Baseball has approved several rule changes for 2023 designed to improve the pace of play and increase action on the field, including a pitch clock, limited pickoff attempts, a ban on defensive shifts, and larger bases. Players did vote against the clock and ban on shifts, while the vote on larger bases was unanimous, according to ESPN’s Jeff Passan. Baseball has experimented with these rule changes in the minor leagues and found they have resulted in shaving off an average of 20 minutes from games in Triple-A this year.
Here are the rule changes, according to details from Evan Dreilich and Ken Rosenthal At The Athletic.
Pitch clock/limited pickoffs
MLB will institute a 15-second pitch clock with no runners on, and a 20-second clock with runners on base. The clock starts when the pitcher has the ball, and the batter and catcher are in the dirt around home plate. A violation by the pitcher or catcher results in a ball. The hitter must be “alert to the pitcher” within eight seconds or a strike is called. The hitter can call time once during a plate appearance, which resets the pitch clock.
Baseball will also be limiting pickoffs attempts, because pitchers were using that as a loophole around the pitch clock in the minors. Pitchers may attempt two “disengagements” to step off the rubber - to pickoff a runner or otherwise reset the pitch clock. They can attempt a third disengagement, but they must get the baserunner out, otherwise it is a balk - this is to prevent runners from simply taking off knowing a pitcher can no longer disengage. Pitchers can request a new ball without counting as a disengagement unless there are less than nine seconds left on the pitch clock.
There will be a 30-second clock between batters and a time limit of 2 minutes 15 seconds between innings. Pitch clock violations are not reviewable upon replay.
In the minors, a pitch clock coupled with limits of pickoff attempts have results in shortening games anywhere from an average of 17 minutes less in Double-A to shaving an average of 30 minutes off games in High-A. Games at the Triple-A level shortened by 21 minutes, with the average game now taking 2 hours, 43 minutes.
Ban on defensive shifts
New rules will require that upon the pitch being thrown, all four infielders must be within the infield dirt, with two on each side of second base. A violation will result in a dead ball and a ball called, unless the hitter reaches base, in which case the play will stand, or if the hitter hits a sacrifice bunt or fly, and the hitter will have the option to let the play stand. Teams can issue a replay challenge on whether a defense violated the shift or not.
Batting averages have plummeted in the last few years, although the main culprit is strikeouts. League BABIP on groundballs is down about six points since 2015. In the minors, the results have been mixed on banning shifts.
This year, those shift rules were adopted across Low A, High A and Double-A, while Triple-A does not have shift restrictions. And if you look at the data without knowing which levels had added shift restrictions, you wouldn’t be able to easily tell which levels adopted shift restrictions and which did not.
In Triple-A, with no shift restrictions, the BABIP is up from .310 in 2021 to .311 in 2022. At Double-A, which has shift restrictions this year as it had last year, the BABIP is up three points to .311 from .308. In High-A the adoption of shift restrictions has seen the BABIP fall by seven points (.314 to .307). And in Low-A the BABIP has dipped from .323 last year to .317 this year.
Northwest Arkansas Naturals play-by-play man Nicholas Badders talked last year about how the shift ban worked in games he saw.
Non-computer players Badders spoke to in the Double-A Central were largely blasé about the shift crackdown. “For the most part, nobody felt strongly one way or another,” he says. “Middle infielders I talked to didn’t seem to indicate it was much of an adjustment.” Even in the second half, shortstops and second basemen could still steal hits up the middle by shading toward the opposite side of second and standing a step away from the bag, then crossing into the pre-pitch no-man’s-land after the ball was put in play. The Naturals, Badders says, were “still shifting every play, just not to the extremes that they otherwise might.”
While baseball is banning shifts in an attempt to bring batting averages back up, others have argued that it will simply incentivize the kind of three-true outcomes hitting approach that baseball is trying to discourage. As writer Joe Sheehan puts it:
Eliminating the shift is actually going to incentivize the hitters who are being shifted to double down on their behavior. As it stands now, Joey Gallo and his ilk can do what they always do, and risk hitting a one-hop single to right that becomes a 4-3. They can, if they’d rather, drop a bunt down the third-base line or slap a ground ball anywhere to the left of the pitcher’s mound for a single. The incentives for them to change their behavior are clear...and they’re not changing their behavior.
Bases will grow from 15 inches square to 18 inches. This could have a small impact on stolen bases with the bases slightly closer together, but the big reason this was done was for safety, to help first basemen avoid being stepped on or spiked by incoming baserunners.
What do you think of the new rules? Will this help the pace of play?