Major League Baseball announced a flurry of rule changes coming to the league next season that should drastically change the way the sport is played. The league proposed three different rule changes to the recently constructed Joint Competition Committee. This committee consists of four active players, six league-appointed members and one umpire.
The first of these rule changes is the implementation of larger bases. Bases are sized 15 square inches in today’s game, but will expand to 18 square inches starting next season. This does a couple of different things for the game. First, the larger bases give more room for infielders to keep a foot on the base during force out opportunities. There will also be more room on the base for baserunners to run through the bases, lessening the potential for collisions that often cause injury.
Another aspect about the game that is affected is in regard to base stealing. With the increased size of the bases, the overall distance from base to base is shortened. This change will make the trips from first to second base, and second to third base about four inches shorter than they are today. This should incentivize more stolen base attempts from teams in the future. Total stolen base attempts have decreased every season from 2016 to 2021, excluding the shortened 2020 season.
The second of the major rule changes coming into effect next season is the implementation of the pitch clock. A major issue that MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred believes exists in today’s sport is the slow pace of play. Pitchers will have just 30 seconds between batters to throw their first pitch. Once an at-bat is started, they will have 15 seconds between pitches with no runners on base. With runners on base, they will have 20 seconds between pitches. The rule also limits the number of combined pickoff attempts and step-offs a pitcher has per at-bat to just two. There had previously been no limit. If a third pickoff attempt is made and is unsuccessful, the runner automatically advances one base.
If the pitcher does not start their pitching motion before the timer expires, they will be charged with an automatic ball. Similarly, if the hitter is not in the batter’s box and faced toward the pitcher by the 8-second mark, they will be charged an automatic strike.
Banning of the Shift
Probably the most controversial of the three rule changes is the partial banning of the shift. Batting average has steadily decreased from season to season in Major League Baseball for the better part of two decades. A primary reason for this is extreme shifts with selective positioning of infielders.
This rule change will enforce a traditional four-man infield with two defenders on both sides of the second base bag. When the pitcher is on the rubber, all four infielders must be within the outer boundary of the infield, meaning they cannot be touching the outfield grass. Teams also cannot reposition their fielders in a way that switches the positional order of the fielders. In other words, a shortstop cannot move to the left of the second baseman during a shift and the third baseman must remain the furthest left of any infielder. Teams can still move an outfielder onto the infield during specific situations if needed. However, no infielders can drop back to create a four-man outfield.
Will it Work?
Commissioner Manfred believes these impending rule changes should help improve the quality of the product and the enjoyability of the sport.
“Our guiding star in thinking about changes to the game has always been our fans,” he stated. “We’ve conducted thorough and ongoing research with our fans, and certain things are really clear. Number one, fans want games with better pace. Two, fans want more action, more balls in play. And three, fans want to see more of the athleticism of our great players.”
A slightly altered version of these rule changes have already been tested in the minor leagues this season, and the results have been evident. Players, coaches and fans in the minor leagues have seemed to approve of the rule changes that have been tested this year at the lower professional levels.
The first season under these rules will likely be more difficult to operate under than they will in future seasons. Veteran pitchers who traditionally operate at a slower pace will need to quickly adapt to the change. Younger players who enter the league already accustomed to these rules should have no issue with the pace of play.
A formal rule change proposal for an ABS system (automatic ball-strike) was not proposed by the league for 2023. An ABS proposal is likely expected in the future, as some professional leagues have already experimented the “robot ump” system.