It’s not going to be your grandparents’ baseball in 2023, or your parents’ baseball, or even the baseball you might have grown up with if you’re of a certain age.
It might turn out to be better. Can we all live with that?
The rules changes announced by MLB on Friday are designed to recalibrate the game away from its Three True Outcomes emphasis and make it more entertaining. But this sudden and continuing transformation might be disconcerting to many.
This was a game that was essentially unchanged for a century – just consider the fierce disagreement when the American League introduced the designated hitter in 1973 – but is now careening headlong into a new era, with pitch clocks, larger bases, stricter rules about holding runners on base, and limitations on where infielders can be deployed.
To be honest, I can’t wait for the first illegal defense call in an MLB game.
Yet as much as I’ve advocated banning the shift, and have actually seen the way pitch clocks have livened up the pace of games in the low-A California League, even I’m a bit queasy with so much change so rapidly. Ironically, I find myself thinking that maybe Commissioner Rob Manfred and his people should, um, slow down a bit.
To recap, MLB’s competition committee (which seems to be a title right out of the NFL handbook, by the way) made these 2023 rules changes official Friday:
• The pitch clock will be enforced. Pitchers will have 15 seconds to begin their motions with the bases empty and 20 seconds with men on base, which is more time than the minor leaguers had to work with the last two seasons (14 seconds with no one on, 18 with baserunners at lower levels and 19 at Triple-A). Umpires will call a ball on any pitcher who doesn’t start his motion in the allotted time and a strike against any hitter who isn’t in the box and ready to hit within eight seconds.
The duration of games in the minor leagues using the pitch clock this year was shaved by a full half hour, according to MLB. But time of game isn’t the issue as much as pace of game. When certain pitchers – you know who they are – take their own sweet time between pitches, the game feels interminable. People in the park squirm and people watching on television are tempted to change the channel.
The latter, in particular, gets the executives’ attention.
• It’s now official, as of next spring: There must be two infielders on each side of second base, they all must be stationed on the infield dirt, and they can’t switch sides. If there’s a violation, the umpire calls a ball. (But a five-man infield in extreme situations is still legal. Call it the Gene Mauch Rule.)
Sure, it would be great if hitters learned to go the other way and beat the shift, or maybe bunt occasionally. But they’ve had a decade or so to learn. And if you haven’t actually stood up there with a bat, against a guy throwing 95 mph or harder and able to manipulate the flight of the ball like he’s using a joystick, you probably shouldn’t be suggesting it’s that easy to do in the heat of competition.
According to Sports Info Solutions, as reported by the New York Times’ Scott Miller, we have gone from 2,357 shifts on balls in play in 2011 to a pace for more than 71,000 in 2022. Meanwhile, the league’s collective batting average is at its lowest since 1968, when the Lords of Baseball responded by lowering the mound and reducing the strike zone.
You don’t think it’s time for another reset?
• The bases will increase in size from 15 inches square to 18. There’s talk this will encourage an increase in stolen base attempts, but a greater impact might come from the new pickoff rule, in which pitchers can step off twice per plate appearance, either to throw to first or look a runner back, but the third time it’s a balk. (Please, name this rule after Maury Wills.)
What would make a more significant difference: Eliminating the replay challenge when a baserunner is tagged as his foot pops off the bag for a split second while he’s sliding. That is not the spirit of the rule.
Where it will actually be helpful is if a larger base means fewer first basemen (or pitchers covering the bag) getting spiked by or colliding with baserunners.
These changes, remember, are in addition to these all implemented in the last decade: The replay challenge system; rules against takeout slides at second base and catchers blocking the plate; the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers; the free runner on second to start an extra inning; allowing a manager to signal for an intentional walk without a pitch being thrown; and this year’s implementation of the DH in both leagues and the Shohei Ohtani rule allowing a pitcher to also DH.
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(As far as we know, only one man has benefited from the latter. It’s also kept the Angels borderline watchable this summer, but I digress.)
The rate of change has been head-spinning, with a good amount of grousing from traditionalists. But it was in response to an analytics revolution that seemed to take the game’s stewards by surprise, changing both the way the game was played and the way players were evaluated.
A response was necessary. And the heartening thing is that the game no longer seems paralyzed by its heritage. Other sports respond to changing conditions. Why shouldn’t this one?
Still, there’s one change that should be coming that isn’t, for now. The automated strike zone has been tested in the minors for two seasons, and anyone who watches a major league game with the strike zone box – and the other advanced graphics that indicate when a pitch is or isn’t a strike – understands that plate umpires are overmatched at the very least.
You can expect it to be implemented by 2024.
Minnesota Twins first baseman Jose Miranda, second baseman Luis Arraez and shortstop Carlos Correa (4) stand in a defensive shift during a game against the Baltimore Orioles earlier this season in Baltimore. According to Sports Info Solutions, we have gone from 2,357 shifts on balls in play in 2011 to a pace for more than 71,000 in 2022. That is one of the reasons MLB is implenting a rule against defensive shits for 2023. (AP Photo/Tommy Gilligan)