LOS ANGELES -- Pedro Baez stared in for the sign from the catcher, locked into his target, backed off the rubber, kicked the dirt and stared back in for the pitch selection again.
It was Game 1 of the National League Championship Series and baseball’s human rain delay was making the game conform to his terms. Baez fussed and fidgeted. He paused and hesitated atop the Wrigley Field mound.
His opening half-inning of the NLCS -- the fifth inning of the game -- took 15 minutes, even though he gave up neither a hit nor a run. He threw 20 pitches while baseball’s most famous analog clock loomed over him from center field, dragging its big hand along at the pitcher’s leisurely pace.
If the entire game had been played at Baez’s pace, it would have taken five full hours to complete nine innings, adding in the commercial breaks as well.
Baez, the Dodgers’ version of the 405 freeway at rush hour, hears the requests for improved pace and tempo and is trying to oblige as fast as his deliberate nature will let him.
“I just didn’t notice,” Baez said through team interpreter Jesus Quinonez, when asked about his traffic-jam pace. “I didn’t think I took that long. I thought it was normal. Now I understand after they talked about it. I’m working on it. I’ve been working on it since then to speed it up a little bit.”
That he is known to slow time, while possessing a fastball that roars to the plate in the 98 mph range, makes him a complete contradiction. He is the tortoise and the hare, all rolled into one.
He is also the antithesis of commissioner Rob Manfred’s plan to speed up the game and keep the action flowing. Baez has taken an average of 30.0 seconds between pitches the past two seasons, 7.4 seconds above the league average -- per pitch.
He is holding up umpires, teammates, the media, the game telecast and perhaps turning off a new generation of fans who just want to get along with the action already.
So what does closer Kenley Jansen tell his bullpen mate to do when the subject of quicker tempo arises?
“You’re the one that’s pitching; nobody is going to tell you when to throw that ball,” a defiant Jansen said. “Even if the commissioner wants to manipulate that, you can still step off [the pitching rubber]. Nobody can tell you that you cannot step off. He doesn’t have to worry about anything. Don’t worry about the outside noise, just do him.”
Well, that should settle that. One of the best relief pitchers in the game has Baez’s back. Pitch the way you want to pitch in order to have success. That should end all this “hurry up” talk, right?
“I think it will be good for him to speed up a little bit and have more tempo,” Jansen ultimately admitted. “He has too good of stuff to go slow every time. ... I think he will get a little more rhythm out there, faster with a little more tempo and will have really good success with it.”
And finding that faster rhythm is a priority, Baez insists. He has a career 3.00 ERA using his slow pace, including a 2.84 mark in the second half last season, and 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings over the last two years, but if so many people are suggesting he change, then he is willing to listen.
Baez did make an adjustment last season, moving toward the first-base side of the rubber in order to let his natural pitch movement carry pitches over the plate. But when asked about any recent mechanical alterations, he brought up his slow pace unprompted.
“Just working to be faster pitch to pitch,” he said. “I’ve been working hard just on that, working to get faster between pitches.”
Just like Jansen, the coaching staff thinks that a faster-working Baez will make the flame-throwing reliever even tougher to deal with.
“He’s a little quicker,” manager Dave Roberts said last week after Baez returned from the disabled list (wrist contusion) and made his first outing of the season. “I didn’t have a clock on it, but it’s a work in progress. We will continue to work on it.”
Opposing managers would probably prefer to see the slower version of Baez, but even Colorado Rockies manager Bud Black had to admit that a pitcher who moves quickly from pitch to pitch can become a handful, especially one throwing in the high-90 mph range like Baez.
“It helps your aggressiveness,” said Black, a former longtime pitcher, who was a pitching coach before getting manager jobs in San Diego and now Colorado. “You set the tone. You’re the aggressor. Get the ball back, get the sign, I’m coming at you. I think it helps the defenders. It just helps the flow of your team.”
Baez will never be one of the quicker workers in the game and certainly not anywhere near Wade Miley, who threw a pitch at an average of every 17.9 seconds the past two seasons.
But Baez already seems to be moving away from Junichi Tazawa, who was the slowest in the game the past two seasons at 30.2 seconds per pitch.
“I think there is some thinking through how to attack hitters and making sure he and [catcher Yasmani Grandal] are on the same page,” Roberts said of Baez. “In between pitches, he is very methodical by nature. So to speed him up, to try to do that and force it, there is risk vs. reward.”
Can the Dodgers really help the game’s pace-of-play issue while making Baez even better at the same time? Black’s history says it’s worth a try, but it is a delicate situation.
“Yeah, it’s very tough, to the point where, from a coaching standpoint, if they are having success, you really don’t want to change him,” Black said. “But in the back of your mind, you want the change.”
Baez seems to know this too. And the early indications are that a little more spring in his step really can help. In his first three appearances of the season, while incorporating a slightly faster pace, Baez has fired four scoreless innings without a hit. He has six strikeouts to two walks.
When Baez pitched at Wrigley Field in last year’s playoffs, the clock was shown during his first inning of work. If Wrigley Field had a sundial, the broadcast might have shown that instead.
Baez is working on it. But he’s working on getting outs first.
“I feel good,” Baez said. “They’re always going to find something to talk about, but you can’t listen to what people say. You can’t worry about what they think. I have to continue to do my work.”