Nestor Cortes walked down the mound, received the throw back from his catcher and did what so many of his pitching heroes would do. He took a short stroll through the grass around the mound, thought about the next pitch and what he wanted to do with it, then climbed back up to the rubber to set up to deliver it.
This wasn’t a big league game. This was Little League. And Cortes’ little strolls weren’t a part of his routine for long before his dad got in his ear.
“Stop walking so much!” his dad would say. “You’re tiring yourself out!”
So that’s how a young Cortes -- long before he became a member of the New York Yankees -- sped up his time between pitches. Today, he is not just one of the better starting pitchers in Major League Baseball, but also one of the fastest workers. In the 2022 season, he took an average of 15 seconds between pitches -- tied for the 21st-fastest pace among qualified pitchers.
“I feel like hitters are super comfortable when the pitcher is taking his time,” Cortes said. “So I’ve used [a quicker pace] to my advantage.”
Of course, not every pitcher works as quickly as Cortes, and so not every pitcher will transition as seamlessly to the pitch timer that is coming to MLB.
Opening Day 2023 will begin a new era that actually harkens back to an old one, when the sport had a much different rhythm than it does today. As more and more big league pitchers did that stroll near the mound, young ones watched them and incorporated that into their own routines. Then, as the game became oriented more and more around velocity, pitchers took even more time to gather themselves between throws.
From 2010 (the earliest season for which we have reliable data) to '22, the average time between pitches with the bases empty increased from 15.9 seconds to 18, while the average time with runners on base increased from 22.1 to 23.3.*
*Note that this calculation, like all others in this piece, is based on Statcast’s pitch tempo metric, which measures the time between the release of one pitch and the release of another. This differs from the pitch timer, which will not start counting down until the pitcher receives the throw from the catcher.
The pitch timer will police that. From the time the pitcher receives the throw from the catcher, there will be a 15-second timer with the bases empty and a 20-second timer with runners on base. The pitcher must begin his motion to deliver the pitch before the expiration of the pitch timer. Pitchers who violate the timer are charged with an automatic ball, and batters who are not in the box and alert to the pitcher by the eight-second mark are charged with an automatic strike.
In the Minor Leagues in 2022, the pitch timer led to about a 25-minute reduction in average game times. So it is generally seen as a positive for a sport trying to compete for the eyeballs and attention of an audience that isn’t thrilled about going more than four minutes between balls in play.
But the timer's collateral damage will be the baked-in routines of those who take their sweet time between pitches. And so, through the game’s faster-working hurlers, we can learn a lot about what it will take for the others to make this looming transition.
Veteran reliever Jesse Chavez (who, at 13.7 seconds between pitches, had the third-fastest pace in 2022) said it is the time a pitcher takes to study his plan before the game that affects the time he takes to throw pitches during a game.
“Preparation leads to what you want to do out there,” Chavez said. “There are going to be times when you’ve got to flip the script, but I feel like, if I give the hitter less time in the box to think, I’ve got a better chance of executing my pitches. Because I already know what I want to do, compared to what they want.”
Rockies reliever Brent Suter -- the fastest worker in MLB in 2022 while with the Brewers (12.6 seconds between pitches) -- pointed to the importance of a different type of preparation:
“That’s going to be that much more important next season,” Suter said. “More running, less rest between sprints or cardio intervals. That will be a big thing. Nutrition and sleeping right factors into that part of it, as well.”
Suter had the importance of tempo burned into his brain in college, by then-Harvard pitching coach John Birtwell, a former Minor Leaguer.
“He was one of those guys who didn’t have crazy stuff but played baseball a lot of years with the idea of working quick, throwing strikes, attacking the zone,” Suter said. “So it was definitely emphasized to us in college, and I continued to work quicker and quicker in the Minor Leagues.”
Along the way, Suter learned how to condition himself to take the ball and go.
“Typically in the weight room, I’ll go 20 seconds between exercises,” Suter said. “Not everyone does that. I’ve always been a guy who’s a little quicker in the weight room and a little quicker in the time between [30-yard] sprints. I want to simulate what I’m doing out there on the mound.”
Guardians ace Shane Bieber (14.6 seconds between pitches, 10th-fastest) agreed.
“This is a quick-twitch sport,” Bieber said. “You’re not running on the soccer pitch for two hours. So that’s definitely something that needs to be taken into account, and you try to implement it in the weight room.”
Conditioning is important, and so is conviction.
“I don't want to have too much time to overthink something, to backtrack and to have doubts on what I'm about to do,” Guardians starter Cal Quantrill (14.9 seconds between pitches, 19th-fastest) said. “I've made up my mind, I have conviction in the pitch I'm about to throw, and I throw the pitch. I get the ball back, and we do it again. You create that rhythm, right?”
The addition of the pitch timer has already started to become a factor this winter -- teams must try to figure out how pitchers who are notoriously slow to the plate will adjust to the new rules. It was something that closer Kenley Jansen, one of the slowest workers in the game in 2022, addressed in his introductory press conference after signing with the Red Sox as a free agent.
“I don’t have a problem with [the pitch timer],” said Jansen. “It’s going to be tough on the hitters, too. I remember last year when I found out I’m the slowest and I started to speed up myself a little bit. I’m telling you, I was on the rubber waiting for the hitter for so long. I think it’s both sides. Both sides have to adjust. You can’t let stuff like that bother you. I’m excited for it. We’re going to learn about it and it’s going to be fine.”
While others may bemoan being forced to stray from the routines that got them to baseball’s highest level, the quick workers espoused the advantages that the pitch timer could have for them.
“It really should only take most guys a couple outings in Spring Training to get used to it,” Quantrill predicted. “They’ll feel that rhythm, and then it won’t be an issue. I think there may be some older pitchers who are really set in their ways who don’t like this, but, for the most part, it doesn’t take you 30 seconds to make a decision on what you want to do. This will just be about finding a rhythm early in the spring, getting used to it and then, by the time the season comes, I don’t foresee an issue with there being many violations.”
Ultimately, the best advice of all for what is coming to MLB may have been uttered by Cortes’ dad all those years ago and by Cortes today.
“Just don’t walk as far down,” Cortes said with a smile. “I think that’s where people waste the most time is walking down that mound.”