MLB Swings For The Fences With Sweeping New Rules Changes

Image credit: MLB Pitch Clock (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Big changes are coming to Major League Baseball.

After experimenting with various rules changes in the minor leagues the last two years, MLB instituted a sweeping series of rules changes in the majors in 2023. A pitch clock, a ban on infield shifts and limits on the number of pickoff attempts, among other rules changes, are all being implemented in the hopes of creating shorter, more action-packed games.

Taken together, the new rules have the potential to shorten game times, increase the number of hits and stolen bases, reduce injuries and decrease the amount of dead time during games. Most, but not all, of the rules changes achieved their desired effects in the minors, and MLB hopes the same will be the case in the majors.

Here is a rundown of the rules changes coming to MLB in 2023.

1. The Pitch Clock

Pitchers will have 15 seconds to throw a pitch with the bases empty and 20 seconds with runners on base. Hitters have to be in the batter’s box with eight seconds remaining on the clock. If a batter is not in the box by the eight-second mark, an automatic strike will be called against him. If the pitcher has not started his delivery by the time the clock expires, an automatic ball will be called. Batters are allowed one time out per plate appearance.

The implementation of the pitch clock comes amidst the backdrop of steadily increasing game times in the major leagues. The average nine-inning game has lasted at least three hours each of the last seven seasons, including an all-time high of 3:10 in 2021. The average time of a nine-inning game exceeded three hours only once in the preceding 70 seasons.

MLB experimented with similar pitch clock rules in the minor leagues the last two seasons and saw sharp decreases in the average time of a nine-inning game. MLB implemented a clock in the Low-A California League during the 2021 season, when pitchers were given 15 seconds with the bases empty and 17 seconds with runners on. The average time of a nine-inning game in the league decreased by 21 minutes, from 3:02 to 2:41, after the clock was implemented.

 MLB expanded the pitch clock to all levels of the minors in 2022, with pitchers given 14 seconds with the bases empty and either 18 or 19 seconds with runners on, depending on the level. The average time of a nine-inning game across the minors decreased by 25 minutes, from 3:03 to 2:48.

The early returns from spring training showed the pitch clock was working in the majors just as MLB had hoped when it made the changes. Through the first 95 games of spring training, the average time of a nine-inning game had decreased 24 minutes compared to the time of games during a similar stretch of spring training games the previous year. 

2. Limited Pickoffs

Pitchers are allowed just two disengagements from the rubber—such as a pickoff attempt or stepping off—per plate appearance A third disengagement must result in an out being recorded, such as a successful pickoff, or the pitcher will be called for a balk.

The rule, above all else, ties into the pitch clock. Various iterations of a pitch clock had been in place at Double-A and Triple-A since 2015, but they were ineffective at shortening game times because a pitcher could step off the rubber and reset the clock as many times as he wanted. Only after MLB limited the number of times a pitcher could step off in the Low-A California League in 2021—and subsequently the entire minor leagues in 2022— was the pitch clock effective at shortening game times.

The limit on the number of pickoff attempts led to a sharp increase in stolen bases in the minors. The number of stolen base attempts increased from 2.23 to 2.81 per game last season and the success rate rose from 68% to 78%.

MLB hopes the rule change will help spur teams to start running again. Teams averaged just 0.68 steal attempts per game last season, a 25% decrease from just 10 years prior.

3. Shift Restrictions

All four infielders must have both feet on the infield when the pitcher is on the rubber, and two infielders must be positioned on either side of second base when the pitch is released. If a hitter reaches base and runners advance on a ball hit under a violation, the game proceeds without penalty. If an out is recorded under a violation, the hitting team can accept the penalty and have a ball added to the hitter’s count or decline it and let the play stand.

The increased prevalence of shifting in recent years has coincided with a sharp decrease in league-wide batting average. Teams shifted just 13.6% of plate appearances in 2016, but that number jumped to 33.6% in 2022, according to Statcast. That included teams shifting on 55% of plate appearances by lefthanded hitters.

Against that backdrop, the league-wide batting average was .243 in 2022, the lowest since 1968.

MLB implemented the current version of the shift restrictions during the second half of the season at Double-A in 2021. They continued in the Arizona Fall League after the season and expanded to include Low-A and High-A in 2022.

Notably, at every level, banning the shift made no significant difference in batted ball outcomes. The batting average on balls in play at Double-A in 2018 and 2019, when there were no shift restrictions, was between .305-.309. The BABIP during the second half of the 2021 season, with the shift banned, was .308.

The BABIP in the Arizona Fall League with the shift banned was .328 in 2021, the same as it was in 2017 when the shift was not banned. The batting averages on balls in play actually dropped 6-7 points at Low-A and High-A in 2022 with the shift banned, compared to 2021 when shifts were allowed.

Still, MLB banned shifts to create a more aesthetically pleasing style of play and, in the league’s words, “giv(e) players more opportunity to show off their athleticism” on defense.

4. Larger Bases

The size of the bases will be increased from 15 inches square to 18 inches square. The larger bags mean the distance between the bases is now shorter. The distance between home plate and third base is now three inches shorter. The distance between first base and second base and second base and third base is now 4.5 inches shorter.

MLB first implemented the larger bases at Triple-A in 2021 and expanded them to all full-season leagues in 2022. The main benefit of the larger bases was they reduced collisions around the bag. According to MLB, base-related injuries declined 13.5% in the minors last season, including declines at every level. 

The shorter distance between the bases could theoretically increase the number of stolen bases and infield hits. However, when the bigger bases were used solely at the Triple-A levels in 2021, the number of stolen base attempts per game, stolen base success rates and batting average all remained largely the same as when the bases were smaller.

5. Position Players Pitching

Position players may only pitch if the game is in extra innings, his team is trailing by at least eight runs at any point or his team is winning by at least 10 runs in the ninth inning.

This replaces the old rule governing position players pitching, which allowed position players to pitch only if the game was in extra innings or his team was in the lead or trailing by six runs.

Once a novelty, the number of position players pitching has steadily risen in recent years. Position players made a record 132 pitching appearances in 2022. In 2021, there were 89. In 2008, there were just three.

That rise has led to numerous embarrassing showings for the league, with position players lobbing soft tosses more akin to slow-pitch softball. Rangers infielder Brock Holt threw a 31 mph pitch last season, the slowest pitch ever recorded by Statcast. Nationals infielder Dee Strange-Gordon, Cubs first baseman Frank Schwindel and Giants outfielder Luis Gonzalez all threw pitches under 40 mph, as well. 

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