On Friday, MLB announced some rule changes to take affect next season: a pitch clock, limit on the shift, a step off limit for pitchers, and the bases will be bigger. No doubt there will be hand wringing and complaining about the game being changed. I’m here to state that things will actually be okay.
Let me address each. First the pitch clock: pitchers will have 15 seconds to deliver a pitch when bases are empty and 20 with runners on base. I’ve had multiple friends remind me that there is already a rule about how long pitchers have between pitches. I know. I’ve even quoted it before. There’s just one problem: umpires never, ever enforce it. The presence of the clock forces the issue—the rule has to be enforced. For decades games have gradually increased in length such that now average game lengths are over 3 hours compared to around 2:45 in the 1970’s/80’s. The extra 20 minutes is not baseball action, it’s pitchers “executing pitches”—resting to deliver the next max velocity, max rotation fastball. In the 1970’s a mark of dominance by a pitcher was 10 strikeouts in a complete game. Complete games are uncommon, but the average number of strikeouts per 9 innings is now above 9. The average pitcher strikes out hitters at the rate Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan did.
Pitch clocks have been used in the minors for a few years now, predating the pandemic. My live professional baseball viewing is mostly AAA, and I’ve found the pitch clock unobtrusive. More importantly, they actually ran an experiment the first half of this season—some games with the clock and some without as a control group. The results? No clock games took on average over 3 hours, same as MLB games. Games with the clock came in around 2:45, 20 minutes quicker. Face it, the game has already changed and not for the better. Adding the clock actually makes the game a bit more like it was meant to be.
Second, the shift rule: Okay, I’ve waffled on this one. I’m pro-pitch clock obviously, but I was concerned about the shift in that I don’t like limiting managerial strategy. Professional hitters should be able to learn to hit the other way or, heavens, realize that the “three true outcomes” philosophy isn’t the be all end all. However, in reading the rule, it’s really not that bad. It requires the defense to have two players on the dirt surface on each side of second base until the pitcher releases the ball. That is, a team could, say, line up the shortstop just barely left of the bag and immediately move across the bag as the pitcher pitches. The shift won’t die, it’ll just be less extreme. Secondly, the penalty for running afoul of the rule are not extreme. If the batter gets a hit, the play stands. If not, the batting team can opt for either the play result (for example, maybe a runner scores on a fielder’s choice) or take an automatic ball to the pitch count with the batter returning to the plate. It won’t be like a balk where every runner moves up a base.
Third, the step-off limitation: Pitchers will not be allowed to disengage from the rubber more than twice in a plate appearance—including to make pick off throws. Stolen bases have dropped by a third over the last 25 years or so. Also, the pitcher and first baseman playing catch is another way of prolonging the game, and a work around for the pitcher wanting to rest between pitches. We’ve all watched pitchers make light tosses to first, “holding a runner on” who clearly isn’t running. I’m not sure if 2 is the right number, we will see. However, more running, more catchers having to try to throw runners out is good.
Lastly, base size: It will go from 15 inches to 18. I don’t think the average fan will notice. The idea is to decrease injuries and again encourage more running. I think the effect will be marginal. I’d have been more in favor of a double bag at first with stricter enforcement of the runner staying in the base path.