Major League Baseball’s Recent Rule Changes Propel the Game into High Gear

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After nearly two months under baseball’s pitch-clock regime, one can’t help but wonder how the sport ever endured its prolonged sluggishness. Why did we tolerate the gridlock on a journey that could have been far smoother?

“It was Red Sox versus Yankees – many in these parts are quite familiar with that,” grinned Scott Servais, the Seattle Mariners’ manager, during a recent visit to Boston’s Fenway Park. “I mean, it used to be four hours every night. Even a routine 4-2 game would drag on for 3 hours and 40 minutes. It’s certainly sped things up.”

The game played by Servais’s team that evening might not have inspired the lyrical prose of Angell or Updike. Mariners’ pitchers conceded a dozen runs and sixteen hits, while Red Sox pitchers handed out eight walks.

There were two hit batters, three errors, ten pitchers, and 19 runners left on base. Yet the game was completed in just 2 hours and 57 minutes, quicker than the average major league game over the past seven seasons.

“The first five innings of a game just fly by,” Servais noted. “We’ve got a few hits, they’ve got a few hits, and suddenly, it’s the fifth inning, and we’re not even at the one-hour mark. It does slow down a bit from there, but there are some nights when I think, ‘We might actually wrap this up in like an hour and 50 minutes.'”

Indeed, a few days later on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” – a stage notorious for marathon Red Sox-Yankees clashes – the New York Mets and the Cleveland Guardians finished in a tidy 2 hours and 6 minutes, marking the fastest “Sunday Night Baseball” game in eight years.

For seasoned players, the pitch clock, the most prominent among several rule changes in Major League Baseball this season, demanded an adjustment to the sport’s familiar rhythms. But the results are impossible to ignore: As of Monday, the average duration of a nine-inning game stood at 2 hours and 37 minutes, potentially the quickest pace in MLB since 1984. Last season, over the same period, games averaged 3 hours and 5 minutes.

The nine-inning game duration had never previously exceeded three hours until 2014. After a slight dip in 2015, it consistently clocked in at three hours or more. Think of MLB as the lenient parent who suddenly became strict; the kids used to stay out too late, but now there’s a curfew: 15 seconds with the bases empty, 20 seconds with runners on base.

“If there was a way to achieve this pace without a clock, we would have done it 20 years ago,” asserted Morgan Sword, MLB’s executive vice president for baseball operations.

“We began enforcing all these new rules with strictness from day one of spring training because we believed that was the best approach to help players adapt and eventually reap the benefits,” Sword continued. “And as we saw in the minor leagues, once you make that transition, rule violations occur in less than half of the games and have minimal impact on competition – but you feel the benefit of the clock with every single pitch all night.”

According to Sword, the rule changes have functioned as intended by MLB. With larger bases and a limit on pickoff attempts per plate appearance, stolen base attempts have risen to 1.8 per game, the highest since 2012, with a record-breaking 78.7 percent success rate.

The ban on defensive shifts that placed more than two infielders on one side of the diamond has resulted in a .298 batting average on balls in play, a six-point increase from the previous year – and fielding has made a comeback.

“You can’t hide the second baseman in the shift anymore,” said Red Sox shortstop Kiké Hernández. “I feel like there were many offensive second basemen who weren’t necessarily strong fielders, but they could get away with playing second base because they were hidden in the shift. Now, you need to be more athletic again.”

In some ways, the shift was like a cheat code. Data showed where a batter was most likely to hit the ball, so defenders positioned themselves accordingly. Without the shift, intuitive infielders who excel at preparation have gained an advantage.

“I appreciate the current defensive alignment; it feels more genuine,” remarked Kolten Wong of the Mariners, a two-time Gold Glove winner at second base. “You have to pay close attention to pitch calling, batter tendencies, and what players are trying to do in certain situations. It makes the game more intriguing.”

While Wong, a left-handed hitter, hasn’t personally benefited on offense (batting under .200), overall, left-handers are hitting 37 points higher on pulled ground balls and 28 points higher on pulled line drives. Future generations of left-handed batters may never experience the struggles of their predecessors.

“It was a nightmare,” recalled Matt Joyce, a former outfielder with a .242 career batting average spanning 14 years through 2021. “It drove me crazy. My argument was that if it affected right-handed hitters the same way, it would be okay. But you were essentially penalizing left-handed hitters, which wasn’t fair. They are now being rewarded for making good contact because there are more gaps.”

Joyce currently serves as a television analyst for the Tampa Bay Rays, a team excelling in base-stealing. The Rays, tied with the Pittsburgh Pirates, had 53 stolen bases through Monday, the most in MLB.

Notably, the five teams with the lowest payrolls this season – Oakland, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, and Cleveland – also lead in stolen bases. Cheaper players tend to be younger, and youth often means speed. With a higher likelihood of success in stolen base attempts, low-payroll teams have gained an additional weapon.

“Tarrik Brock handles our base running, and as soon as we knew these rules were likely to be implemented, he started texting me,” said Pirates Manager Derek Shelton, referring to the team’s first-base coach.

“It was about playing to our strengths, as we have young, athletic players who have already played within these rules to some extent. Our message from the beginning of spring training was clear: we are going to run the bases aggressively.”

While the Pirates have faced challenges in May, they remained tied with the Milwaukee Brewers at the top of the National League Central through Monday. The Rays, on the other hand, have been the best-performing team in the majors, despite losing two starting pitchers, Jeffrey Springs and Drew Rasmussen, to arm injuries.

The question that lingers is whether the quicker pace is affecting player health.

Speaking generally about the pitch clock – before Rasmussen’s injury – Kyle Snyder, the Rays’ pitching coach, noted that the accelerated pace clashed with the modern approach to pitching.

“It’s like powerlifting every 15 seconds,” Snyder observed. “In 2023, nobody’s holding back. There’s more power and less finesse than in the past, and now they have less time to recover between pitches.”

Pitchers can reset the clock by disengaging from the rubber twice per plate appearance, but only when there’s a runner on base. They have a few other tricks to buy a few seconds here and there, but nothing substantial to alter their mental or physical rhythm.

When you get into trouble, it’s important to slow the game down, and you don’t really have that opportunity anymore.

Alexander Smith
Alexander Smith
Alexander Smith is a prominent sports journalist known for his in-depth coverage of sporting events in the USA. With a passion for storytelling and a deep understanding of the sports industry, Alexander's articles offer readers an exclusive information about the thrilling world of sports. His insightful analysis and compelling narratives make him a trusted source for sports enthusiasts.

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