Players are arriving in spring training ready to prepare for the season, but they’ll have to get used to some new rules being implemented for the 2023 season. The two big rule changes this year will be the implementation of a pitch clock to keep the tempo of the game moving, and a ban on defensive shifts to prevent the decline in batting averages. There will also be larger bases, the extra inning runner rule is permanent, and baseball may limit the use of position players pitching.
These rules will go into effect from the first spring training game, and executives from the league office have been clarifying the new rules with teams and offered details to media members this week.
The pitch clock will keep the game moving along, preventing loitering with each stoppage in play. There will be a 30-second timer between batters, a 15-second timer between each pitch with the bases empty, and a 20-second timer between each pitch with runners on base. The pitch clock will begin once the pitcher has the ball and the hitter and catcher are in the dirt around home plate. A pitcher must begin his delivery before the timer expires, or it results in an automatic ball. A batter must be in the batter’s box and “alert” by the 8-second mark on the timer, or else it is an automatic strike.
What constitutes beginning a delivery? MLB defines it as when a pitcher takes a step back or laterally when winding up, or lifts their free leg after being set in the stretch. This also means that MLB will be cracking down on pre-delivery movement by pitchers. Kenley Jansen’s butt wiggle, Mike Clevinger’s dancing feet, and Luis Garcia’s “rocking the baby” will all be considered balks now. Pitchers may still tap their feet prior to delivery, but must come to a complete stop at some point. MLB’s executive vice president of operation Morgan Sword admits that these should have been called balks before, but the league had been lax on enforcement.
“We have slipped a little bit centrally with calling the rulebook illegal pitches and balks.”
What does it mean for a hitter to be “alert”? The hitter must have both feet in the box, looking at the pitcher. The batter may call one time-out per plate appearance. This may take some adjustment for hitters, as Royals prospect Nick Pratto had some automatic strikes called on him last season at Omaha.
Usually when we talk about the pitch clock, we're talking about pitchers. But batters are affected too! Nick Pratto got called out on an automatic strike for stepping back into the box after the :09 mark. pic.twitter.com/WYIa6To16v— Minda Haas Kuhlmann (@minda33) April 16, 2022
To avoid pitchers resetting the clock by constantly throwing to first base, MLB is limiting pitchers to two “disengagements” where they can step off the rubber. To prevent runners from getting laughably large leads after two disengagements, the pitcher is permitted to disengage a third time, but must get the runner out, otherwise it is a balk and the runner may advance. An ancillary effect of this rule may be an increase in stolen bases, as runners don’t have to worry about pitchers throwing over as much.
A pitch clock violation won’t result in a loud siren like a shot clock violation in the NBA, but umpires are equipped with a belt pack that will buzz when the clock hits zero. Timer violations are the responsibility of the home plate umpire, but any umpire can make the call. They also have the discretion to reset the clock and will communicate with the Field Timing Coordinator, a position that has existed since 2015 but has greater importance with the implementation of the clock.
The pitch clock has been in effect in the minors for several seasons, resulting in games at the Triple-A level shortening by 21 minutes, with the average game taking just two hours and 43 minutes to play. As for the Royals, the clock won’t affect Brady Singer, who was the fastest-working pitcher in baseball last year. But it could affect slower workers like Josh Staumont and Scott Barlow.
Teams have been creative in defensive alignments in recent years, putting players where hitters tend to hit it the most. This led to plummeting batting averages as hard-hit line drives fell into the glove of second basemen in shallow right field - league BABIP on groundballs is down about six points since 2015. Those kinds of radical defensive shifts will be outlawed this year.
All four infielders will be required to stay within the infield dirt - which will be measured by baseball after years of not being uniform on a stadium-by-stadium basis. Upon the delivery of the pitch, two infielders will be required to be on either side of the base itself, not some imaginary line. The second baseman and shortstop cannot switch positions in the middle of an inning, and infielders are not permitted to sprint across the bag as the pitch is delivered in an attempt to circumvent the rule. An outfielder will be permitted to become a fifth infielder, and outfielders can still shift as much as they want.
What happens if there is a violation as the pitch is being thrown, but the hitter hits a home run? The offense will have the option to either take the play as it happened or enforce the violation.
The ban on defensive shifts had mixed results in the minor leagues, with some leagues showing a slight increase in BABIP, but others noting no increase. For the Royals, Salvador Perez and Vinnie Pasquantino are likely to be two of the hitters that will benefit most from a ban on shifts, while there will be less impact on Royals pitchers, since the team did not employ shifts as much as other teams. Manager Matt Quatraro thinks athleticism could be a premium again with teams not shifting.
“We’re going to try to take advantage of it with our athleticism,” Quatraro said. “But yeah, I think you have to do away with the heavy pull-side shift, so that will look different. “But with our athleticism I think that might play to our advantage.”
The bases are bigger this year to help with player safety - it gives the runner going to first more room to step on the bag without stepping on the foot of the first baseman. It also provides a better slope for players sliding into the bag, helping to prevent them from popping off for a split second. The bases are three inches longer on each side, going from 15 inches to 18 inches.
The larger bases also create slightly less distance between bases, which could help with stolen bases. Minor leagues that used the bases saw a slight increase in stolen bases.
Extra innings runner rule
The extra-inning rule where each team begins with a runner at second base will be permanent now. The rule was instituted in 2020 to protect pitcher’s arms after the shortened spring training during the pandemic, and was used the last two seasons as well.
In the last three seasons combined there have only been seven games that went as long as 13 innings - there were 37 games that long in the 2019 season alone. Commissioner Rob Manfred sees it as a way to prevent marathon games and protect pitchers' arms.
“Clubs have gotten used to the extra-innings rule...I think it’s generally well-liked by players.”
Now we just have to get the nomenclature right. They’re not ghost runners, are they zombie runners?
Limit on position players pitching
Baseball will also cut down on the number of position players that pitch, a practice that has become more commonplace in recent years as teams look to save their pitchers. Last year there were 132 times a position player pitched, when just 32 did so five years ago.
Previously, teams were allowed to use position players only when they were leading or trailing by six runs or more. Now, leading teams must be up 10 or more runs in the ninth inning, and trailing teams can use a position player any time they are down 8 or more runs. Position players can be used at any time in extra innings.
What do you think of the new rules? Will they affect the Royals much?