Five Weeks In, Rule Changes Are Working Exactly As MLB Hoped

Image credit: Jeff McNeil (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Through the first five weeks of the regular season, Major League Baseball’s rules changes are working exactly as hoped.

Game times are down, stolen bases are up, batting average has increased and violations have been limited. While players and managers have expressed mixed feelings about the rules changes, from the league’s perspective, everything is going brilliantly.

“I think the thing that’s been surprising for us is how gracefully the player and umpires have adjusted to habits that have been formed over decades in a matter of weeks,” MLB executive vice president of baseball operations Morgan Sword said. “They’re playing a brand of baseball that looks the way baseball looked 40 years ago. And it’s amazing to watch.”

The rules changes—most notably the pitch clock, shift restrictions and pickoff limitations—were tested extensively throughout the minor leagues the last two years. Through the early part of this season, they have more or less transitioned seamlessly to the majors.

First and foremost is the pitch clock.

The average game time was 2 hours, 38 minutes entering Thursday. That’s 28 minutes shorter than the 3:06 average game time in 2022.

That figure is in line with the 26 minutes that were shaved off of the average game time when the pitch clock was implemented at all full-season levels of the minors in 2022.

“It’s pretty remarkable,” Sword said. “The major leagues and minor leagues are important in some different ways, but they’re also very similar in some important ways. I think it’s such a gift for us to be able to prepare and test and live with all of these rules in a real competitive environment before bringing them to the majors. We’ve been grateful for that multiple times per day in the last couple of weeks.”

The shift restrictions represent one rule where the results in the majors have significantly exceeded those in the minors. The shift restrictions led to no corresponding increase in the batting average on balls in play in the minors. In the majors, however, the early results have borne out a difference.

Batting average on balls in play (BABIP)

March/April 2023: .298
March/April 2022: .282
March/April 2021: .283

Overall, the .298 BABIP this year was the highest for the first month of a season since 2014.

“The testing results in the minor leagues on the shift restriction were not as valuable because, for several reasons, but including there’s just less shifting that goes on in the minor leagues,” Sword said. “So the effect of restricting those shifts is not as pronounced.”

The other main benefit of the shift restrictions, and the one most cited by MLB when it made the case for implementing them, is they give middle infielders more room to roam and make rangy plays without a shifted defender nearby.

“I think that we are measuring the success of the shift restrictions not only by the statistics, but by how frequently our greatest athletes get to display their skills to fans,” Sword said. “We heard from middle infielders throughout this process that they wanted us to put them back where they historically played because they want to show off their range and they want to make great, athletic plays … Philosophically it was a way for us to put more emphasis on the athleticism of players and less emphasis on which team had the best algorithm to position its defenders.”

The disengagement rule that limits pitchers from stepping off the rubber more than twice has further produced desired results. The rule serves the dual purpose of preventing pitchers from stepping repeatedly off to reset the pitch clock—as happened with the original pitch clock in the upper minors—and encouraging more stolen bases in conjunction with  larger bases that shorten the distance between bags.

With pitchers limited to two pickoff attempts per plate appearance (they must successfully record an out on the third attempt or a balk is called), both the number of stolen base attempts and the stolen base attempt success rates have jumped.

Stolen base attempts per game

2023: 1.78
2022: 1.36
2021: 1.20

Source: FanGraphs

Stolen base success rate

2023: 79.1%
2022: 75.4%
2021: 75.7%

Source: FanGraphs

The number of stolen base attempts per game is the highest since 2012. The stolen base success rate is on pace to be the highest of all-time, breaking the mark of 76.9% set in 1914.

The part that most intrigues MLB is it believes teams will run even more frequently as the season progresses.

“What I see on the field and what I hear talked about from players and clubs is everybody is still feeling around from the right way to play this rule,” Sword said.

“Baserunners are trying to figure out how to use it to their advantage, how aggressive to be, what types of situations to go in. Pitchers are figuring out what the best way to manage the run game is given the limitations. We haven’t yet seen, I don’t think, the true impact of the pickoff limitation on stolen bases. They’re up, which is great, and fans have responded really positively to that. I expect as everybody gets more comfortable that we will continue to see behavior change on the field.

“One way to think about it is, yeah, there probably is more upside.”

While the rules changes have been significant, and have led to significantly different outcomes, they have not been as disruptive as feared from a violations standpoint.

There were 332 total violations in 463 games entering Thursday, an average of 0.72 violations per game.

332 Total Violations

215 Pitch Timer Violations by Pitchers (64.8%)
98 Pitch Timer Violations by Batter (29.5%)
4 Pitch Timer Violations by Catchers (1.2%)
5 Batter Timeout Violations (1.5%)
9 Pitcher Disengagement Violations (2.7%)
1 Shift Restriction Violation (0.3%)
463 Total Games (0.72 Violations per Game)

Through May 3
Source: Major League Baseball

While there have certainly been some unsightly violations called—such as Cody Bellinger’s automatic strike while receiving a standing ovation and Jeff McNeil being charged an automatic strike because a runner took too long to get back to first base—the overall number of violations has held steady at fewer than one per game.  

“It’s going exactly as we hoped it would go,” Sword said. “We had the benefit of testing all of these rule changes in over 8,000 minor league games and had a very good sense of what was likely to happen and we’ve been very pleased. It’s progressed as we were hoping.”

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