New Rules in MLB in 2023

After listening to a week’s worth of games and watching a few, I wanted to give my initial take on the new rules. Of course, it’s not just new rules this year, it’s also a new scheduling system that I have heard a lot about, but that’s a different post. For now, I’m just going to focus on the rules.

The big thing this year is the pitch clock, but I actually want to address the new bases first. These have mostly been an afterthought, because on the face of it, they don’t really change much. I can see on TV that they are bigger, and yeah, sure that means the distances are a little reduced. Maybe that means more steals or infield hits (although the distance is shorter for the throws too) or whatever. But I doubt that’ll be noticeable. The reason I am starting with these is that I am really hoping the new bases help with the one place MLB need to change the rules and didn’t: the slow-motion replays of runners coming off the bag for a split second. This has been one of the most frustrating things about the sport in the last few years, mostly because every umpire interprets ‘clear and convincing’ differently and you could have the same play called two different ways on successive days. But this is also one of the few places where I think the application of the letter of the rule is actually contrary to the spirit of the rule. There’s nothing that a runner can do differently or better to stay on the bag—an impact at that speed is going to jostle the runner no matter what—and I’ve never thought it was fair to punish them for being subject to the laws of physics. The flip side of that is that no one (that I know of) wants runners being able to gratuitously overslide with no consequence. Ideally a rule change here would just restore the previous status quo. This probably reads like a bit of a digression, but it’s relevant because I really don’t know how the bigger bases will impact this, if at all. But there’s a reasonable chance that by giving runners a bigger target they have more chance to keep contact during the impact or more room to make it harder for a fielder to keep the tag on. It’s not a perfect solution—to be fair, I don’t think there is one*—but maybe this will help.

*The best idea I’ve had so far is simply to make that aspect of the play off limits for review. If the umpire can see the runner come off the base in real time, fine. But if the effect is so small that it takes replay, then there’s probably nothing the runner could do and it should not be reviewed.

Okay, so the big noticeable changes this year: Firstly the pitch clock, of course. Most people who follow me on Twitter will know I have been in favour of this for years, because watching some relievers pitch is just painful. But there are some aspects to it that are probably necessary for the concept to work that do introduce some unfortunate wrinkles. The basic premise—that the pitcher has 15 seconds with no one on and 20 seconds with runners on, and the hitter must be ready with eight seconds remaining—is great. It’ll cut down on relievers taking forever and it’ll cut down on hitters faffing about with their gloves between every single pitch. But with this comes the stipulations that the pitcher can only step off the rubber twice without recording an out and the hitter can only call time once. I understand the necessity of this, otherwise players could completely circumvent the rules at will. But the limits on stepping off the rubber and throwing over might have some huge knock-on effects. The onus is mostly on the pitcher to control the running game, and for all the talk about the larger bases being an incentive to steal, taking the threat of throwing over away from the pitchers will do a lot more. (Even as I write this I watched a player steal third almost unopposed because the pitcher wasn’t doing anything to hold him on.) MLB wants to increase stolen bases, so they probably see that more as a feature than a bug, but I am a little less convinced. Stolen bases are fun, but partly because of the difficulty and risk. Diminishing the pitcher’s ability to control the running game felt before the start of games like tilting the scales too much, and maybe it will be, but it’s been okay so far. Though the first dozen or so games I’ve watched or listened to, I only think it’s been relevant once or twice. I definitely think the pitch clock overall is a net positive, and certainly when I was planning an outing with some friends of mine who are more casual fans it was a selling point that a Saturday game starting at six would probably be over by nine.

The other big rule change is the shift, or lack thereof. I care less about this, partly because I don’t think it’ll make a huge difference. The argument about the shift usually centres on the batting average of left-handed pull hitters, but advanced analytics have basically meant that left-handed pull hitters aren’t judged on batting average anyway. (This is a topic I’ve been slowly and vaguely writing about, but it’s more time-consuming than I thought.) So what’s the point of having or not having the shift? Just from a fan’s perspective I think the biggest difference will be the end of the frustration of watching your pitcher make a great pitch, induce weak contact the other way and have it be a hit because the field was set for a bad pitch instead of a good one. But in practice it might just make pitchers even more single-minded about strikeouts. I suspect the most it’ll be talked about is if or when a team actually gets called for a violation early in the year.

It’s also technically a change that the extra inning Manfred runner is now permanent. It’s a stupid change and I hate literally every aspect about it, not least that it’s ‘solving’ a problem that barely existed and to the extent that it did exist could be solved in any number of better ways. I’m not going to dignify it with a lot of attention, but it is important in that it shows what a low bar MLB has for ‘success’ for these new rules. (Or, equivalently, what a high bar there is to actually dropping any of these rules.) Unless any of the important rules dramatically and unarguable backfire, I expect they will all be made permanent, and that’s the one aspect of all this that I really dislike. MLB does not seem interested in reconsidering at any stage; we all knew for months that these rules were coming in no matter what and it’s clear that they are basically permanent.

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