Big baseball rule changes are coming this season, starting with Friday’s spring training openers. Among MLB’s many on-field adjustments: a pitch clock that limits pitchers to 15 seconds (or 20 with men on base) between when they get the ball from the catcher and the start of their delivery; the end of the infield shift — infielders must have both feet touching the dirt at the start of a pitch, with two fielders on each side of second base; and larger bases, increased from 15 to 18 inches on each side.
On ABC News’ Start Here Podcast, I talked about all of those changes with host Brad Mielke:
Among the new policies for 2023, the pitch clock might be the most important. Back in October, my colleague Humera Lodhi and I found that a sizable share of pitchers would need to alter their game to fit within the new rule. At the time we published our story, almost 15 percent of the nearly 400 pitchers who had qualified for Statcast’s pitch-tempo leaderboard in 2022 projected to take more time on average with the bases empty than the clock will allow, with 23 taking at least 10 percent longer than allowed and eight taking at least 20 percent longer.1
And while we had found that only 12 percent of qualified pitchers would project to come in over the timer threshold with runners on base, most pitchers tended to work even slower in those situations — and the outliers with men on were even more separated from the rest of the pack than with the bases empty.
All told, we found that about 20 percent of qualified pitchers would need to speed up their average time with either the bases empty or runners on — and that doesn’t even include those times the other 80 percent held the ball a little longer than usual before throwing. (Or the fact that pickoff throws also will be restricted to two unsuccessful tries per plate appearance.) There’s a reason why MLB found that pitch clocks reduced game lengths by 25 minutes in the minor leagues last season. If the average 2022 game (3 hours, 6 minutes) was shortened by the same amount, the resulting 2-hour, 41-minute game time would be MLB’s shortest since 1984.
As for the other notable changes, larger bases are designed to reduce injuries and encourage more steals and other baserunning activity — the distance between home and first is now 3 inches shorter, and from first to second is 4.5 inches shorter — though they may take some getting used to by the players and fans. There’s also a new wrinkle whereby teams can only use position players to pitch if they’re either trailing by eight or more runs or leading in the ninth inning by at least 10 runs, cutting down on a bullpen-preserving tactic that was increasingly making a mockery of the game (in this humble writer’s opinion).
And the banning of the shift is sure to be welcomed by left-handed sluggers everywhere. While it hasn’t always been easy to find evidence of the shift’s effectiveness at a leaguewide level, lefty hitters had a .194 batting average on infield ground balls over the past three seasons, compared with a .211 batting average for their righty counterparts. If getting rid of the shift helps bring the former number up in line with the latter, it could add some extra hits on the margins and generally contribute to more action in the game — something all of these rule changes are broadly hoping to accomplish.