MLB’s new rules have baseball in overdrive
May 24, 2023 Updated Thu., May 25, 2023 at 10:19 p.m.
Nearly two months into baseball’s pitch-clock era, you sometimes wonder how the sport ever got so slow. Why did we endure standstill traffic on a ride that could have been much smoother?
“It was Red Sox-Yankees – a lot of people in these parts, they certainly know about that,” Scott Servais, the manager of the Seattle Mariners, said last week before a game at Fenway Park in Boston. “I mean, it was four hours every night. Just a regular 4-2 game was 3 hours and 40 minutes. It’s sped up things a lot.”
The game Servais’ team played that night would not evoke the prose of Roger Angell or John Updike. Mariners pitchers allowed 12 runs and 16 hits, while Red Sox pitchers issued eight walks. There were two hit batters, three errors, 10 pitchers and 19 runners left on base. Yet it took only 2 hours, 57 minutes – faster than the average major league game in each of the past seven seasons.
“The first five innings of a game fly by,” Servais said. “We’ve got two or three hits, they’ve got two or three hits and you look up and it’s the fifth inning and we’re not even at an hour. It’ll slow down a little bit from there, but there are some nights where I’m thinking, ‘We’re going to get this done in like an hour and 50 minutes.’”
A few days later on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” – the stage for so many of those notorious marathons between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees – the New York Mets and the Cleveland Guardians finished in a tidy 2 hours, 6 minutes, the fastest “Sunday Night Baseball” game in eight years.
For veteran players, the pitch clock – the most prominent of several rule changes in Major League Baseball this season – has required a recalibration of the sport’s familiar rhythms. But the results are impossible to ignore: Through Monday, the average time of a nine-inning game was 2 hours, 37 minutes, which would be the fastest MLB pace since 1984. Last season’s average, through the same number of days, was 3 hours, 5 minutes.
The average time of a nine-inning game had never been as high as 3 hours until 2014. After a slight dip in 2015, it had been at least 3 hours since. Think of MLB as the lenient parent who suddenly got strict. The kids were staying out too late, so now there’s a curfew: 15 seconds with the bases empty, 20 seconds with runners on base.
“If there was a way to deliver the pace without the clock, we would have done it 20 years ago,” said Morgan Sword, MLB’s executive vice president of baseball operations.
“We started Day 1 of spring training with rigid enforcement of all these new rules, and we felt that was the best way to help players through that adjustment period and to get to the other side. And as we saw in the minor leagues, once you’re on the other side, violations occur in less than half of games and are not a big part of the competition – but you feel the benefit of the clock every single pitch all night.”
The rule changes, Sword said, have worked as MLB intended. With bigger bases and a limit on pickoff attempts per plate appearance, stolen-base attempts are up to 1.8 per game, the most since 2012, and the 78.7% success rate is the highest in history. With a ban on defensive shifts that positioned more than two infielders on one side of the diamond, batting average on balls in play is up to .298, an increase of six points from last year – and fielding is back in style.
“You can’t hide the second baseman on the shift anymore,” Red Sox shortstop Kiké Hernández said. “I feel like there were a lot of really offensive second basemen that didn’t necessarily field their position that well, but they could get away with playing second base because they got hidden in the shift. Now you’ve got to be a little more athletic again.”
In some ways, the shift was like a cheat code. The data showed where a batter would most likely hit a ball, so defenders stationed themselves accordingly. Without the shift, intuitive infielders with a passion for preparation have an edge.
“I like the spacing of how the defense is now; it’s just so pure,” said Seattle’s Kolten Wong, a two-time Gold Glove winner at second base. “You’ve got to really pay attention to pitch calling, hitter tendencies, what guys are trying to do in certain situations. It makes the game more intriguing.”
Wong, a left-handed hitter, has not seen a benefit on offense; he is batting under .200. Overall, though, left-handers are hitting 37 points higher on pulled ground balls and 28 points higher on pulled line drives. Future generations of lefties may never know the angst of their predecessors.
“It was a nightmare,” said Matt Joyce, a former outfielder who hit .242 in a 14-year career through 2021. “It drove me nuts. The argument for me was that, if it affected righties the same, OK. But you were just basically killing left-handed hitters, which was obviously not fair. They’re definitely getting rewarded for good contact now, because there’s a lot more holes.”
Joyce is a television analyst for the Tampa Bay Rays, who have thrived on the bases. The Rays had 55 stolen bases through Thursday, two ahead of the Pittsburgh Pirates for most in MLB.
The question remains whether the faster pace is affecting player health.
Speaking generally about the pitch clock, Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder said the hurry-up pace clashed with the modern approach to pitching.
“It’s power-lifting every 15 seconds,” Snyder said. “It’s everything they have. Nobody’s out there holding anything back in 2023. It’s a lot more power and less art than it used to be, and now they have less time to recover in between.”
Pitchers can reset the clock by disengaging from the rubber twice per plate appearance, though only with a runner on base. They have a few other tricks to buy a few seconds here and there, but nothing to markedly change their mental or physical pacing.
“It’s important to slow the game down when you get into trouble, and you don’t really have that opportunity,” Boston reliever Richard Bleier said. “You can only throw so many balls into the dugout before they just tell you no.”
Chicago White Sox reliever Joe Kelly, a former starter, predicted in spring training that injuries to starters would “skyrocket” because their muscles need more time to recover between pitches than the clock allows. That hasn’t quite happened, but it might be a matter of perspective.
From spring training through Day 55 of the regular season (Monday), pitchers had been placed on the injured list 232 times, compared to 204 last year. Then again, spring training was shorter in 2022 because of the lockout – from Day 2 of this regular season through Day 55, pitcher IL placements are down slightly, to 109 from 111.
The true impact of the new rules will take years to assess. With power pitching harder to execute, will finesse pitching become more popular? With less time on the field, will position players feel stronger as the season wears on? With a more appealing product, will attendance – up by 6% from last year at the same point – continue to rise?
This much we know already: A whole lot of dead time is gone, and nobody wants it back. Clear the weeds from the garden, and the good stuff has more room to flourish.
“Apart from the pacing of it, the product is just cleaner,” said Howie Rose, the radio voice of the Mets. “Guys are still striking out way too much, pitchers are still walking way too many, guys are still trying to yank the ball out of the park. But because the ball is always being delivered, whether it’s in play or not, it just heightens your senses.
“And for me, that’s a real welcome thing.”
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