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The Starting Nine Discusses the Rule Changes in Major League Baseball

We only got an infield to weigh in on this one, but feel free to add your comments

MLB: Houston Astros at Pittsburgh Pirates Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

Did you know that the distance between home plate and the pitcher’s rubber used to be 45 feet. Then 55 feet. Baseball moved it back again in 1893 to 60’6” after Cy Young had won 36 games with an ERA of 1.93 the previous year.

And after 1968, when the AL batting champion only hit .301, and the ERA champion came in with a (still record) 1.12, baseball decided to lower the mound.

The point is rules change. The rules are made for the game, not the game for the rules.

So this year, baseball implemented perhaps the most radical rule changes since the days of Cy Young. For the first time, like every other major sport, baseball plays by a clock. And like basketball and football, there are new rules about the positioning of players. If you don’t already know, the new rules are as follows:

  • The Shift: There must be two players on each side of second base and infielders must play on the dirt.
  • Pitch Clock: Pitchers have 15 seconds to pitch with no runners on and 20 seconds with runners on base. Hitters must be ready with eight seconds left on the clock
  • Pickoffs: The pitcher is now limited to two pickoffs (or two disengagements).
  • Larger Bases: The bases have been increased in size from 15 to 18 inches

In general, these new rules are intended to speed up the pace of play and add offensive excitement to the game for a younger generation of fans who reputedly don’t have the attention span for the pace of baseball as it has been played before now.

These changes are controversial. Perhaps no game is more bound to and dependent upon tradition than baseball. Some love these changes. Some hate them.

Here’s what the Starting Nine think about the rule changes. Add your opinions below.

Bilbos

I’m 66. I remember watching Mays and Mantle on TV. Koufax and Marichial, with his high kick battling for the NL championship. Koufax, Gibson, Kaline and Yaz in the World Series. My hero growing up was Frank Howard. I couldn’t wait to watch the Saturday game on NBC with Curt Gowdy and Pee Wee Reese. I’d watch it from beginning to end without fail from the age of six.

I love the changes.

There’s a reason why the fans boo when the visiting pitcher throws a half-hearted pick-off.

Nobody wants to watch the batter grab his crotch or walk around the batter’s box between each pitch.

Base hits and baserunners are more fun than outs and empty bases. And even though stolen bases have become a lost art, they are still one of the most exciting plays in baseball.

The new rules were not intended mainly to shorten the game time but increase the pace of play. I really can’t understand why seeing the same amount of action in a shorter time span is objectionable. Or why rockets off the bats of players like Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez have to end in outs because the spacing that batters have always needed to get hits is taken away.

I want faster action, more hits, and more baserunning. And when baseball became America’s pastime in the days of Ty Cobb, that’s how the game was played. Fast-paced, lots of hits, (.400 hitters were fairly routine), and lots of action on the bases.

I propose one more change. Pitching science has advanced faster than hitting science. 102 MPH fastballs and 95 MPH sliders are too fast for the current distance between the mound and home plate. There are way too many strikeouts. When Babe Ruth always led the league in home runs he also usually led the league in Ks. But he never struck out more than 90 times. The current 25% strikeout rate is way too high for the health of baseball. When that sort of thing happened in the late 1800’s baseball was flexible enough to change.

Strikeouts come too cheap now and are the thing, more than anything else, that makes baseball boring for the younger generation. The 60’6” distance is not something God gave Moses on Mt Sinai. Move the rubber back until a balance is restored between hitter and pitcher, as they did back in the day of Cy Young.

Kevin

I feel like the rules changes are a mixed bag. Sure, these are some novel ways to speed up the game and boost batting averages by percentage points, but I’m only sold on half of these “corrective” measures.

The pitch clock is overwhelmingly a good thing. I had some thoughts when it first came down, but I’m a long-time convert due to following the minor leagues so closely every year. The single-A games I catch in Fayetteville nearly always finish before I’m ready to go, if you know what I mean. Wanna buy a beer? Even with no line at the concessionaire, it’s pretty likely that a half-inning could begin and end before you get back to your seat.

I’m not entirely sure what impact the larger bases have on the overall game if not to give baserunners an extra two percent chance to successfully steal. The bases are three inches bigger now. If my basic math and a little trigonometry are correct, the bases are around 4.5 inches closer together. That’s because even with the increase, First and third base are both extended towards second (because one edge has to be on the foul line) while second base is extended outward from the center 1.5 inches each way. 4-and-a-half inches may not sound like much, but it makes a measurable (if negligible) difference.

The shift ban is terrible and stupid. Let the managers manage. How much are batting averages really going to be impacted here? No doubt Ryan Howard’s career could have been extended a few seasons if this had happened in his heyday, but good hitters will find a way to hit. This measure rewards hitters that cannot adapt when more adaptable players need to become the norm. Over enough time, enough of them would. Now, the continuing evolution of the modern hitter will stop.

Restricting the pitcher’s pickoff moves is mean. Why not just let batters take second after drawing a walk? Because if they wanna steal second, they’re gonna steal second. That’s all I have to say about that.

If MLB wanted to increase the contact rate, maybe a slight modification to the pitcher’s mound could have been considered, and who knows — they may have at that. They could either lower the mound or maybe move the rubber back 12-to-18 inches. That would reduce strikeouts and increase batting averages, which is what I thought they were going for here. The shift ban is reinventing the wheel, but the wheel was just fine the way it was.

Cody

Oh, the rule changes. Let’s dive straight in.

First, the shift ban. I had mixed feelings about the infield shift, as we knew it, essentially going away. The Astros, for example, were one of the teams to fully embrace it, represented by their league-leading 82.1% shift rate against left-handed hitters. Overall, only the Dodgers (52.2%) shifted more than Houston (50.4%) in 2022. This approach was a key reason why Houston’s defense was considered one of the best in the game.

More importantly, the rule change has penalized teams for finding ways to generate outs. Of all the recent rule changes — “zombie” runner not included — this one feels like the biggest stretch by Major League Baseball. The shift ban doesn’t change the core issue, which is pitchers are piling up the strikeouts more than ever before with hitters still selling out for fly balls. Batting averages may tick up a little bit, but the overall gain will likely be relatively insignificant. Until Major League Baseball is willing to address the real issue, which is how to adjust for pitchers throwing harder with more movement, then the shift ban is more about appealing to a certain subset of fans and former players than actually solving much of anything.

As for the pitch clock, I was honestly unsure how to feel about it until I saw it in action. While I was cognizant of its existence in the minors, I hadn’t watched enough of the games to obtain a clearer expectation. With Spring Training and through the first eight regular season games, I found myself pleased with how much quicker the games are progressing. For the Astros' first eight games in 2022, the average game time was 3:15; the average game time this season in their first eights game is down 24 minutes, good for 2:51.

For pickoffs and larger bases, I am largely indifferent. While a meaningful increase in stolen bases, however slight, in the long term is certainly possible, I don’t think it’ll hold the same impact in the manner MLB believes it will. But even a slight increase in stolen base activity would at least encourage more action on the basepaths, which isn’t a bad thing.

L4blitzer

A new season and a whole bunch of new rules for the game. Perhaps the notion of resistance to the new rules is not surprising, given that baseball, among the “Big 4”, prides itself the most on maintaining tradition. If it was good enough for the era of Ruth, it is good enough for the modern era. Some aspects of baseball are and should remain timeless (27 outs, 9 players vs 9 players, 3 outs a side, etc), but nothing can stay the same, nor should it. Even baseball has to evolve. Thus, the modern rules.

I think the biggest winner is the pitch clock. Sure, there was grumbling, and we have seen a few players caught in old habits. However, streamlining a game, especially to eliminate the dead time, will be great. Players adapted fairly quickly in spring training, and with some minor slip-ups, I don’t think it will be all that jarring. I will be curious to see how strictly that gets enforced in the post-season. Will it be a strictly enforced against a star pitcher in a tough series or deciding game, like the NBA shot clock or NFL play clock, or will it be a little more subjective, like the serve clock in tennis? Watch a standard Rafael Nadal service game and tell me he shouldn’t be tagged for at least a violation a game.

As for the shift ban, I am a little less enthused about it. Perhaps it will allow more balls in play, but the shift is not that new a concept. There’s been plenty of time for players to adapt and defeat it. If players tried the shift back in the good ol’ days, instead of bemoaning the loss of hits by certain players, the emphasis would be on learning how to hit away from the shift, perfecting opposite-field hitting, or even learning to bunt opposite a shift. There is a bit of sour grapes on that rule. Perhaps some Astros bias here, as they benefited from it, but that seems a bit of over-legislation from the MLB offices.

The larger bases and impacting base-stealing…eh, I feel like that will be a wash. Teams were starting to steal a bit more in the last couple of seasons, anyway. The pick-off limitations may be more significant than the base sizes here. The 2021 post-season saw some of the most base-stealing in baseball history. Analytically, the three true outcomes still dominate. Still, with more athletic players in the game, the steal is becoming a more appealing action, especially to counter strong pitching and moving runners into scoring position. If it makes the game more exciting, that’s fine with me, but I don’t see that rule as a significant make-or-break for MLB.

Overall, I don’t fault MLB for making the rule changes. Some things needed to change. I think if MLB is smart (this is not always a constant), they will monitor the impacts, and if any significant issues, they will adapt in a reasonable timeframe. This no different from any other sport or organization. Adapt, learn, modify as necessary.

Clack

I have to admit that my initial reaction to all the changes was “Do we really need this?” But I’m trying to avoid being the old “Get off my lawn” guy. So, I try to step back and re-evaluate my opinions based on my experience so far.

I was definitely skeptical of the pitch clock when this began. But I must admit the outcome is better than expected, and the compliance is relatively smooth. Reducing the length of games is a good thing. Some of the players want to add a few seconds to the on-base and bases empty time. And I get the feeling that the 15/20 second time is kind of pushing it to the limit. I wouldn’t object to maybe adding 3 seconds to both base states. But overall, this rule seems to be successful. Most of my concerns have been with the impact on television broadcasts—-for example, whether the strict timer will reduce the replays of action on the field during broadcasts. I still haven’t seen enough to know the answer. But I suspect the playoff broadcasts will put the rule to the test.

I am not a fan of the shift prohibition. To me, it seems like punishing teams that do the best job of run prevention. Moreover, contrary to the supposed “excitement” the rule allows, I do not view the slow rolling ball through the middle of the field as an exciting play. The rule will increase some players’ batting average and make it harder for pitchers to get players out. What it will do is place a premium on striking out batters. That is the one way to avoid the squiggly little hits through the infield. It will be ironic (in terms of the rule’s intent) if the shift rule makes strikeout pitchers more valuable and forces pitchers to concentrate even more on striking out batters. And if you’re a ground ball pitcher with this rule, maybe you need to strike out a few more batters.

I’m not opposed to encouraging base stealing. Increasing the size of the base bags is a modest but reasonable step. Limiting the number of pick off throws always strikes me as a clunky way to encourage base stealing. It may end up with unintended consequences when the pitcher has thrown over to first base twice. But I don’t really have any alternative rule changes that would encourage base stealing. Moreover, within a few months, I think that pitchers and catchers will have figured out more effective ways of suppressing stolen bases.

Theo

I’m going to add yet another voice to the side of “The Rule Changes Were Generally Good”, although my minor contentions are maybe slightly different than everyone else’s.

First, the pitch clock: this one is an absolute win in my eyes, and I had kind of been hoping that the League do something like this for a while. The time shaved off the game has been great and kept games feeling brisk, nothing feels missing since it’s mostly dead time that’s being lost, and the players seem to have adjusted perfectly fine. And looking forward, I imagine it will only feel better as we get further into the season, and it keeps the sloggiest of midseason games from slowing down to unbearable levels. The biggest downside (if it even counts) is that MLB didn’t try this sooner since they’ve technically had rules like this on the books for a few years now, but the actual enforcement is the largest part of any new rule I suppose.

I’m curious about how much of an effect the larger bases have actually had. Base stealing definitely seems to be up, but I imagine the pitch clock and limit on pickoffs and disengagements are larger factors. I don’t know that I yearn for the days of rampant base theft the way that some fans do, but I’m not opposed to it, either. I will say though, I am glad that when the league decided to encourage teams to use these strategies, they did so by openly and deliberately tweaking the incentives and rules in place like this. It beats the heck out of some of their more direct and clumsy efforts, such as encouraging offense by secretly adjusting the baseball composition and not telling anyone, or trying to end games earlier by just plopping a runner down on second in extra innings.

The ban on the shift… this is definitely the one that I’m least sold on. It bugs me a little bit, but I don’t find myself as irritated by it as I am by, say, the extra innings ghost runner (even three years later). It definitely feels very heavy-handed in a way that the other changes don’t, though. And on a dumb stats-nerd level, I kind of wish it had at least been implemented in a different year from the pitch clock; I’ve always kind of wondered if forcing pitchers to work quicker would have increased offense just by cutting down the time the pitcher and defense has to work with, and adding both rules at once makes it difficult to isolate which one is having the greater impact. Going back to my first paragraph, maybe if they had been enforcing the pitch clock sooner, they wouldn’t have needed to change so much at once, and we could be trying this after a few years of pitch clock results? Or failing that, maybe they could have just started with one of either “two infielders per side” or “infielders only on the dirt” and go from there? If we have to take the new rules as a package, I think the net result is good enough that I’d take it all. But if I got to take editing scissors to the rule changes beforehand, this is definitely where I would start.