I’m a fan of pretty much all the changes that MLB has made. But more importantly, I’m a fan of the fact that they were willing to make changes, period. The NFL and NBA make changes to their rules on a yearly basis; the entire rulebook goes under a thorough review. Occasionally, you wind up with something stupid, but for the most part they go a long way toward improving the game. I don’t go as far as Bill James, who told the MIT Sports Business conference that figuring out rules changes to improve the fan experience is the future of sabermetrics, but I do think this is one place where baseball’s traditionalism has sometimes gotten the better of it. Changing, say, a rule about a rosin bag doesn’t alter the continuity of baseball tradition any more than another McDonald’s going up in Paris alters the continuity of French culinary tradition.
With that said, what the latest set of rules changes has in common is that they tend to deal with areas in which the intent of the rules is clear enough, but the enforcement is not. The rule about scuffing the ball, for example, which now will lead to an automatic 10-game suspension, could have cleared up the muddy Kenny Rogers situation in Game 2 of the World Series last year. Or it could not have, if the umpires determined that there really was mud on his pitching finger instead of pine tar. There’s still a lot of room for interpretation, and if umpires know that the penalty for being caught with a foreign substance is a 10-game suspension, they might be even more likely to give the pitcher the benefit of the doubt.
A more obvious example of this is the reduction of the time allowed between pitches from 20 seconds to 12 with no runners on base. I’m sure that many of you had the same reaction to this that I did: “There’s a pitch clock? I once watched a lot of games involving a team that employed Steve Tracshel. There’s a pitch clock? Pitch clock? Playoffs?”
Then again, the way that the rule is defined — requiring the hitter to be “in the batter’s box and alert to the pitcher” before the clock starts (and then only with the bases empty), it may not come up very often. I watched parts of the first inning of Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, trying to time the break between pitches under this definition (this is harder than you’d think, since FOX was usually more inclined to show a close-up of Roger Clemens’ flaring nostrils than the batter getting ready for the pitch). I came up with an average of 6.7 seconds between pitches for Clemens, and 6.6 for Pedro Martinez, with a maximum of 9.8 seconds for either pitcher. Actually, what I really noticed is just how long batters take screwing around between pitches — stepping out of the box after almost every pitch, looking back at the dugout, adjusting their cups, and so forth. They’re really every part as much of the problem as pitchers are. If the new rule is enforced, I suspect it should tend to help batters that “work quickly”, as Alfonso Soriano did in this game. But that’s a big “if”.