Radical defensive shifts are headed the way in which of flannel uniforms, train travel and organ music as Major League Baseball, a sport looking for its identity, moved Friday to institute some significant rules changes for 2023.
Seeking to increase offense and hasten the sport’s pace, M.L.B.’s 11-person competition committee voted to limit defensive shifts, institute a pitch clock and increase the dimensions of the bases.
Most important appears to be the restriction on defensive shifts, which have proliferated at a rapid rate over the past decade because the game has veered sharply toward analytically inclined front offices. Starting in 2023, two infielders should be positioned on both sides of second base when a pitch is released. Moreover, all 4 infielders will need to have their feet positioned within the infield cutout in front of the outfield grass.
A pitch clock shall be set to fifteen seconds between pitches when the bases are empty, and it should count down from 20 seconds with at the least one runner on base. With a runner aboard, a pitcher shall be limited in each plate appearance to 2 pickoff attempts (or steps off the pitching rubber). After that, a pickoff throw will lead to a balk — unless the pitcher is successful in obtaining an out. And if a base runner advances, the pickoff/step-off count of two shall be reset. Moreover, the batter shall be required to be within the box and prepared with eight seconds remaining on the pitch clock.
The bases will increase in size to 18 inches square from 15 inches in hopes of protecting the health of players — the probabilities of a primary baseman having his foot stepped on should decrease. As an added measure, the larger bases could encourage more stolen bases.
“These steps are designed to enhance pace of play, increase motion and reduce injuries, all of that are goals which have overwhelming support amongst our fans,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said in an announcement. “Throughout the extensive testing of recent years, minor league personnel and a wide selection of fans — from essentially the most loyal to casual observers — have recognized the collective impact of those changes in making the sport even higher and more enjoyable. We appreciate the participation of the representatives of the most important league players and umpires on this process.”
The competition committee is made up of six representatives from the Commissioner’s Office, 4 union representatives and one umpire. The players voted against the shift and pitch clock changes, however the vote on changing the bottom size was unanimously in favor.
“Players live the sport — day in and time out,” the union said in an announcement. “On-field rules and regulations impact their preparation, performance and, ultimately, the integrity of the sport itself. Player leaders from across the league were engaged in on-field rules negotiations through the Competition Committee, and so they provided specific and actionable feedback on the changes proposed by the Commissioner’s Office.
“Major League Baseball was unwilling to meaningfully address the areas of concern that players raised, and because of this, the players on the Competition Committee voted unanimously against the implementation of the principles covering defensive shifts and the usage of a pitch timer.”
During a news conference by which Manfred also surprised many by saying M.L.B. would voluntarily recognize minor leaguers’ efforts to unionize as a part of the Major League Baseball Players Association, the commissioner noted that he had the facility to act earlier in his tenure on rule changes but opted to not “out of a desire to work with the players.” As for the players voting against the brand new rules governing defensive shifts and a pitch clock, Manfred said that since the players are grouped into different positions — pitchers, position players, catchers — that “it’s hard to get consensus from the players on changing the sport.”
Before planned implementation, the proposed rules changes were tested in greater than 8,000 minor league games dating back to last season, said Morgan Sword, M.L.B.’s executive vice chairman for baseball operations. M.L.B. also said it conducted extensive outreach with fans.
“At every turn, fans wanted a faster pace of play, more athleticism on display in the sphere and on the bases, more balls in play and more motion overall,” said Theo Epstein, the previous top baseball operations executive with Boston and the Chicago Cubs and now a consultant for baseball and a member of the Joint Competition Committee. “Fans want less dead time less of anything that slows down the pace of play or pace of motion. So to catch up with to that best version of baseball and provides the fans more of what they like and fewer of what they dislike, we knew we wanted to create a faster pace.”
The pitch clock was tested in minor league baseball this season, with different time allowances than will appear next yr in M.L.B. Within the minors, pitchers were allowed 14 seconds between pitches, and 18 seconds with at the least one runner on base (19 seconds in Class AAA). The outcomes were dramatic: The typical length of a nine-inning game with a pitch clock has been 2 hours 38 minutes, down from 3:04 last yr. Based on M.L.B., stolen bases per game also increased from 2.23 (68 percent success rate) to 2.83 this season (77 percent success rate).
Daniel Bard, a reliever for the Colorado Rockies, believes a pitch clock makes it too difficult for a pitcher to carry a runner on base.
“I talked to some guys in Triple-A and so they say you’ll be getting an indication and also you’ll say no to a fastball outside because you wish it in,” he said in a recent interview. “Then you definitely’ll say no to a slider, no to a changeup and the clock is ticking down and also you go, well, I higher throw that pitch.”
He added: “Is that how you need to do it? I don’t think so. Not in my eyes.”
The shortage of defensive shifts could cause an excellent more noticeable change. Based on data from Sports Info Solutions, the usage of defensive shifts on balls put in play increased from 2,357 in 2011 to twenty-eight,130 in 2016 to 59,063 last season. Through midseason this yr, clubs were on pace for 71,000 shifts in 2022.
As these numbers have increased, offense has decreased. This yr’s overall batting average of .243 through Thursday tracks as the bottom mark since 1968 and the third lowest mark since 1908. When the sport’s overall batting average dipped to .237 in 1968, baseball responded by lowering the pitching mound from 15 to 10 inches for the 1969 season.
4 years later, in one other move designed to extend offense, the American League adopted the designated hitter. The D.H. finally became universal when it was instituted within the National League this summer. But even with that change, batting averages have remained historically low.
“The sport on the sphere has been evolving for a long time in a way that has taken us away from motion, away from contact, away from a faster pace,” Epstein said. “And this is not any fault of the players in any way. Actually, most of those trends have been driven just by modernization, by data, and by front office optimizations. However the game has evolved in a way that no person would have chosen if we were sitting down 25 years ago to chart a path toward the perfect version of baseball.”
He added: “I believe today was a giant win for the long run of baseball.”