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Pitch clocks, larger bases, and a ban on shifts could be coming to baseball

Baseball tries to fix itself.

New York Mets v Houston Astros Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Labor negotiations between owners and players continue to inch along, but the players did make a concession to owners over the weekend, agreeing to a league request to expedite the process for rule changes, providing for 45 days notice before a rule change rather than a full year. According to Jesse Rogers at ESPN, MLB would like to institute a 14-second pitch clock - 19 seconds with runners on base - as well as larger bases and a ban on shift. Any changes would not take effect until 2023.

The details have yet to be released, but baseball has experimented with these rule changes in the minors leagues. A 20-second pitch clock has been in place in Double-A and Triple-A since 2015. This, coupled with a rule that required batters to keep one foot in the box between pitches, initially reduced game times significantly. But J.J. Cooper at Baseball America found that teams quickly adjusted, causing game times to balloon once again.

Last year a 15-second pitch clock was implemented for teams in Low-A West, and pitchers could only step off twice to reset the clock. The changes shaved 20 minutes off average game time, and won over converts like MLB senior vice president of on-field operations Raúl Ibañez.

“I was not just surprised, but blown away by the pace, the quality of play, how crisp and fluid the game flowed, and not just the action that was involved in the game, but the frequency of action,” Ibañez says. “You had to keep your eyes focused on the game. It felt like a baseball game just with a really great tempo and rhythm to it. It felt like the game that I grew up watching in the 1980s.”

Larger bases would be mostly a safety concern, allowing defenders to keep a foot on the bag without fearing a runner from taking out their ankle. The bases MLB would like to implement also have less “ramp”, meaning runners coming in hard on a slide are less likely to pop off. The hope is this could increase stolen bases a bit, reducing the number of times a runner is safe, but pops off for a millisecond only to be tagged out, plus the distance between bases would be slightly shorter. Bases in Triple-A and the Arizona Fall League were enlarged from 15 to 18 inches last year, and stolen bases did rise in Triple-A, although it likely wasn’t due to the bases.

Perhaps the most significant proposed rule change would be a ban on shifts. Radical defensive shifts have become widely used around baseball and are a contributing factor to the lowest league-wide batting average in over 50 years.

Again, no specifics have been detailed yet, but baseball did experiment with a shift ban in Double-A last season, by requiring infielders to position both feet on the infield dirt, and later requiring two infielders on each side of second base. The batting average on balls in play (BABIP) did go up six points in the league, but its not conclusively the result of the ban on shifts, and BABIP actually went down once two infielders were required to be on each side of second. Even with the ban, infielders would cheat toward the opposite side of second once the pitch was delivered. As Nicholas Badders, the play-by-play voice of the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, put it, players were “still shifting every play, just not to the extremes that they otherwise might.”

Baseball has been looking to add excitement to a game that has become slow and overwhelmed by three true outcomes (strikeouts, walks, and home runs). The pitch clock could speed up the tempo, the larger bases could help bring back stolen bases, and the ban on shifts could increase the number of base hits. But there may be some downsides as well. Pitch clocks could rush pitchers, decreasing their effectiveness. A ban on shifts could reward big power-hitting pull hitters, causing even more “three true outcomes”.

But at least baseball is trying to fix its sport to make it more appealing to fans. Let’s just hope there is a game to fix.

Poll

Should baseball institute a 14-second pitch clock?

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  • 72%
    Yes
    (276 votes)
  • 27%
    No
    (104 votes)
380 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Should baseball ban radical defensive shifts?

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  • 56%
    Yes
    (214 votes)
  • 43%
    No
    (166 votes)
380 votes total Vote Now