MLB rule changes: Takeaways from the first weekend of spring training, with shorter games, more stolen bases
Just behind the first weekend of Cactus and Grapefruit League spring training games, this was the reason for the first look at new game rules for the 2023 Major League Baseball season. The preliminary verdict is that the new rules mentioned did not take long to make a tangible difference.
For the uninitiated, here are the most noteworthy new rules:
- Pitch clock is now in place in Majors. Pitchers must start their pitch within 15 seconds when the bases are empty and within 20 seconds when one or more bases are occupied. In addition, the batter must be in the box and “warn” the pitcher when at least eight seconds remain on the pitching clock. Pitchers who break the rules will be awarded the ball, and batters who break the rules will be awarded a strike.
- Pitchers are only allowed to “off” the rubber twice during each plate appearance, whether it’s a pitch or a throw. This count is reset if one or more runners advance during the plate occurrence in question. Pitchers may make a third rebound attempt during a PA, but the runner will automatically advance if not bowled on that third attempt.
- In addition to these throwing restrictions, baserunners also benefit from large bases. Bags for first, second and third base are now 18 square inches instead of 15. This increases the “target” for the base runner, and also reduces the distance between stations. The distance between home and first and third and home is now reduced by three inches, and the distance between first and second, second and third is now 4.5 inches shorter.
- There are no more intra-field overloads. Teams must have four fielders within the infield boundary whenever a pitcher is on the rubber, with two fielders placed on either side of second base’s bag during pitching. Teams are still allowed to take an outfielder to either the infield or the shallow outfield. However, they are not allowed to use four outfielders.
When it comes to the positioning rules noted in the last point above, it’s too early to draw any conclusions about what impact they will have. However, in the case of pitching hours, throwing limits and big bases, we can indeed look into early results for some conclusions. With the usual caveats about sample size, here are the findings.
Pace clocks matter
MLB, under Commissioner Rob Manfred, has been trying to reduce playing time and dead space in games for some time. Introducing hours on the field at the highest level is the boldest move ever, and the first weekend of spring training games has shown promising results.
As noted by Baseball America, the time of spring training games has been significantly reduced. In 2022 and 2021, the time of the spring games was, respectively, more than and equal to three hours. At this point in 2023, the average time for Spring Games is 2:39, which is down more than 20 minutes from 2022 and 2021 levels according to high-level arithmetic. To give one prime example, the Royals and Mariners teamed up on Sunday for 15 runs and 25 hits, yet still managed to complete the event in two hours and 25 minutes.
The real goal, of course, is the regular season. Last year, regular season games averaged 3:03, and since 2011, they’ve been over the three-hour mark. regular season, this would be the lowest regular season figure since 1984.
Pitching clock violations occur and batters also come into action
Not surprisingly, there is an adjustment period associated with the new pitch clock, which means violations. Relevant numbers:
It’s time for another update from MLB on innings violations:
16 games on Sunday
35 clock violations
Total for spring:
35 games Fri-Sun
69 clock violations
1.97 per game
Now slightly higher than last year’s junior week of 1.73 per game.
— Jason Stark (@jaysonst) February 27, 2023
As expected, pitchers are top rule breakers, but batters have been punished multiple times for not paying attention to a pitcher with at least eight seconds left on the clock. Padres third baseman Manny Machado made history by becoming first major league player to be called out for a service time violationand then on Saturday the Braves-Red Sox tilt ended in a tie when Atlanta prospect Cal Conley fined for ‘leaving’ for breaking the clock:
The Braves’ first spring practice game against the Red Sox ends in a strikeout due to an innings violation. pic.twitter.com/1w1fxPNUxs
— Baseball GIFs (@gifs_baseball) February 25, 2023
Obviously no one but the supporters of the beneficiary team wants the game to end this way, but it seems to be an extremely rare occurrence. We’ve just dived into spring training, and there’s plenty of time for pitchers and hitters to adjust to the clock and absorb the accelerated pace of their liturgies between fields. Major league players are partly selected for their ability to adapt to changing conditions, and this is one of them. Likewise, most fans who watch matches at home will also adapt and gradually forget that the pitcher-slugger match is a timed game.
As noted above, MLB has attempted to increase structural incentives for base management. In the modern era, most teams have turned the game down because the cost-benefit analysis says that’s the way it should be. Most fans will agree that this comes at a price in terms of entertainment, and MLB, with large bases and limits on takeover attempts, is trying to make stolen base a more rational game for teams. While it seems to be working. Via JJ Cooper in the same part of Baseball America from above:
“So far, teams are averaging 1.08 interception attempts per game. This is an almost 40% increase from 0.77 attempts per game in spring training in 2022. attempts. This year the success rate is 78%.”
And people stand up and say as one: This is more like that. In spring training, this is the highest base steal attempt since 2011. It should also be noted that the current 1.08 attempts per game with a 78 percent success rate is 0.84 successful steals per game. In the 2022 regular season, teams averaged just 0.51 interceptions per game, and in 2021, that figure was even more outrageous at 0.46 per game. If that 0.84 figure continues into the 2023 regular season, it will be the highest steal rate per team since 1987, when some, but not all, fared better. Before we get too carried away with the resurgence of running games, it’s worth noting that base steal attempts tend to be more frequent during spring training compared to the regular season. We’ll take it anyway.
It is worth reiterating that these are very early trends that may change. However, there is some “stickiness” to things like playing time and major trends, even in small samples. “So far so good” should be the initial conclusion for the proponents of these changes.