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Why baseball's new rules rule

Before the start of the 2023 season, Major League Baseball instituted its most far-reaching set of rules changes in decades, including a pitch clock, a ban on shifting defensive players too radically, and larger bases. The goal was to modernize and streamline the game. How has it worked out?

The pitch clock

The pitch clock concept was perhaps the most direct assault on the sport's traditionalist wing since baseball expanded the playoff field and increased the number of divisions from four to six in 1994. The idea is simple — if you've spent any time watching baseball, you know that pitchers could take ages to get "set," with no meaningful limit on how long they can putz around on the mound. To make matters worse, batters were also able to lollygag their way into the batter's box at their own pace. To fight this time bloat, baseball limited pitchers to 30 seconds between batters, 20 seconds between pitches with runners on base, and 15 seconds between pitches with no one on base, or else they get charged with an automatic ball. For their part, batters must be in the box and ready to roll with no fewer than 8 seconds on the clock or get charged with an automatic strike. The new rules also limit pickoff attempts or other "disengagements" by the pitcher to two per at-bat. 

The effect hasn't been subtle. The new rules have shaved 25 minutes off the average game time, per Baseball Reference, from three hours and six minutes in 2022 to two hours and 41 minutes so far this year. 

Bans and bases

Beginning in the 2010s, the more visionary clubs recognized that dramatically altering the positioning of fielders could help guard against hits, especially for betters who tend to pull the ball to one side. The end result was that against some left-handed batters, for example, shortstops were often stationed in short right field and third basemen behind second base. Hits and scoring declined, making baseball a less entertaining sport to watch for many. New rules require that two infielders be placed on either side of second base, but the effect has probably been a bit less dramatic than proponents expected. Hits per game have gone from an average of 8.16 to 8.43 so far this year, a definite increase though still less than in 2019. And while the league batting average has increased from .243 to .249, the number of balls in play has actually decreased slightly on average, according to Baseball Reference.

The limit on pitcher pickoff attempts and the use of larger bases, on the other hand, has led to a revival of the running game not seen since the 1990s. In 1987, the modern high point for stolen bases, there were more than 3,500 swipes, before that value declined to just 2,214 in 2021, per Baseball Almanac. The drop represented an incalculable loss of in-game excitement, as stolen base attempts are bang-bang plays with uncertain outcomes. This year, there have already been nearly 3,000 stolen bases with more than three full weeks of games to go. 

The takeaway

The game's architects have to strike a delicate balance. Baseball's aging core of devoted fans tends to appreciate the continuity between eras and often reacts with horror to dramatic rule changes. At the same time, baseball games prior to 2023 were more than an hour longer than the average soccer game, and roughly forty minutes lengthier than basketball. (The ponderous pace of American football is another story altogether). But this year's rules seem to be a win for everyone. After a few games, you hardly notice the pitch clock at all because the number of violations has declined over the course of the year, as reported by The Guardian. And no matter how much you love baseball, almost no one enjoyed 210-minute, 9-inning games. And per Forbes, the fans have responded accordingly — attendance is projected to be the highest since 2017, which is particularly encouraging after the COVID-era dip persisted into the post-pandemic era. Viewership on TV and streaming is also up.

In short, it seems like the rules changes have been a resounding success.


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