Major League Baseball is looking a little different this season. The various rule changes were approved by the league last September, and fans have begun to be introduced to them throughout Spring Training which began on February 25. The influence for these rules is the Minor Leagues, which had these new rules implemented in past seasons, and has generally seen positive results. These rules include banning of the shift, bigger bases, a pitch clock, changes to the number of pickoff attempts allowed, and changes to the requirements for position players to be able to pitch. We’ll go over each of these rules in depth and their expected impact on baseball.
First, we’ll start with the shift. For context, the shift is a defensive alignment of the infielders that varies from their original positions in an attempt to take away base hits. These could include three infielders on the right side of second base or placing an infielder in the outfield. As part of the new rules, players are no longer allowed to move their infielders from their normal positions. When the pitch is thrown, all four infielders have to be at their normal positions, with two infielders on each side of second base. They also need to have at least both feet placed at or near the edge of the infield grass, and they will only be able to move from their spots after the pitch has been thrown. Why are they taking away the shift? The goal is to help increase the league batting average, as it was the lowest last season since the 1968 season at .243. The shift mostly impacted left hand hitters, and judging by the eight point increase in lefty’s batting average in the minors, there’s cause to expect it to have the same impact in the majors as well.
The next new rule is the increase in size of the bases, from 15 inches to 18 inches. The goal of increasing the size of the bases is to hopefully avoid injuries that could have easily been prevented, and hopefully lead to more stolen bases. When the base sizes were increased in the minors, it was observed that the number of injuries did decrease, but there hasn’t been any noticeable changes in terms of the number of steals. It will be interesting to see whether this change will have any impact in the majors, even if it at least just decreases the number of injuries.
The next new rule is the implementation of the pitch clock for both pitchers and hitters. The rule states that when the bases are empty, pitchers have 15 seconds to deliver a pitch, and when there is someone on base, they will have 20 seconds to deliver a pitch. The pitcher isn’t required to have released the pitch, but they at least need to have started their motion by the end of the time on the clock. If a pitcher hasn’t begun their pitching motion before the time expires, the batter will be awarded a ball. For hitters, they have eight seconds to get in the batter’s box, or else they will be given a strike. Players and fans will be able to find the pitch clocks both behind home plate, on each side of the umpire, and two additional ones on each side of the batter’s eye in the outfield. Additionally, all the umpires will have technology that will tell them when time has expired, and that will also allow them to talk to the other umpires rather than having to come together to convene. The goal with implementing the pitch clock is to decrease overall game times, as the average time has continued to rise over 3 hours since 2014. Since these pitch clocks have been used in the minor leagues last year, the average time has declined by 20 minutes. Therefore, it’s likely to see a similar decrease in overall game time in the majors this year as well as a result of the pitch clock.
Another interesting new rule is the changes to pickoff attempts. Pick offs are when the pitcher throws over to the first basemen when there is a runner on, in an attempt to try and get an out. The new rule for pickoff attempts is that pick offs count as a disengagement, meaning any time the pitcher steps off the pitching rubber, they only get two free disengagements per plate appearance. If the pitcher steps off more than three times and throws over for a third time and doesn’t get an out or a runner doesn’t advance a base, they will be charged with a balk. This new rule is intended to help increase the number of stolen bases, in addition to the larger bases. This rule was introduced in the minors starting in 2021, drastically more players have attempted stolen bases, so it is expected to have the same impact on the majors this season.
The final new rule is the changes to requirements for allowing position players pitching. In past seasons, players who aren’t normally pitchers might be brought in to pitch late in games when their team was either being blown out or blowing out the opposing team in an effort to save some of their pitchers. However, there will be new limits for allowing them to pitch this season. Teams who are winning by 10 or more runs are permitted to use position players, and teams who are trailing by 8 or more runs are allowed to use position players. They are looking to limit this because the league has observed that even more position players have been pitching over the last few seasons, and it is thus having an impact on the production of players, both defensively and offensively. In contrast to how all the previous rules have been first implemented in the minors before they have been implemented in the majors, it will be interesting to see the impact this new rule will have on the majors.