Major League Baseball rules aren’t something handed down on stone tablets from on high, yet some act as if they are, and should be immutable forever.
That clearly isn’t the case and never has been. The game has always evolved and rules have been changed many, many times. The strike zone has been enlarged, shrunk, enlarged again and moved. The mound was raised, then lowered. There are many other examples.
In recent years, pace of play has become a thing that MLB officials have worried about; games are much longer than they were a couple of decades ago. In addition, defensive shifts have been seen to take away hits and force many hitters to consider “launch angle” and try to hit balls over such shifts. How many times have we seen Jason Heyward hit a ball that would have been a single to right years ago, only to find himself thrown out by the third baseman playing in short right field? I used to be adamantly against any restrictions on defensive shifting, but things like that changed my mind.
MLB has created a Joint Competition committee which consists of six members of ownership/management, four players and an umpire, and this committee considered changes to the above, as well as several others. Here are the members of the committee, as reported by Andy Martino of SNY last June:
According to a league source, the players on the new Joint Competition committee are Jack Flaherty of the St. Louis Cardinals, Whit Merrifield of the Kansas City Royals, Tyler Glasnow of the Tampa Bay Rays and Austin Slater of the San Francisco Giants. Ian Happ of the Chicago Cubs and Walker Buehler of the Los Angeles Dodgers will serve as alternates.
On the ownership side are Seattle’s John Stanton, St. Louis’ Bill DeWitt, San Francisco’s Greg Johnson, Colorado’s Dick Monfort, Boston’s Tom Werner and Toronto Blue Jays president and CEO Mark Shapiro.
There is one umpire on the committee, veteran crew chief Bill Miller.
So, there is some Cubs representation on this committee, though as an alternate. (Note that Merrifield was traded to the Blue Jays in August.)
As reported by Evan Drellich and Ken Rosenthal in The Athletic Thursday, this Committee is going to take a vote Friday on several rule changes that will take effect in MLB in 2023. All of these are expected to be approved.
There’s a lot to unpack here so I’m going to try to summarize and you can go to that article, or this one by Jesse Rogers at ESPN.com for more detail. Here are the rule changes coming, along with my comments.
- Under the proposed pitch clock, pitchers would have 20 seconds to start their throwing motion with runners on base, 15 seconds with the bases empty.
COMMENT: This is similar (though a second or two longer) than the clock that’s been used in the minor leagues for the last few years. A time limit has been on the rule books for decades; it’s just never been enforced. Now it will be. There are other limits here, including making the catcher be ready within nine seconds and the batter in the box “alert to the pitcher” within eight. Per the article:
Pitchers who violate the clock are charged with an automatic ball. If a catcher violates the clock, an automatic ball is charged as well. Batters in violation receive an automatic strike. Umpires can also award a ball or strike if they detect a player circumventing the clocks, and the commissioner’s office could issue discipline beyond that to teams whose players or staff violate rules, as well.
They’re going to have to start work on this soon — perhaps in the Arizona Fall League, definitely in spring training — so players can get used to it, though many are already since this sort of thing has been in effect in many minor leagues for several seasons. Then MLB has to be serious about enforcement.
There are other new rules about how often a batter can call time during an at-bat (once) and how often a pitcher can step off (twice) and those are all called “disengagements” and reset the clock. It’s complicated, so check out the article links above for more details. Here, though, is what’s happened when all this was put into effect in the minor leagues, from Jesse Rogers’ article:
When stricter pitch clock enforcement — based on a 14-second clock with the bases empty and an 18-second clock with runners on — began in the minors earlier this season, the results were immediate. Over the first 132 minor league games under the new rules, the average game time was 2 hours, 39 minutes. That’s 20 minutes shorter than the average time of a control set of 335 games run without the clock to begin the season (2 hours, 59 minutes) and 24 minutes shorter than the average of the 2021 season (3 hours, 3 minutes average).
This is good. You will notice the difference; we’re likely to have many games finish in less than 2:30 in 2023. The Cubs, for example, have had exactly three nine-inning games completed in shorter than that in 2022. Regarding the stepoffs, per Rogers:
In 2021, when the pickoff rules went into effect in Single-A and High-A, stolen base attempts skyrocketed. This year, as the rules expanded to every league, baseball is seeing big gains throughout the minors, though slightly less drastic spikes. According to MLB.com, the stolen base attempts rate in the minors is up to 2.85 attempts per game so far this year — no team in the majors last year even averaged one.
- “The length of batter walk-up music cannot exceed 10 seconds. Music between pitches is to be limited so hitters aren’t encouraged to leave the box.”
COMMENT: This is interesting, since walk-up music has been encouraged in recent years. But some clips, as you’ve surely noticed if you’re at the ballpark, can last quite a bit longer. This will help speed things along.
- Here are the new defensive shift rules, from Drellich and Rosenthal’s article:
When the pitcher releases the ball, a minimum of four players (besides the pitcher and catcher) must have both feet completely in front of the outer boundary of the dirt, and two fielders have to be entirely on either side of second base.
Every team has to designate two infielders on each side of second base who may not switch sides during the game, except if there’s a substitution for one of those infielders.
COMMENT: The second part here is really the key — this will prevent something I noted above, which is to see the third baseman or shortstop playing short right field. Note, though, that it says “when the pitcher releases the ball.” I can see fielders practicing, then putting into action, something where they set themselves on the dirt, then backpedal 10-20 steps onto the grass once the ball is released. We’ll see how this works in practice, if they do it.
The penalty for violating this is a ball and the ball is dead, unless:
... a hitter reaches on a hit, an error, a walk, or hit batsmen or otherwise, in which case the play stands. If any other play occurs, like a sacrifice fly, or a sacrifice bunt, the manager of the hitting team can tell the umpire whether he wants to accept the play.
Just wait till these things go to replay review, and Drellich and Rosenthal write that teams “can challenge” whether their opponent complied with the shift rules.
- Bases will increase in size from 15 inches square to 18 inches square.
COMMENT: These have been tested in the minor leagues this year. There are two reasons here: 1) To help reduce injuries around the bases, and 2) to help increase stolen base attempts. Per Rogers:
In Triple-A, the first season of larger bases didn’t make much of a change on its own — but in the lower levels, bigger bases combined with rules about pickoffs saw large increases in steals per nine innings. Even combined with the disengagement rules, though, MLB doesn’t believe either change will lead to teams being unable to control the run game.
What MLB believes might not correspond with reality; there are always unintended consequences for things like this. If they find things go too far in one direction, rules can always be tweaked to deal with those sorts of issues.
I’ll close by repeating what I said to begin this article: Baseball has always evolved over its century and a half of existence as a professional sport. While the fan of 1872 would recognize the game today, there are many differences we take for granted — for example, the pitching distance of 60 feet, six inches wasn’t standardized until 1893. Batters used to be able to request the type of pitch they could have the pitcher throw. Fielders used to be able to throw the ball at a baserunner to get him out. Sure, all those rules changed over a century ago, but my point is: The sport has to evolve to fit the conditions of the time in which it’s played. These changes attempt to do that. I’m for all of them.
The pitch clock as described here...
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The restrictions on defensive shifts as described here...
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The larger bases as described here...
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