Major League Baseball institutes massive rule changes
The MLB recently passed new rules banning defensive shifts, instituting a pitch clock, and increasing the size of the bases.
Major League Baseball is the oldest major league sport in the United States. Beginning in 1876, America’s pastime has been around for nearly 146 years. Needless to say that change in the sport, in any capacity, will be a topic of major discussion throughout the sports world. Last week, the MLB Competition Committee passed a few significant rule changes that will take effect in 2023. Among these landmark modifications are a ban on defensive shifts, as well as the institution of a pitch clock.
The MLB, just like many other businesses, experienced tough times through the pandemic. While fan attendance has risen since the 2021 MLB season, it is still 5% less than the pre-pandemic 2019 campaign. Fan engagement has been on the forefront of discussion between fans and baseball executives for quite some time.
Earlier this season, videos and pictures circulated of the Oakland Athletics and their abysmal fan turnout at RingCentral Coliseum in California. In a New York Times article discussing the crisis, fans worried that the team may have to leave in order to keep their franchise afloat.
This all brings up a few major questions: are people enjoying the MLB like they used to? What is going wrong, and what can the MLB do to fix the problem?
These questions aren’t easy to answer, but the rule changes mentioned above may be a step in a new direction. Whether it’s the right direction is yet to be seen.
A defensive shift in baseball means that the fielders take a specific position on the field for some tactical reason. Most often, a defensive team will make a shift when a left-handed hitter is up to bat in order to better cover gaps between fielders on one side of the diamond. Instead, every infielder will need to have their feet in the dirt as the pitch is being thrown.
Moreover, this rule change will also ban players from playing a different position from batter-to-batter. Players would often play a somewhat different position when certain hitters came up to bat: a second baseman may back up into the outfield to cover the space behind, and a shortstop may find himself at the second base position. No more! The MLB will require that there are two players on each side of the infield when the ball is in play. If players wish to switch positions, this will need to be communicated with the umpire and those switches cannot be undone.
So what does this mean for the game? Well, for starters, there will be more hits. Everyone loves to see more action, right? By disallowing a defensive shift, more gaps are opened up for hitters. In addition, left-handed hitters will rejoice at the fact that defenses can’t make them obsolete just by moving a couple of people around. With more hits and more action, this new rule might encourage more fan engagement.
Another major rule change is the addition of a pitch clock. If you ask any casual baseball fan the toughest part about watching a game, nine out of 10 people will say that the game is way too long. The pitch clock may be the solution to this problem. The pitch clock is quite simple in practice: a pitcher will have 15 seconds to pitch the ball when no runners are on base and 20 seconds to pitch when runners are on base.
Don’t be fooled by the straightforward explanation above. Just like a lot of baseball rules, it is much more complicated and strict than it may appear at first glance.
An Entertainment and Sports Programming Network article about the new rule outlined the many specific, technical details of the pitch clock: “The catcher must be in position when the timer hits 10 seconds, the hitter must have both feet in the batter's box and be ‘alert’ at the eight-second mark and the pitcher must start his ‘motion to pitch’ by the expiration of the clock. A violation by the pitcher is an automatic ball. One by the hitter constitutes an automatic strike.”
Although the pitch clock may restrict pitchers and add even more complicated and detailed rules to the game of baseball, it might help reduce how long games last. In fact, the minor leagues have already tested this out and seen a significant reduction in the average length of games — now games average two and a half hours, per ESPN.
The final rule, which garnered the least amount of press attention, was an increase in the size of bases from 15 to 18 inches wide. This was mostly implemented in order to reduce collisions between players. However, it may also encourage more base stealing.
Baseball has been around for close to 146 years and hopefully for many more years to come, but will these changes hurt the game more than they benefit it? In a statement released by the MLB, the league wants to return the game to a more “traditional aesthetic,” but it’s hard to say if these new changes will cause more problems than they solve.
Many players and managers have been asked their opinion on the matter, and overall the responses seem to vary.
Seattle Mariners pitcher Marco Gonzales told MLB reporters “It's like we're experimenting within the game. I don't think we need to do that. So I'd rather just let teams do what they want to do. And if they want to shift, shift. If they don't want to, don't do it. But I think putting strict policies, it just makes the game too uniform."
In contrast, Orioles manager Brandon Hyde seemed optimistic about the rule change, specifically the introduction of a pitch clock. “The pace of play, the pitch clock, I am really interested. I'm excited about that. I think it's going to better the fan experience. I think it's going to better the player experience on the field, I'm hoping, just by the pace of play getting up a little bit more.”
Only time will tell how impactful these changes will be to the integrity of the game. For now, the World Series looms closer and 12 lucky teams must prepare themselves for an exciting postseason campaign.