Baseball's new rules: 2023 a season of change
Something had to be done. With the time of games stretching even the most ardent fan’s patience, and the lack of action threatening to stunt the sport’s growth in a crowded entertainment field, commissioner Rob Manfred finally got the rule changes he’d been seeking for much of the past decade.
It’s a shame the process took so long. Because if these spring training games prove to be an effective laboratory, then Manfred & Co. deserve credit for pushing through rules that already seem to remedy some of the game’s thorniest issues. After years of pushback from the Players Association, which had resisted the pitch clock at every negotiating session, MLB’s implementation of that timer, along with the shift ban and larger bases, is the best thing to happen to the sport since the universal DH.
Not everyone may feel that way from the jump. Change is hard, especially in baseball, which typically makes adjustments at a glacier-like pace. But there’s been little dissent involving the new rules, other than concern over violations potentially deciding games (we’re highly skeptical that will happen during the regular season).
With that in mind, here’s a thumbnail primer of those rules, followed by their impact on games this spring, and my feedback.
Or if you prefer, timer, has a simple purpose: to get the game moving along at a crisper, more efficient pace. To that end, the clock is set at 30 seconds between batters, 15 seconds for the pitcher to begin his delivery (20 with a runner on base) and the batter must be prepared to hit -- alert, facing the mound, eyes up -- with eight seconds left. Any pitcher violation results in an automatic ball; a hitter violation is an automatic strike. Pitchers are allowed two disengagements with the rubber per plate appearance, whether it’s a step-off or pick-off attempt. On a third pick-off attempt is made, the runner automatically advances (balk) if the out is not made.
So far, the spring-training data has been stunning. Based on experimentation in the minors, MLB officials figured this would help, but to see the clock work in this fashion, this rapidly, has to surprise some. Over the previous two springs, the average time of game was 3:01. This year? It’s down to 2:27, which is even more staggering when you factor in so many substitutions and pitching changes. Limiting pick-off attempts also has promoted base-stealing, another MLB goal, with thefts per game jumping to 1.9 (78.3% success rate) this year as compared to 1.1 (71.3%) in 2022.
I’d say mission accomplished. If only everything in life worked as well as the pitch clock, which has done exactly what it was designed to do. Sure there’s been an adjustment process -- some have griped about violations. But the reaction overall has been positive, and everyone should be pretty much acclimated by Opening Day. While hitters seem to struggle more at times, as pitchers now set the tempo, most of the players anticipate that to balance out as both sides get more used to the clock. The stolen bases are a nice bonus as well, despite being the bane of a a data analyst’s existence.
Technically, it’s more of a limit, as the defensive teams must have a minimum of four players on the infield dirt, with at least two of them completely on either side of second base. The infielders must be within that boundary when the pitcher is on the rubber, and they cannot switch sides, say to reposition the best defender where the ball is more likely to be hit. Teams still can use an outfielder in the infield, or overload them to one side of the grass, but four-outfielder alignments are prohibited.
This rule also is achieving the desired effect this spring as the batting average on balls put in play (BABIP) has significantly spiked to .321, up from .312 a year ago. During the 2022 regular season, it was .291. In addition, overall batting average has nudged upward to .262 from .259 this spring while runs per games have increased to 11.0 from 10.6. Maybe some of those offensive stats are a residue of pitchers being more distracted by the pitch clock regulations, so it will be interesting to see how that translates to the regular season.
The early numbers certainly look promising, and you can bet dead-pull hitters like Aaron Hicks, Anthony Rizzo and Joey Gallo are thrilled. Some infielders like Francisco Lindor still try to start on the edge of the grass, then creep fast onto the dirt to keep moving on the pitcher’s delivery. The big question once the games count is how many teams will be willing to roll the dice and leave a whole side of outfield uncovered if they choose to use the shift anyway.
Pretty straightforward. The bases used to be 15 inches square. They’re now 18 inches. The focus here is mostly on player safety, providing more room to operate, presumably helping to avoid collisions and prevent over-sliding the base as well. Also with the 4 1/2-inch reduction in the basepaths between first, second and third -- the distances involving home plate are unchanged -- that should encourage more base-stealing attempts.
As noted above with the pitch clock, stolen bases are up this spring, so this is probably a contributing factor. It’s difficult to gauge the player-safety aspect, however.
Frankly, the game hasn’t looked much different with larger bases. Other than Red Sox manager Alex Cora referring to them as pizza boxes, there hasn’t been much blowback from this rule change. Maybe MLB just decided to sneak this in with the other two rules so nobody would get too riled up about it. If so, the strategy seems to have worked.