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The pitch timer, shift restrictions, larger bases: MLB explains it all

Baseball executives held a demonstration of the new rules in Arizona Tuesday. Video included!

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The new larger base and the old, smaller one
Al Yellon

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — If you’re still wondering about some of the new rules Major League Baseball is instituting this season, you have come to the right place. Officials from MLB’s offices came to Arizona to make a presentation Tuesday about these rules, and then give a demonstration at Salt River Fields on how they will work.

Morgan Sword, Executive VP of Baseball Operations, first gave a presentation in a theater that’s located in the Colorado Rockies’ executive offices at SRF. What I got from this presentation is that MLB has been extremely thorough about planning for these rule changes, not just for the rules themselves but for players trying to figure out ways to get around them. You know, because that’s what players do — always trying to get an edge. For example, with the shift restrictions, two infielders have to be on either side of second base when the pitch is released. You’re thinking, as players have, “What if the shortstop starts racing towards right field right after the pitch is released?” Nope, that’s going to be considered “circumventing” the rule, and will be a violation.

The same is true, for example, for catchers holding the ball to try to delay starting of the pitch timer (it’s officially called a “timer,” not a “clock,” incidentally). That will also be considered a violation.

Umpires are going to have a lot of new equipment to wear. In order to know exactly when the pitch timer expires, they’ll wear a device (either on their wrist, forearm or ankle, wherever they feel most comfortable) that will provide haptic feedback when the timer expires — similar to what you might feel if your phone vibrates.

Here are a couple of things I specifically found interesting about the shift restrictions. First, all MLB parks now have had their infield dirt specifically measured to be identical in size, in the following manner:

Major League Baseball

We don’t know which parks, if any, weren’t like this previously, but now all parks are going to have exactly the same infield dirt dimensions.

Then, these will be the specific restrictions on infielders:

Major League Baseball

The most important thing to note there is that (for example) the shortstop and second baseman can’t switch in any given inning. Once the inning begins, they’ll have to stay on their designated side of the infield. Fifth infielders and pulling the infield in are still allowed, as is this possibility noted by Jayson Stark in The Athletic:

But what about the two-man outfield — featuring a center fielder and a right fielder, as usual, but with a left fielder set up in short right field, where shifting infielders used to hang out?

If you guessed that’s still legal, you win. But will teams dare to try it this spring? I’d bet yes on that.

At the Winter Meetings in December, MLB held a new rules meeting with all 30 managers — and then scheduled January follow-up Zoom sessions with individual managers, coaches and anyone else they wanted to loop in. One of the most asked questions at those meetings was: Is the two-man outfield legal?

Since it is, that sounds like a sure sign some teams will at least experiment with it this spring, against just the right pull-happy hitters in certain low-risk situations. But they should know that MLB will be watching closely.

I can definitely see teams trying that against certain lefthanded hitters, putting the left fielder in short right field — you know, where the third baseman was playing last year. Stark points out the potential upside — and solution:

MLB’s best-case scenario: The first eight teams that try it give up a bloop triple to now-unoccupied left field and everyone realizes this is way too risky. MLB’s worst-case scenario: It works way too well — and within a few weeks, every team is doing it.

But teams should know that if the two-man outfield becomes too popular, the shift ban rules allow MLB to rewrite the rule to make that formation illegal, too. So if a two-man outfield breaks out at a spring game near you, pay attention!

The larger bases are going to work basically as you might think. They’ll help reduce injuries — and also, since they will slightly reduce the distance between bases, they will likely also help increase stolen base attempts, particularly since pitchers are now allowed just two “disengagements” per plate appearance with runners on base. One thing that wasn’t mentioned in the demonstration is that since first base will be a few inches closer to the plate with the larger bases, there might be more batter/runners able to beat out infield ground balls. This will put a premium on batters with speed, I’d think.

After the presentation, we all moved to the field at SRF for a demonstration by Joe Martinez, MLB’s Vice President of On-Field Strategy. Martinez is a former MLB pitcher who pitched in parts of four seasons for the Giants, Pirates, Diamondbacks and Cleveland. Rather than try to explain all the things described during the demonstration, I’ll let Martinez show them to you. Here are three videos — first, about the pitch timer, then about the shift restrictions, finally about the larger bases.

One thing you should watch for: MLB says that umpires have been instructed to enforce these from Day 1 of Spring Training — no grace period. This is because they found in the minor leagues, it took players about a month to really get accustomed to the new rules:

Major League Baseball

So, about 90 percent of players took about a month to get used to the pitch timer — as was explained in the presentation, about the length of a MLB Spring Training. That’s why they’re going to enforce things strictly from Day 1.

There is a lot to process here and so I would imagine the adjustment period for fans is going to be similar, if not longer, than that time frame for players. The MLB execs said the league is going to make videos that will play in ballparks for fans, as well as produce a special on the changes that will air on MLB Network, time and date TBD.

The takeaway I got from all this is that the 2023 season could result in some of the most significant changes to the way Major League Baseball is played that we have ever seen. It’ll take a while to become accustomed to these, for sure, but in the end I do believe MLB has gotten it right and we will see a better product played at a better pace.