Internal Clock: the Body’s Pace Car

I love to find cross-sport connections when breaking down baseball skills. When the topic of internal clock came up, the first cross-sport connection I thought of was a pace car in a NASCAR race. I won’t pretend to be a NASCAR fan; in fact, I don’t consider myself a fan of the sport at all. Actually, I know enough to know that I don’t know anything! What I do know is the role of the pace car. The pace car keeps the race cars at controlled speed when needed; they let the race cars loose to race when needed; they also bring everyone to an all stop when needed. They control the pace of the race cars. That’s the role our internal clock plays in infielders.

The internal clock tells us the pace that our body needs to move in order to record outs in the defensive setting. The pace of our internal clock is based on several factors including the speed and direction of the baseball, our skill set, and the base runner(s) running speed. Each of these factors will be evaluated and the pace of the internal clock will either speed up or slow down. Let’s dive into the determining factors of the internal clock.

Speed and direction of the ball

If we think about our primary objective on defense, it is to go get the ball in order to record outs. Naturally, this is the first factor in the internal clock. As the ball is hit, we need to determine the fastest route to get the ball to make a play. The location where we field the ball is the intercept point. The speed and direction of the ball will determine the distance we need to travel in order to intercept the ball.

Our skill set

As we determine where we’ll be able to intercept the ball, we then need to think about our skill set in order to set ourselves up to get an out. I personally know my agility (which plays into the speed and direction of the ball/intercept point), my comfort level fielding the ball in certain ways, as well as my arm strength. Taking all of that into consideration plays a role in my pace to make the play within my own skill set.

Runner speed

The final determining factor is the runner’s speed. This is the ultimate deciding factor in our internal clock. Remember our goal is to get outs. This guy running down the line is the out. We need to complete the play before they get to the base. The runner speed determines the maximum amount of time we have to make the play.

Putting it all together

Average home to first base times will vary depending on the playing level and also where you look for information. For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume a 4.3 second home to first time as our parameter for the following breakdown. We need to record an out at first base with a runner going down the line at a 4.3 second clip. How we invest in that time will depend on ball speed and direction and our skill set. Image A is a sample illustration of how a fielder could potentially invest in the given time before the runner reaches first base. This breakdown is a little on the micro-scale of the internal clock investments.

Image A: Internal Clock Investments

Recently, I learned about another way to break down the internal clock while listening to Tim DeJohn, an MiLB Coach in the Baltimore Orioles organization. His example doesn’t dive too far into the details of the investments but is a very easy way to understand those investments in more of a macro-scale. His example is all based on the number 10. He says that our speed (approach to the ball, fielding and throwing) and the ball (speed and direction) must equal 10. For example, if a ball is hit at a 3 (slow), then our body actions must be at a 7 (fast) in order to get the out. In other words, the slower the ball or more distance it takes for us to intercept, the faster our field and release must be and vice versa; the faster the ball or shorter distance it takes for us to intercept, the slower our field and release can be.

How to improve our Internal Clock

One way to improve our internal clock is to put ourselves in situations that require us to use it. Below is a sample progression:

  • Learn/teach the 2 step & 4 step patterns to get rid of the ball across all lanes. The 2 step pattern is a field and replace right to left and throw while the 4 step pattern is a field, replace right to left, replace again and throw.
  • Drill the 2 step & 4 step patterns with a stationary or rolled ball across all lanes.
  • Drill the 2 step & 4 step patterns for speed. Put the fielder on the clock. Start the clock on the catch and end it on the the release or on the target catch (either way works; just be consistent).
  • Take live ground balls off a fungo. Give players a time limit to get the ball to target (e.g. complete the out in under 4.3 seconds). Allow players to figure out which pattern goes with which type of ground ball.
  • Take live ground balls during batting practice with a time limit to get the out. You can also use live runners or even make the baseline shorter than 90 feet by starting closer.

The progression above is just one way to improve your internal clock. It’s important to know how fast you can go so you’re at top speed when the lights come on. To take the progression a step further, you can change the time limit for the play. Make it faster. See how low you can go.

Not only is it important to see how fast you can go, but it can be beneficial to see how slow “slow” really is. In order to have a full grasp of the internal clock, you can also make the “target time” SLOOOOOOW. See if you can time yourself to complete the play as close to the target time as possible. This way you’ve trained at your fastest as well as your slowest. This type of training should be limited as the goal is obviously to get as fast as possible.

When you get a better grasp of the internal clock, try to complete plays and shout out the time you think it took you to complete the play without looking at or being told the actual time. Then compare your guess to the actual time. You’ll know you’ve mastered the internal clock when you can get somewhat close to the actual time on a fairly consistent basis.

Mastering the internal clock takes time because there are limitless ground ball/play possibilities and so it comes with a lot of experience. Once it’s mastered, infielders play with more confidence, great rhythm and pace while recording outs!

Go make plays!


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