tend to be scheduled by series, rather than individual games, so that they can work in tandem with a given umpiring crew.
Many of the FTCs lined up for the 2023 season have performed the more limited version of the job in the past and/or have experience with other data operations jobs in baseball, be it official scoring or play-by-play input. FTCs are hired by MLB, not the individual clubs, and they are paid by the game.
What does MLB look for in its FTCs?
"It's someone who knows the role well, has a good feel for the game and the focus to lock in for the whole game," Martinez said. "That's the most important thing, keeping your attention on the field, seeing the umpire signals and being responsive to things that happen."
3. Know the controls
Every FTC will use the same equipment -- a Daktronics All Sport 5000 Series Control Console. The main board has preset buttons for mound visits, between-innings breaks, etc. But most of the work is done with a small handheld device that has a start and stop switch and three buttons (one for 15 seconds, one for 20 and one for 30). The small device allows for quick, almost reflexive operation of the timer.
"They kind of fall into a rhythm with the beeps and the clicks," Martinez said. "It's like typing on a typewriter. It's kind of neat."
During the MLB season, FTCs will typically be positioned in a spot in or near the press box, where they have a good vantage point of the field and the umpires.
"We've been working with the clubs to find the ideal locations at each park," Martinez said. "All of the clubs understand how important this is and the fact that we need these folks to be able to do their jobs well or else it's not going to work the way it needs to."
4. Work with the umps
Newly promoted crew chiefs Todd Tichenor and Adrian Johnson were among a handful of umpires on hand at the Houston Winter Invitational to observe the pitch timer in action and understand the FTC operation.
"We're gonna meet [with the FTCs] before each game at a certain time," Tichenor said, "whether it's 40 minutes or 50 minutes before the game, they'll come down, introduce themselves and I'm going to try to make them feel a part of the crew. I want them to be a part of the team. We don't go until they go, and vice versa."
There is a set of hand signals used by the umps, who will have the discretion to stop the clock in special circumstances, to convey instructions to the FTCs, such as twirling the finger around (similar to a home run call) when a reset of the clock is needed.
And during the game, the FTCs will wear a headset and the umpires will wear an in-ear piece and a microphone, allowing the two parties to check in with each other between innings to go over any issues that arose and ensure everything is running properly.
"While it is a two-way type of communication, we still want to keep it more one-way, because they're still on their game," Rosenbaum said. "You don't interfere at all with the way [the umps] run the game."
Any concern that a locally based FTC will be a "homer" and run the clock in a way that benefits the home team is erased by the fact that the umpire is ultimately the one in control. But even if a club were to complain about how the timer was handled, MLB has the data to objectively analyze whether it was operated properly and determine the best course of action from there.
5. Stay focused
As former big league reliever Dan Otero, who now works for MLB as a senior director for on-field operations, noted while watching an FTC in action in the press box, the position requires a person's total attention.
"I think there's more pressure up here," Otero joked, "than down on the field."
That's an obvious exaggeration, but the FTC must be dialed in for every pitch, every play, every mound visit, etc. Though the 2 minutes and 15 seconds between innings offer a brief break, of sorts, that's time in which they'll be in communication with the umpires.
"It's nerve-racking, for sure," Rosenbaum said. "But one of the beauties of the people who do FTCs is we've done other certain positions like live-tracking. So we're sort of used to being locked in for every pitch. That really helps us transition to this sort of role."
Like the players on the field, an FTC must have confidence and conviction in what he or she is doing at the control board.
And like umpires or third-base coaches, the best FTCs will be the ones you never notice.
"I could be perfect for 99 events in a row," Cannon said. "But then, if the catcher throws the ball back to the pitcher and I cloud out for two seconds and miss it, that's what I'm going to be known for."
Now that the pitch timer is here, we have reason to know what the FTC job entails. Let the beeping begin.