Thoughts on Baseball’s Rules Changes

I love the four major American sports, but baseball is my favorite sport. It was the first sport I began following in 1983. While I look forward to the beginning of a new season in each of the four major sports, opening day of the baseball season is a holiday for me.

The 2023 season will be my 41st season as a fan. Thanks to the rules changes announced yesterday, it will be different than my first 40 years as a fan.

Initial Thoughts

As much as I love baseball, I’m not delusional. The game has fallen way behind football and even is now less popular than basketball. Far fewer kids play baseball than did when I was a child. The game has to change. Specifically, the pace of play needs to increase, the game needs more action, and athletes need to have more opportunities to demonstrate their athleticism. The three major rules changes announced yesterday will address all three issues. So, even though my favorite game will be different, I’m looking forward to the changes.

The Pitch Clock

Even though many players seem to object to the implementation of a pitch clock, especially the way it will be done, a pitch clock was absolutely necessary. Beginning with spring training next year, pitchers will need to throw a pitch within 15 seconds when no one is on base. When at least one runner is on base, the pitcher will be able to take 20 seconds between pitches.

Interestingly, the pitcher may only disengage the rubber twice per plate appearance. This means that pitchers will only be able to attempt two pickoff throws for every plate appearance. This change should result in a lot more stollen bases. While there is a chance the pendulum will go too far the other way and stealing bases will become too easy, limiting pickoffs is worth a try. While the pickoff can be a strategic play, way too often pitchers use pickoffs to waste time. Some of them have no idea when a runner is actually a threat to run. And, of course, increasing stollen bases adds more action to the game and gives athletes more chances to show their athleticism.

Another interesting aspect of the pitch clock will be how it affects pitcher fatigue. There is no question that the faster a pitcher must work, the more tired the pitcher will become. That should result in more mistakes being made by pitchers, which will create more action and offense.

Defensive Shifting Ban

Anyone who even casually follows baseball knows the analytical affect on defense has been profound. Today, teams know with tremendous accuracy where each hitter is likely to hit the ball against each pitcher. This has resulted in teams stationing their fielders to cover the spots the batter is likely to hit the ball.

For several years, I was against banning shifts. I couldn’t figure out why more hitters didn’t learn to beat the shift by hitting the ball through the usually almost completely open side of the infield. But the last several years have shown that the difficulty in hitting a baseball means that most hitters simply cannot regularly make that adjustment. Additionally, people don’t buy tickets to watch slow grounders roll through the infield. So, the shift has made hitting even more difficult. It has resulted in far less action in the game. Since fielders are clustered where the batter is likely to hit the ball, analytics have maybe become more important to defense than athletic ability.

With all four infielders being required to remain in the infield and with teams having to have two infielders on either side of the infield, hits and runs will increase. The more athletic infielders will be even more valuable. If we are lucky, many hitters, who are now frustrated by the shift, will stop trying to largely hit home runs. If that happens, we will see a decrease in strikeouts that will lead to a faster game and more action.

Larger Bases

Beginning next year, first, second, and third base will all be larger. The larger bases will result in runners having to cover shorter distances between the bases. This change should also increase base stealing and should make runners more aggressive on the bases. Both of those changes will add more action to the game and put more of a premium on athletes.

While I’m dubious of baseball’s claim that larger bases will also result in fewer injuries, and while there is apart of me that doesn’t believe the distance between the bases needs changing, I’m open to giving the larger bases a try.

Final Thoughts

On balance, I’m excited by the rules changes. I can’t wait to see a faster, more athletic game with more action. I’m concerned that the combination of limited pickoffs and larger bases will make stealing bases too easy. But changes had to be made. I hope that with these changes comes the willingness to keep evaluating the game and to admit if some of the changes went too far.

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