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Per reports, MLB expected to vote in pitch clock, shift restrictions, and other rule tweaks to start in 2023

Rules targeted at improving pace of play have been tested at many levels of the minors and in independent leagues.

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MLB: JUN 13 Mariners at Twins
Your time has come, Kyle.

Per Evan Drellich and Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, MLB’s 11-person competition committee is expected to vote for the league’s final proposal to incorporate several major rule updates that will begin next year in the 2023 MLB season. Most notable are the changes involving the restriction of shifting infielders, as well as the adoption of a pitch clock. The league will also reportedly be adopting slightly larger bases.

The limitations on the shift are fairly simple but significant. Their core components and intended impacts are listed below:

What the new rule is: Shift Restriction

  • As the pitch is released, besides the pitcher and catcher the defense must have at minimum four (4) players with both feet on the infield dirt. At least two (2) of those players must be entirely on separate sides of second base.
  • If a team violates this rule, per umpire enforcement, the punishment is played out similarly to a balk, albeit with some differences: if the hitter reaches base in any capacity, the play stands. If the hitter is out, the hitting team may choose whether they want to accept the result of the play or take a do-over. If they elect a do-over, the pitch is counted as a ball.

What this gets rid of:

  • “The Shift,” at least in its most iconic form! No more fully overloaded infields, no more four-man outfields, fewer debates about whether Joey Gallo should learn to code bunt. Left-handed sluggers in particular should rejoice, as they are predominantly impacted by lost hits on hard grounders/low-liners into shallow right field.

What this intends to do:

  • Increase balls in play and the value of putting the ball in play, and generally boosting offense.
  • Restore more contact that fans and hitters are used to being hits into being hits.
  • Increase the value of defensive athleticism and create more opportunities to showcase that athleticism.

Will that work?:

  • Almost certainly! Just... maybe only a little bit. In years of study at Baseball Prospectus, Russell Carleton has helped the baseball world realize The Shift is a double-edged sword. It absolutely cuts offensive numbers, for lefties in particular, cutting BABIP by .012 points for all hitters (.017 points for lefties) and BABIP on grounders specifically by .023 points (.035 points for lefties). That is and is not a huge difference; a .245 batting average and a .262 batting average derive significantly different response, though this is essentially only injecting more singles into the game.
  • Singles are great, of course, but don’t expect a massive infusion of offense, because the other notable impact of the shift was a marked increase in walks. This seems to be a pitcher comfort issue, as well as an approach one for teams - you don’t want to pitch a player to try and make them hit it weakly the other way when you’ve cleared the whole left side. So, more balls in play, fewer walks, more singles, okay?
  • Okay... except, as Carleton notes, teams are not likely to simply return to 20th-century defensive alignments. Shortstops will still likely align up the middle for pull-heavy lefties, an orientation that still hurts BABIP. Setting up just left of second base is not as stark as three defenders in the second baseman’s zone and a third baseman at shortstop, but it still improves coverage, so don’t expect a return to the 1980s.
  • Additionally, while this will increase singles generally, this specifically rewards hitters who sell out for pull power by turning a handful of mishit (or even hard hit) rollovers into singles each year. Conversely, spray hitters with less power are punished as their ability to avoid being shifted is now less consequential. It’s hard to say that any resurgence in “pure hitting” was looming as it’s just a less effective (and/or harder to develop) skill set when power gets you so much more per swing. On the other hand, the league hopes to increase viability of speedy slap hitters with its base stealing adjustments.
  • Lastly, by nipping the fourth outfielder maneuver in the bud, Carleton (I believe rightly) suggests they have headed off an even greater change in ball in play outcomes as clubs continue developing players to maximize power.

What the new rule is: Pitch Clock

  • With no runners on base: 15 seconds for the pitcher to begin their throwing motion, beginning when they receive the ball and “the catcher and the batter are in the dirt near home plate and play is ready.”
  • With runners on base: 20 seconds for the pitcher to begin their throwing motion.
  • The catcher must be in the catcher’s box with no fewer than nine seconds remaining on the timer, while the hitter must be in the batter’s box with both feet and be ready to hit (Drellich & Rosenthal use the phrase “alert to the pitcher”) within eight seconds of the clock’s starting.
  • The punishment for hitters who are in violation is an automatic strike, while the punishment for pitchers and catchers is an automatic ball. This will be enforced by umpires.
  • 30 second clock between batters in innings, with 10 second limits on hitter walk-up music (I don’t know how this actually compares to current numbers but I’d imagine it’s not actually that different).
  • Two (2) minutes and 15 seconds allotted for time between innings and pitching changes. Additionally:

“Extended inning events,” like the playing of “God Bless America,” or anything that stops all action in the ballpark, requires approval from the commissioner’s office, and advance notice of those approved events has to go to the MLBPA.

  • Hitters are allowed one (1) free request for time per plate appearance and must request it verbally, resetting the pitch clock in the process. Additional requests for time will result in an automatic strike unless the batter stays in the box while doing so (presumably the time request would not be granted, however they would still be in hitting position and therefore not in violation).
  • Umpires have discretion to pause or reset the timer based on user error, equipment malfunction, injury, etc.
  • Pitch timer is not reviewable.

What this gets rid of:

  • Nomar Garciaparra, Cory Gearrin, and Pedro Báez

What this aims to do:

  • Speed up the game, or more specifically minimize dead air/inactive time during the game.
  • Perhaps, tangentially, increase offense/balls in play by way of cutting down breaks for pitchers between pitches and increasing challenge of max effort throwing.

Will that work?:

  • The first goal? Ab-so-lutely. Most players in MLB who have been in the minor leagues in the past few seasons already have some familiarity with pitch clocks, and in the minors it is even more stringent, with just 14 seconds for nobody on and 18 ticks with runners aboard (or 19 in Triple-A). In the minor leagues, where the pitch clock is now in place at all levels, time of game has dropped roughly 20-30 minutes, back to around the 2:30 to 2:40 mark that the sport featured prior to the mid-1980s. That is compared to around 3:00-3:10 MLB has hovered at since the 2010s. MiLB had been about the same, sitting around 3:00 even despite few or none of the ad breaks that MLB games employ.
  • Simply put, the extra time has almost entirely been created by players themselves, and gone unenforced by umpires. The clock makes enforcement easier, and the impact will be dramatic. There will be awkward miscues, grousing from some folks, probably a game or two decided even by this, and then it will become habit, and we’ll all (I believe) realize the game still works just fine.
  • As to increasing balls in play, I’m less sold, but perhaps. There were upticks in runs scored and drops in both walk and strikeout rates in the minors, though not necessarily evenly distributed. Fortunately, what we haven’t seen is an uptick of injuries as was expressed with concern.

What the new rule is: Pickoff Limits

  • Tied into the pitch clock is a limitation on “disengagements,” which is primarily in the form of the pitcher disengaging with the rubber after they’ve initially engaged with it.
  • Pitchers are limited to two (2) free disengagements (pickoffs or otherwise) per plate appearance if there is a runner on base (and presumably zero (0) if there is no runner on)
  • If the pitcher makes a third disengagement, they must successfully record an out in the process. If they do so, all good, hunky-dory. If they fail to, however, it is a balk, unless the runner successfully advances anyway (e.g. an errant pickoff throw).
  • The defense (including the catcher) may call time, however this is charged as a disengagement. There are apparently numerous common sense exceptions, however, such as injuries, challenging a call, a beach ball on the field, etc.

What this gets rid of:

  • Lengthy pickoff sequences to first base and subsequent booing opportunities.
  • The ability for pitchers to easily circumvent the pitch clock.
  • Pitchers picking off repeatedly to waste time while a reliever warms up in the bullpen.

What this aims to do:

  • Keep pitchers and defenses from shirking the pitch clock rules.
  • Increase stolen base viability and attempts.

Will that work?:

  • The loopholes are pretty well closed here, presuming umpires actually enforce consistently, so for part one, yes.
  • As to steals, if the minors are any indication, you bet your bottom that steals went up, both in success rate and attempts. In 2021, at Low-A, clubs increased stolen base attempts from around 2.40-2.45 in 2018-19 all the way up to 3.18 attempts per game. The success rate on steals jumped as well, from around 68% to 77%.
  • Is that Good For The Game™? That’s more gonna be about your personal opinion, but I’m inclined to say... sure! If the ABS (a.k.a Robo Umps) is looming, perhaps as soon as 2024, catcher defense is about to crater in importance as the skill of framing dissipates. All the more reason then to make sure the other skills - blocking, throwing, receiving technique, etc. - grow in value as steals become a more viable part of the game once more. On the other hand, one or two extra steals per game is not enough to make me panicked about the game being utterly overhauled.

What the new rule is: Bigger Bases

  • The size of the bases will be increased to 18 square inches from 15 square inches.

What this gets rid of:

  • Embarrassing little bases that everyone laughed at.
  • A few collisions or rolled ankles each year with players stepping on one another.

What this aims to do:

  • Increase player safety and reduce accidental contact around the base.
  • Slightly increase viability of steals and aggressive baserunning.

Will that work?:

  • Health and safety-wise it can’t hurt, literally! There may be data on this but it’s seemed pretty tough to track. It does make sense conceptually though and I’ve not seen any complaints or issues with it across the minors. It’s also functionally invisible as a change to all fans with a minor positive outcome so... cool!
  • Carleton’s research indicates all of a 0.5% increase in stolen base attempts that seems attributable to the bags increased size. So again, not really an issue, nor is it liable to make a big difference.