Hoornstra: 3 small baseball rules changes will have big consequences

On Sept. 9, Major League Baseball instituted a series of rules changes coming to a ballpark near you in 2023. To recap:

• A timer will restrict the time between pitches to 15 seconds when no runners are on base, and 20 seconds when runners are on. Stepping off the rubber resets the clock, but pitchers are limited to two step-offs per plate appearance until or unless the runner advances. (Stepping off a third time will result in a balk, unless an out is recorded.) Hitters are only granted one timeout per plate appearance.

• Two infielders must be positioned on either side of second base before every pitch, and all four infielders must have both feet within the outer boundary of the infield when a pitch is delivered.

• First, second, and third base will increase from 15 inches to 18 inches per side.

That list is deceptively short and simple. After sitting with them for a couple of weeks, the totality of their impact seems a bit more complex. In a press release announcing the changes, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said the new rules were designed to “improve pace of play, increase action, and reduce injuries.”

They will do more than that.

The pitch timer will result in some plate appearances that end in a batter walking on a three-ball count, when no pitch is officially recorded, because the pitcher took too long to deliver the baseball and was penalized with an automatic ball. Other plate appearances will end in a strikeout on a two-ball count, because the batter took too long to get ready in the box and was penalized with a strike.

To be clear, I like the new rules.

The shift restrictions will not eliminate all strategy from defense. They will force teams to get more clever, and defenders to get more athletic.

The pitch clocks were already in the ballparks. An existing rule – Rule 5.07(c) – mandates that pitchers deliver the ball within 12 seconds after they receive it when the bases are empty. Without accompanying penalties, however, pitchers had no incentive to do so.

The larger bases were found to decrease related injuries in the minor leagues this season, according to MLB. And I’m excited to see what an average game time of 2:38 feels like. (In the minor leagues, instituting a timer reduced the average time of a nine-inning game by 26 minutes, according to the league.)

These are the explicit goals of the new rules. I’m just as intrigued by the side effects, the second- and third-order changes that will seep into the game more subtly. The league and its consultants (among them Theo Epstein) certainly considered these things before the rules change as well. Secondary consequences are not always unintentional.

Once you’re done watching the pitch timer, the defensive alignment, and squinting to observe the difference between a 15-inch base and an 18-inch base, keep an eye out for these changes too:

More stolen bases ― and players who are good at stealing bases

It isn’t clear how much limiting pickoffs, and reducing the distance between first and second base (by virtue of the larger bases), will encourage runners to steal. In the minors at least, MLB said stolen base attempts per game increased from 2.23 in 2019 at a 68% success rate, to 2.83 in 2022 at a 77% success rate.

That’s a marginal increase, but consider how much it might change the game in concert with a couple of trends in play this season.

Home runs fell from 1.22 per game in 2021 to 1.08 per game in 2022 (through Tuesday), a decrease attributed to intentional changes in the manufacturing of baseballs. Runs per game are down from 4.53 to 4.30. If teams cannot expect to score by hitting the ball over the fence, how will they make up the difference?

The answer might rest with players like Terrence Gore, Billy Hamilton or Tim Locastro – stolen-base specialists who bring little else to a team’s offense. In an era when most teams carried only four players on their bench, and only the American League allowed for designated hitters, many teams could not justify employing a player with such a limited skill set.

Now? Every team has a DH, reducing the number of in-game substitutions. And all teams effectively have a five-man bench, thanks to a rule mandating 13 pitchers and 13 position players per side. There is more room for a one-dimensional offensive player in today’s MLB – and one dimension just became much more important next year.

The catcher position

During the heyday of stolen bases in the 1980s, a catcher’s ability to throw out would-be base stealers took on added importance. That skill was perhaps overemphasized as the home run took center stage during the 1990s and 2000s. By the 2010s, throwing had given way to pitch framing as the more coveted defensive skill among catchers.

Framing still rules supreme, but the pendulum might shift if stolen bases tick up as expected in 2023. Those two skills (framing and throwing out baserunners) are not mutually exclusive. But they do hold competing influence over how catchers catch.

For example, catchers who set up with one knee in the dirt are thought to hold an advantage when framing pitches on the margins of the strike zone, compared to catchers who receive a pitch in a balanced crouch. However, the imbalanced position is thought to reduce a catcher’s ability to block pitches in the dirt – an essential task when holding runners on base. Once a pitcher runs out of pickoff throws, the burden of preventing stolen bases will shift greatly to the catcher.

The resulting change will be subtle for fans, but potentially big for catchers.

The second base position

If the purpose of defensive shifts is simply to turn more balls in play into outs, its power lies in reducing how much ground each infielder must cover. And no position players benefit more from this principle than second basemen.

In an era before left-handed shifts became the norm, the second baseman was often a lonely figure on the right side of the infield – the shortstop far to his right, the first baseman far to his left. Now he is surrounded by friends who are there to make his job easier whenever a left-handed hitter stands in the batter’s box.

Starting in 2020, left-handers have seen three fielders on the right side of the infield more often than not. The result? In the past two seasons, second basemen as a group have logged their highest Outs Above Average in the Statcast era. Even though the Statcast era only began in 2015, left-handed shifts have increased threefold since.

Beginning in 2023, second basemen won’t have as much help. They will need to cover more ground, perhaps enough to demand more athleticism from the position.

Scoring will rise

This point is the most important, and also the least appreciated. With one possible exception, all of these rules are designed to boost offense. Pitchers will have a harder time holding runners on base, defenses will have a harder time stopping hard grounders from reaching right field, and catchers might have a harder time stealing calls on the margins of the strike zone – at least until a computer replaces humans as the arbiters of balls and strikes.

Let’s take a moment to appreciate how quickly the pendulum is moving these days. Manfred succeeded Bud Selig in 2015 amid a low point for offense in the game. Then in 2017, the league as a whole hit more home runs than ever; that record was broken again two years later. Scoring was up, but batting average and stolen bases were hovering around 50-year lows.

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By deadening the baseball this season, and adding three rule changes for next season, MLB found a realistic way to boost scoring while decreasing home runs, without adding a minute to the soaring time of an average nine-inning game. That’s hard to do.

The league never made these goals explicit, but you can see why they were desirable. MLB’s product was spiraling away from its original design rapidly. The pendulum between pitching and hitting was swinging so fast, Manfred effectively decided to reach out and grab it with a clenched fist.

The MLB Players’ Association did not approve the pitch clock or the ban on infield shifts. MLB instituted these rules anyway. Soon enough we’ll get our first look at the consequences, intentional or not.