From the ghost runner to the shift ban to the pitch clock and beyond, let’s talk new on-field rules and regulations in Major League Baseball for the upcoming season.
With the 2023 regular season now not so far away, Major League Baseball is shifting focus to its on-field product after an offseason in which teams spent over $3 billion on free agents alone. Commissioner Rob Manfred admitted during a recent Spring Training media engagement that this would be “the first time since 2019 that we’re going into a season where the focus is on the field and the play of the game,” he said, “which is always where we do our best.”
Well, depending on who you ask, that’s up for debate.
From banning the shift to enforcing a pitch clock and beyond, certain real and hypothetical new rules might irk baseball purists — those who take pride in insisting that the game is still truly America’s Pastime, and so forth. Elsewhere, you have others, specifically younger generations, whose attention span struggles to last the duration of a full MLB game in a league that is not immune to struggles as it relates to minting and elevating recognizable stars.
The MLB is not the only league to implement such rules to appease (allegedly) a younger generation. The NBA implemented take fouls to help speed up games and make them more exciting. The NFL instituted new means for increasing the pace of games through play clock tweaks and selective commercial breaks starting in 2017. So, ahead of the new season, which new adjustments are now the law of the land?
We’ll let you make your own assessment on the new regulations — let’s talk MLB rule changes 2023.
MLB Rule Changes 2023: The Details
The Ghost Runner Rule is Here to Stay
MANFRED BALL! The league has confirmed that the so-called “ghost runner” rule will remain permanent. This rule, implemented in the 2020 season, gives teams a free runner on second base at the start of every necessary inning following the ninth. MLB has been quick to cite reducing injury risk — particularly teams who might be wearing out their bullpen — as reasoning for making the change permanent.
The fact of the matter here is that the league is trying to bring down game times, though the implementation of these bonus runners had little impact on matters in 2021 when the average duration of games was three hours and 11 minutes, the longest in recorded baseball history. In 2022, game times dropped to three hours and four minutes, though that can be mostly attributed to the pitch clock rule. More on that in a moment.
For what it’s worth, there were 216 MLB games that went into extra innings in 2022, down from 233 in 2021.
Pitch Clock Update
The latest MLB pitch clock rules state that pitchers have 15 seconds to throw a pitch with the bases empty and 20 seconds with a runner on base. Batters will need to be in the box at the eight-second mark. In the event that the pitcher hasn’t started his motion to deliver a pitch before the clock expires, his team will be charged with a ball. If a batter isn’t in the box at the eight-second mark, his team will be charged with a strike.
As noted, the average time of a nine-inning game in 2022 was three hours, three minutes, and 44 seconds — down nearly seven minutes from 2021’s record high. This is one of a few rules meant to decrease game times since MLB contests first began averaging over three hours consistently in 2014.
MLB Shift Ban
Ah, yes. Banning the shift in the infield presents another scenario in which players, coaches, and fans alike could all get frustrated. The new shift ban rule states that all four infielders must be on the infield dirt or grass, with two on each side of second base. Gone are the days of second basemen playing well on the far side of the bag to stop right-handed pull-hitters or infielders setting up from the outfield grass.
As Phillies relief pitcher David Robinson wondered:
“My biggest complaint about the shift is, how do you explain that to kids? What’s the point of having a shortstop if he can’t play shortstop?”
To be fair to the deeper tradition of the game, aggressive shifting arguably made baseball a positionless sport as far as infield defense is concerned. From a modern perspective, baseball is a game of strategy and offenses ought to be focused on finding ways to innovate their way through it. The latter may ultimately be true, but the general idea here is that the league wants more singles and doubles — that is, more action — rather than seeing scoreboards dominated by the concept of homer-or-bust.
Right on cue, the leaguewide batting average was down to .243 in 2022, the lowest such figure since 1968.
During the first months of the 2022 minor league season that experimented with a shift ban, left-handed hitters’ batting averages increased by eight points.
Pickoffs are a relatively simple concept to understand — a pitcher steps off the rubber to attempt to throw a player out on the base path. The new rule allows a pitcher to attempt two pickoffs; after a third, the pitcher will be charged with a balk unless one offensive player advances a base or an out is made.
The league clearly wants to see more base-stealing, a stat that was down team-by-team to just 0.51 per game in 2022 compared to 0.66 a decade ago. Experimenting with this rule worked well in the minors, as there were 24,917 stolen bases across the lower leagues in 2022 versus 20,117 in 2021.
Relax. The increase in the size of the bases — 15 inches to 18 — should reduce injuries and increase stolen bases. There aren’t specific metrics to measure the success, but The Athetic’s Ken Rosenthal reported that stolen base attempts and success rate were both up appreciably at every level in which these larger bases have been tested.
“The bases, they’re the bases,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora told reporters. “Wait ’til you see them — they look like a pizza box, to be honest with you.”
Hey, maybe pizza boxes will entice players to steal bases more. “Steal a Base, Steal a Taco” could use an Italian cousin.
Position Players Pitching
The previous rule here allowed teams to use positional players as pitchers when they were either up or down by six runs. The new rule tweaks the figure to eight runs for the trailing team and 10 for the leading team. Per Elias, there were 32 instances of position players pitching in games in 2017, but last season, that number skyrocketed to 132.
A Final Word
There does need to be some sort of compromise between purists and the younger generation. NBA games are shorter by comparison and that league only plays 82 regular season games. NFL games are roughly just over three hours on average for a 17-game regular season. Baseball is already a slower-paced game by design; combining that fact with a 162-game regular season and four rounds of postseason ball creates challenges — as well as opportunities — in perfecting the overall formula in service to fans.
After all, those MLB TV ratings aren’t going to fix themselves — the 2022 World Series generated the Fall Classic’s second-lowest TV audience ever. This year’s new regulations are going to take some adjusting to, but a forward-thinking, progressive approach might be best for baseball to decrease game times and boost engagement and excitement while reducing injury risk across the board.
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