MLB Competition Committee votes for major rule changes for 2023

Bless You Boys

Major League Baseball’s Competition Committee, an 11 person group in charge of the league’s ruleset, voted to enact some pretty major changes to the game on Friday. Most of these were expected, but that doesn’t diminish the impact the decisions will have on the way the game is played next season. In the process, some division over the new rules between MLBPA representatives and representatives of the Commissioner’s office was apparent in the voting.

A pitch clock will go into effect after two years of experimenting with the concept in the minor leagues. Defensive positioning will be much more limited, as the shift era will come to an end. And finally, increased size of the bases will shorten the distance between bases, encouraging more stolen base attempts while also giving defenders and baserunners more room to operate without collision.

Evan Drellich of The Athletic had the news first on Thursday, but those three changes have been expected to pass the committee without issue. The 11-person committee is made up of six representatives from the commissioner’s office, four MLBPA representatives, and one umpire. With Commissioner Rob Manfred in favor of the rules, and the committee’s makeup tilted toward representatives from the commissioner’s office, he was always going to get his way.

New rules

The proposal for a pitch clock mandates 15 seconds for pitchers to begin their motion after getting the ball back. The timeframe expands to 20 seconds with runners on base. By and large, the pitch clock has been well received in minor league ball, speeding up game times significantly, and keeping the action moving within a given inning. Failure by the pitcher or catcher to be in position and for the pitcher to begin his motion in a timely fashion will result in an automatic ball. The clock applies to batters as well, requiring them to get back in the box and be prepared to hit within eight seconds left on the clock, with the cost of an automatic strike should they fail to do so.

Pitchers will also be limited to stepping off, called “disengagements” by the league, twice per batter with a runner on base, either to throw to first or for any other reason. Should the runner advance within a plate appearance by stealing second or advancing on a wild pitch or passed ball, the pitcher gets both disengagements back and can again step off twice. Batters will only be allowed to request time once per plate appearance.

There will also be a 30 second rule for mound visits. Details on the punishments and timeframes allowed for different actions, such as the pitcher requesting a new ball from the umpire, will also have time requirements. As laid out in Drellich’s article, the rules are going to be fairly complicated and adapting to them all will take some work. However, most of this was enforced in the minor leagues this season without too much issue, and did appear to significantly decrease game times according to this piece by Baseball America.

Defensive positioning will now be limited, with four fielders besides the pitcher and catcher required to be fully on the infield dirt, with two fully on either side of second base. The shift, with a tradition that goes back to Ted Williams and beyond, is no more. As more and more complex arrangements of fielders have come into vogue and proved effective over the last decade, batting average on balls in play has declined, but that’s quite likely more about knowing hitter patterns and how to pitch to the positioning.

The league hopes that this will allow more ground balls to find their way through the infield, increasing batting average and the amount of traffic on the bases. In theory, it will also increase the value of individual infielders with better range than others. However, results in the minor leagues don’t support this, making it appear more of an aesthetic decision than a competitive one. Perhaps major league hitters will just be a little more adept than minor leaguers at spraying the ball and taking advantage of a bit more room out there, but it doesn’t seem likely to have much impact.

Finally, the bases will increase from 15 to 18 inches in diameter. That will actually increase the surface area of each base by nearly 45 percent. From the edge of one base to another, the distance will seemingly shorten by four and a half inches as a result, adding a bit of help to would-be base-stealers, and hopefully, helping to avoid collisions and spikings on plays at the base.

The players on the competition committee voted against both the pitch clock rules and the ban on defensive shifts. However the vote to increase the size of the bases was unanimous according to Jeff Passan of ESPN.

The more rules you make

Most of this seems fine. I’m not personally a fan of banning the shift at all, other than maybe keeping all four infielders on the infield, but on any side of second base. The players seem to agree, but I’m not sure public opinion concurs on that one. There should be a few more hits getting through, but I don’t expect it to have a big difference in run scoring. Scoring could even decline if hitters feel like they can get hits and don’t have to sell out for power as much. Hard to know, but getting more traffic on the bases and more speed into the game makes sense to me. Increasing the base size works in this respect as well.

The rather intricate collection of rules around the pitch clock seem like a disaster. The basic idea is fine, but the collection of penalties for different actions seems way too complicated to enforce well.

The pitch clock itself is 15 seconds, which is fine. But the pitcher and catcher are required to be in position and ready for a pitch by the time the countdown reaches nine seconds. The batter has to have both feet in the box and be “alert to the pitcher” by the time the countdown reaches eight seconds. The pitcher can step off twice, but the batter can only step out of the box once. A pitcher can step off with at least nine seconds left to ask for a new ball without penalty, but if the clock hits eight seconds, he’s charged a ball in the current at-bat. Are those reviewable? Who is watching the clock and keeping track of all these potential violations. Umpires also have discretion to charge a ball or a strike is they decide a player is trying to circumvent the clock rules in any way.

All of this sounds like a disaster of micro-management in the making. I’ve only touched on a few of the many, many details involved. Hopefully they can find ways to streamline some of this, as it all seems to add too much umpire discretion and proscribes precise but different time frames allowed for all sorts of different actions that may occur.

The minor leagues have proven a good testing ground, so presumably the league has some of this dialed in, but with games on the line, all this detail seems likely to wreak havoc with compliance and enforcement in high pressure games. It also demands that different umpires be involved in timing either the pitcher, the catcher, or the batter, all while ensuring that no infielder’s heel is brushing up against the outfield grass. There’s an awful lot to pay attention to now, pre-pitch, and despite the clock, plenty more room for doses of human error to come into play.

Overall, the basic concepts are fine. We’ll see how this all actually works in practice in 2023. They’ve got time to work out some of the bugs, but there still is a ton of potential for this to be a mess to try and enforce.

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