On Friday the 11 members of the MLB Competition Committee voted to enact some fairly drastic changes to baseball’s rulebook. While reviews for the solutions have been mixed so far, the problems that triggered them are acknowledged universally. Did the league kill a fly with a flyswatter, or by punching a hole into their own metaphorical drywall? Here’s a tour of all the changes, and their probable effects, broken down.
The Pitch Clock
The new rules:
- A 30-second timer will count down between batters.
- Pitchers now have 15 seconds between pitches with the bases empty, and 20 seconds with runners on base. If they haven’t begun their motion by then, it’s an automatic ball.
- Batters have 8 seconds to be in the box and ready. If they aren’t, it’s an automatic strike.
- With runners on base, if the pitcher throws a pickoff or steps off, the clock is reset. (See the next section.)
The big one is pretty obvious: major league baseball games are about to get a lot shorter. The average MLB game in 2022 has been around three hours and four minutes. That aligns pretty closely with the game times in rookie ball, which also don’t use the clock. The other leagues saw a drastic decrease in gametime between 2021 and 2022, when the commissioner’s office tightened up some of the loopholes that had eroded the clock’s early gains (like, for example, just stepping off the rubber for a second to reset the clock.) The minor leagues have averaged between 2:34 and 2:43 per game this season; shaving 20 minutes of glove strapping and sign-shaking will go a long way toward making the game more watchable.
Of course, pitchers were killing time for a reason. We know from Rob Arthur’s work at 538 that pitchers who throw harder tend to take longer between pitchers than their soft-tossing brethren. If you buy into the restrictor plate for pitchers concept, a pitch clock is a serviceable means to take the guys who throw the hardest and blunt their impact. If it takes them longer to recover between pitches they either have to selectively throw their hardest, or likely begin to throw at less than their max velocity shortly after pitch one. So while the obvious effect gained here is one of time saved, a lesser-but-still-relevant one might be more hittable pitches and a soft impact, for the better, on offense.
One thing to note: This rule will assuredly increase the number of lazy pickoff throws, or at least needless step-offs, as savvy pitchers will learn to milk those two clock resets per at-bat, regardless of whether it’s Julio Rodríguez over there at first or Daniel Vogelbach. It’s awful to even consider, but 2023 may be the first year where it’s actually legitimate to boo the pitcher for throwing over to first, if he’s just doing it to waste time.
Rules of Disengagement
The new rules:
- Pitchers can only disengage the rubber twice per plate appearance, either to step off and reset the timer, or attempt a pickoff throw.
- This limit is reset if any runner advances in the middle of the at-bat.
- If the pitcher attempts a pickoff on a third disengagement, and the runner is safe, it’s an automatic balk.
- Mound visits and injury timeouts do not count toward the limit.
- If a team has used up all their mound visits before the ninth inning, they get one free.
This is where it gets interesting. Limiting the number of pickoff throws is, practically speaking, the most revolutionary of all the rule changes going into effect next season. Most of the revisions on this list are, or very soon will be, forgotten: The majority of minor league attendees have admitted that they forget about the clock most of the time, and even the players get accustomed to the rhythm. And the shift has always been more a bogeyman than a monster. But having a runner know that he can take a ridiculous lead after two pickoff attempts is going to be jarring and it’s going to stay jarring, not least of which because its punishment is a balk, already one of the most unnatural moments in any ballgame.
I don’t think anyone loves this rule, except maybe Terrance Gore. It’s there because of the loophole mentioned earlier, when minor league pitchers started stepping off the rubber or throwing over to evade the pitch clock. But while it’s a heavy handed solution to a necessary problem, it’s also not as terrible as it appears.
First of all, most baseball fans like stolen bases, and would like to see more of them. We’re in a second dark age of the stolen base, which flows and ebbs historically based on the offensive environment, and the incentives to steal, rather than on the ability of the runners themselves. Given the reliance on home runs for offense in recent years, there’s less need for stolen bases than ever before – that runner scores on a homer just as well from first as second. That, as much as the increased understanding of the cost of the caught stealing, and the break-even point on creating baserunning value, has slowed down the sport.
Ultimately, the goal for this rule (besides giving the pitch clock the necessary teeth) is to not wind up granting a bunch of balks. Few things are less interesting than a man strolling down the basepath while the ball is dead. But also, it’s hard to imagine that it will. Runners will be able to take an extra step, yes, but just one extra step. Occasionally, in those Dave Roberts moments in the playoffs, where 90 feet can mean everything, the pickoff rule will be at the forefront of everyone’s minds. In the regular season, all the casual fan will likely see is that runners are going, and getting to second, more often than they used to. In the minors this year, stolen base success rate jumped from 68% to 77%, which is both significant and exciting.
All Your Bases
The new rules:
- The size of every bag increases from 15 square inches to 18 square inches.
Of all the revisions MLB made, this is probably both the least controversial and the least visible. Red Smith’s “ninety feet of perfection” makes no mention of the 15-inch pillow at the end of it. No one’s symmetry is at stake. The decision probably saves two spiked ankles a year at no discernable cost.
Technically, the change reduces the basepaths by 3 inches adjoining the plate and 4.5 inches heading to and from second base. Will that affect the running game? Well, no. For a baserunner sprinting at a nice average clip of 27 feet per second, that third of a foot translates into a potential savings of 0.014 seconds. Translated into catcher pop times, that gap is basically the difference between the no. 2 catcher (Chuckie Robinson, 1.88 seconds) and… the no. 3 catcher (Jorge Alfaro, 1.89 seconds).
In fact, where we’re most likely to see an impact from this change is one of the most difficult to quantify. Bigger bases means more opportunity to escape tags. Which is aesthetically pleasing, though it might lead to more replay.
Baseball Changes its Alignment
This is significant enough to merit an article on its own, and it does. You can read Rob Arthur’s analysis of baseball banning the shift here.
The biggest gripe here is probably less to do with how this rule actually affects gameplay than about the philosophical approach to how and why to implement rules that govern incentives. If the league wants to cut down on the three-true-outcomes approach that it has surmised fans dislike, rewarding those plodding, patient sluggers with a base hit when they fail to club a home run hardly seems the way to go about it. The incentive for your Max Muncys or Daniel Vogelbachs to cut down on selling out for pull-side power doesn’t really exist when you take away a defensive alignment that punishes them for failing and replace it with one that succeeds.
That all is perhaps secondary, though, to the increased offense that may result from a few more base knocks in today’s game. As noted earlier, the incentive for players and teams to steal bases dissipates when most runs score via homer. Add in a few more singles via a shift restriction, to at least dilute the formula, and maybe these new rules combine to nudge things along a bit.
Or maybe teams are still going to shift, they’re just going to do it via the outfield.
Ultimately, much of the positioning in today’s game happens with two infielders on either side of second base (though often one almost directly behind it). As such, this is arguably the most dramatic of changes in terms of heavy-handed implementation, but least dramatic in terms of likelihood to affect the on-field product from a viewer’s experience. People will care, because broadcasters have told them to.
As baseball continues to operate in a less-than-ideal run environment, the suite of changes MLB will implement heading into 2023 likely adds up to tinkering around the edges more than addressing the problems head on. Banning the shift means some more pulled singles. If they tack on the “pie” idea, that’s adding some singles up the middle. The pitch clock, paired with pitcher roster caps might nudge things further in the offense’s direction, and limiting pickoffs will probably aid in generating some more stolen bases. There should be an effect, all told, but it’s unlikely to be a true gamechanger. The product is basically the same, but the packaging at least looks nicer.
No, for something of a larger order of impact, we suggest you check out some other ideas we posited last season. We’ve seen the impact that moving a wall back can have in Baltimore, but while doing it piecemeal mostly turns runs into outs, doing it en masse and adding more outfield ground to cover in general can open up the game and provide a measure of BABIP that we’ve seen slowly dissipate over the years (see: Coors Field, Kauffman Stadium). Similarly, moving the mound back would massively blunt the impact of the rise in velocity we’ve experienced across the league. Eventually baseball will need to not only bring back offense, but bring back balance to offense. Rob Manfred and company had so many ways to go about this; that they chose the shift over the strike zone or the walls speaks to his own aesthetic predilections, and a desire to drive the image of baseball back toward tradition, rather than change.
Still, we’ll probably get there. If there’s one thing to keep in mind, it’s that we’re far from done. Even with the field testing in the Atlantic and minor leagues, we’re going to discover some loopholes in all this, just as we did with the transfer rule after replay arrived. And besides, the automatic strike zone continues to loom on the horizon.
Thank you for reading
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