MILWAUKEE – The pitch clock may be bothering players as they step to the plate, but they like it a whole lot better once they put on their gloves and take the field.
While the rule changes put in place this year to speed up the pace of play have garnered plenty of attention for how they’ve affected hitters and pitchers, some players and managers say the new guidelines also are positively impacting defense.
The pitch clock in particular — an idea meant to make it easier for fans to stay focused on the field — may be keeping fielders locked in, too.
“I think it’s helping defensively a lot, just because you don’t have the down time to really kind of walk around,” said Seattle Mariners second baseman Kolten Wong, a two-time Gold Glove winner. “You’re not cleaning dirt, you’re constantly back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. So, I’m a big fan of it.”
The pitch clock adopted this year — along with limits on infield shifts and several other rules — gives pitchers 15 seconds between deliveries if there are no baserunners and 20 seconds with someone aboard.
There's no doubt that games are faster. The average game length of 2 hours, 40 minutes is the shortest since 1984. Games had lasted an average of at least 3 hours every year from 2012-22.
That change was expected. But some players and coaches say they've been pleasantly surprised by how it's changed things on defense.
Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell, asked this season about left fielder Christian Yelich's improving glovework, landed on the clock as a key contributor. After ranking among the bottom 10 left fielders last year with minus-5 Outs Above Average, Yelich is third this season with 3 OAA, per Baseball Savant.
“It’s definitely not something I’d thought of, but I think it’s easier to play defense now the way the game is structured because it’s just faster-paced,” Counsell said. “That’s best for defenders. I don’t think hitters like it still, to be honest with you. And pitchers don’t like it. But I think it’s great for defenders.”
Counsell said the lengthy delays between pitches in previous seasons could make it tough for fielders to maintain their focus.
“It’s still your job, but (the slow pace) was making it really hard, I think especially for outfielders,” Counsell said.
Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Christian Walker indicated it was an issue for infielders as well.
“When you’ve been standing out there for 15-20 minutes and you get a ground ball hit at you, I know that’s been a challenge in the past, in long innings, staying locked in,” Walker said.
It's hard to find empirical evidence to support or dispute the theory. The league-wide fielding percentage of .986 through Tuesday's games is the highest in the sport’s history, but that may not be the best indicator. Fielding percentages have been rising steadily for decades thanks in part to improved field conditions and equipment, and last year's fielding percentage was .985. The metric also relies on subjective decisions by official scorers and doesn't factor for a player's range.
It's also hard to pull trends from advanced defensive metrics because of the limits placed on infield shifts between the 2022 and '23 seasons.
That leaves it up to the notoriously unreliable eye test to determine whether there’s any difference.
“I don’t think I’ve necessarily noticed that,” New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “My gut, or hearing you ask that question and knowing myself as a fielder, I would think it’s a good thing. You know, being able to keep it moving. I know we always liked a pitcher that worked fast, right? It felt like you were more on your toes, more alert. So I would think there’s something to that, but it’s not necessarily something that I’ve taken away from it so far.”
Boone’s opinion is something of a consensus.
When players and managers were asked by The Associated Press if they believed the pitch clock had impacted fielding, they often said they hadn’t really considered that possibility. Then, after thinking about it for a little bit, many of them at least partially agreed with Counsell’s opinion.
“There’s more action,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “They’re not on their heels as much, they’re ready for the ball to be put in play, things are happening quicker, less standing around.”
Brewers infielder Owen Miller has noticed that as well.
“I think just the flow of the game is a lot better,” Miller said. “You just have less time in between pitches, so especially infielders are a little bit lighter and quicker on their feet.”
Players and managers across the league see evidence of better fielding. Whether that’s because of the pitch clock or due to other factors remains up for debate.
“I think the engagement part helps,” Diamondbacks outfielder Alek Thomas said. “You’re paying attention, not looking to the crowd. Then again, maybe it’s just more athletic people out there making good plays.”
AP Baseball Writers David Brandt and Mike Fitzpatrick and AP Sports Writer Jimmy Golen contributed to this report.