MLB

Explainer: MLB Rule Changes Designed To Increase On-Field Action

Feb 15, 2023, 8:00 AM | Updated: Feb 27, 2023, 12:17 pm

SALT LAKE CITY – Forget Punxsutawney Phil. Baseball enthusiasts mark the end of winter when pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training each February. When this season opens, MLB will have some rule changes, let’s learn about them

That magical time of year when the boys of summer return to complexes across Florida and Arizona is upon us once again.

After adopting the designated hitter rule league-wide in 2022, Commissioner Rob Manfred and a newly formed Joint Competition Committee of players have their eyes on more wide-ranging change in 2023.

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Traditionally resistant to change, MLB will be implementing a host of new rules this season. The goal is to increase on-field action while reducing the amount of time between a ball being put in play.

For 8,000 games, or the equivalent of 3 1/2 major league seasons, MLB has tested rule variations at the minor league level. MLB officials have also gathered extensive polling data from players and fans alike.

Theo Epstein, three-time World Series-winning executive of the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs teams that ended a combined 194 years of disappointment, now a consultant with MLB, joined the R2C2 Podcast in November to discuss the rule changes.

MLB Rule Changes

Pitch Timer

Baseball is a sport that prides itself on tradition & clings to unwritten rules like gospel. A large part of the romanticism of baseball is that it’s the only sport played without a clock.

“Part of what makes baseball great is not having any clocks on the field, not having the sense of time. We get 27 outs,” Epstein said. “I think the pitch timer is going to be the single most impactful rule change. Honestly, I think it’s a huge win for baseball.”

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Pitchers now have 15 seconds to throw a pitch with the bases empty, rising to 20 seconds with a runner on base. The timer starts the moment the pitcher receives the ball and stops the moment he goes into his motion. Pitchers will have a 30-second clock between batters.

Pitchers are limited to two ‘disengagements’ per plate appearance (e.g., pick-off attempt, step off rubber) with runners on base before being called for a balk.

Minor league game times have decreased by an average of 25 minutes; but contrary to its surface appearance, the pitch timer intends to eliminate dead time on the field rather than speed up the game.

“What’s amazing is it creates a better style of baseball,” Epstein explained. “Beyond what it meant for time of game is the pace and the rhythm of the game. There’s some evidence that strikeout rates goes down because pitchers are in better rhythm. Hitters are ready to swing the bat so walk rate goes down.”

In minor league samples, defenses overall have improved as pitchers throw more strikes. With more strikes, batting averages have risen but, according to Epstein, the run scoring environment hasn’t shifted substantially.

“Fans right now have to wait more than four minutes between balls in play in the big leagues. That’s gonna go dramatically down with the pitch timer,” Epstein concluded.

Limited Defensive Shifts

“Fans grew up knowing where the shortstop and second baseman are intuitively, and fans know or used to know what a base hit looks like off the bat,” Epstein reasoned. “That’s changed in the last decade or so.”

Beginning this season, defenses will be required to deploy a minimum of four players on the infield. At least two infielders are required on either side of second base until a pitch is thrown.

The rule comes in three parts:

  • Depth – All four infielders must have both feet within the outer boundary of the infield when the pitcher is on the rubber.
  • Lateral Positioning – Infielders must be positioned on each side of second base when the pitch is released.
  • No Switching Sides – Infielders may not switch sides (e.g., placing the best defender on the side the batter is more likely to hit the ball) unless there is a substitution.

“The least impactful, in terms of style of play, but I think it’s overlooked what it means for for athleticism defense,” Epstein said. “With the shift restrictions in place, we found in the minor leagues that infielders just have more room to roam. More room to make plays at the extremities of the range. Infielders end up loving that freedom. They feel like it puts them back in a position to make game-changing plays. And that puts the game back in the hands of players.”

Increased Base Size

This is a rule the casual fan probably won’t even notice at the ballpark.

Increasing from 15 inches square to 18 inches square, the primary goal of this change is to give defenders more room to work around the bag while reducing collisions with base runners. The size of home plate remains unchanged.

As a natural side effect, the increased base size reduces the distance between first and second base, and second to third base, by 4 1/2 inches.

Between increased base size and pitch timer related rules that limit pick-off attempts, stolen base attempts have increased from 1.88 attempts per game to 2.34 attempts per game at the minor league level. Stolen base success rate increased by 2.5 percent in Triple-A.

“We have not had somebody steal 40 bags in the big leagues for the last three seasons,” Epstein remarked. “Is anyone gonna complain if someone goes out there and steals 60 or 70 bags? No way.”

Epstein cautioned that future changes, including adjusting current rules, will continue to be looked at as more information comes available.

“Clearly, with all these rule changes, we have to keep our eyes wide open and make sure we’re open to adjustments. There’s no pride of authorship on any of this stuff. If there are downstream impacts that we didn’t anticipate, we can correct for them.”

‘Ghost Runner’ Rule To Stay

Officials announced Monday morning that MLB’s joint competition committee members had voted unanimously to permanently adopt the extra-innings tiebreaker rule that has been in place since 2020.

“In all regular-season extra-inning games, a runner will be placed on second base to begin the 10th inning, and in every subsequent extra inning after that, until a winner is determined.”

Known as the ‘ghost runner’ rule, this rule will only apply in the regular season. Postseason games will not use a ‘ghost runner’.

MLB also announced increased restrictions on position players taking the mound in game situations.

“A position player for a team that is trailing cannot come in unless the lead is eight runs or more. And a position player for a team that is leading cannot come in until the 9th inning, and only if the lead is ten runs or more.”

Position players will be allowed to pitch freely in extra-innings.

Fortunately for everybody, moments like these are still possible, if only less likely.

Pitchers & Catchers Report

All MLB teams are scheduled to open camp by February 16 with full-squad workouts less than a week later. The Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals are scheduled to play the first game of 2023 on February 24.

Take us with you, wherever you go.

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Explainer: MLB Rule Changes Designed To Increase On-Field Action