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If anyone expected a great outcry from players after Major League Baseball on Friday announced big rule changes for 2023 — a pitch clock, enlarged bases and severe restrictions on defensive shifts — well, just take the temperature of P.J. Higgins’ reaction as an example.
The Chicago Cubs infielder-catcher greeted the news with a literal shrug while passing through the dugout before Friday’s game against the San Francisco Giants at Wrigley Field.
“We used it in Triple-A, you kind of get used to it,” said Higgins, who played 22 games in Iowa earlier this year when the new rules were being tested in the minors. “You’ve got to do what’s best for the game. … You’ve just got to go with the flow. Whatever happens, happens.”
Well, it happened.
Baseball’s joint competition committee approved three rule changes by a majority vote, and the changes will go into effect in spring training. The committee was formed as a part of the new collective bargaining agreement finalized in March.
MLB’s goals are to speed up pace of play and open up offense.
Under the new rules:
Pitchers will be on a timer: They’ll have 15 seconds between pitches when the bases are empty or 20 seconds if at least one runner is on base. A pitcher may disengage the rubber only twice during a plate appearance unless the runner advances. A third attempt results in a balk unless the runner is put out.
Bases will be bigger: MLB cited player health as its main reason for widening the bag from 15-square inches to 18 — base-related injuries decreased by 13.5% in the minors, according to MLB data — but shortening distance between bases by 4½ inches surely will entice runners to be more daring.
Defensive shifts will be limited: Infielders have to flank each side of second base, and all four infielders must have both feet in the dirt when the pitcher is on the rubber. Infielders can’t switch sides unless there’s a substitution. According to an MLB study, a fourth fielder was six times more likely to creep into the outfield since the start of the 2018 season.
The decisions didn’t come without pushback.
The four players on the committee voted against the pitch clock and shift ban but unanimously approved increasing base size.
“Major League Baseball was unwilling to meaningfully address the areas of concern,” the MLB Players Association said in a statement.
Cubs union representative Ian Happ said players felt their voices weren’t being heard with their input on the nuances of the proposed rule changes and on other issues that weren’t addressed.
“It was our job to be able to voice those opinions of players,” he said. “We didn’t feel like the world got to a place where we could represent all the players.”
Happ said some objections and concerns seemed to be ignored, including which rules might go too far, what players can and can’t “stomach” about disengagements and the batter’s ability to call time.
For example, under the new rule “the batter has one chance to call time,” Happ said. “We play in Wrigley Field in April. It’s brutal, it’s cold, it’s windy. ... If I can’t see and I call time once, am I not able to call time later in the at-bat when the wind’s blowing 20 miles an hour in my face? Am I not able to call time when I hit a foul ball and my hands feel like they’re going to fall off?
“There’s real things in there. The umpire has the discretion to give you time if something like that happens. But leaving it up to umpire discretion is a tough thing when you’re ... getting called out on strikes because you’re not looking at the pitcher at a certain time.”
Happ emphasized that those issues were “real concerns for players.”
Said Happ: “The disengagements, the ability to hold runners and just the sheer time on the clock, guys having to change their routines or adapt the way they go about their business — and they’ve been playing this game for a long time at this level.
“It was just the some of the little things that would’ve helped players get behind it a little bit more.”
Infielder David Bote admitted he wasn’t well-versed on some of his peers’ objections, but he felt the changes were “fine.”
“What I’m most hoping for is everybody (keeping) an open mind to (the changes) working or not working and being able to adjust,” he said. “We want people to enjoy the game. … If the rule changes help that, great. If they don’t help it, and we need to adjust, let’s adjust it.”
Bote referenced the NBA’s ill-fated 2006 experiment with replacing the traditional leather ball with a synthetic one, Spalding’s “Cross Traxxion” microfiber composite. The infamous new ball was nixed after three months.
“They brought in a new basketball and it stunk ... and they got rid of it and brought the old one back,” Bote said. “And we don’t even talk about it again. Nobody remembers, right? Nothing’s ever set in stone.”
Nico Hoerner, who hit a two-run homer Friday to secure a 4-2 win against the Giants, said the changes targeted areas of the game he already wanted to see fixes.
“I think (having) the ball in play more often is good for the game,” he said. “The pace of play will help. There’s some things that might help stolen bases. I love seeing great athletes in this game.”
The shortstop added that “the shift obviously will change my role a little bit, just staying on one side of the field. But it’s kind of back to baseball as we knew it growing up in a lot of ways.”
Hoerner doesn’t foresee it presenting any defensive problems.
“I enjoyed playing in the outfield shift, it’s a fun and unique place, but I think it’ll be just fine,” he said. “I think there’ll be more opportunities for double plays, and that’s one of the most fun plays in the game.
“Sometimes with shifts you don’t really get a chance to do it because you’re out of position, so maybe that’s a benefit of it. I’m on board.”
Cubs manager David Ross thinks the moves will not only help pick up the pace — even purists of the game worry younger generations won’t have the patience for a three-plus-hour game — but also showcase players’ athleticism.
“I think we all can say the pace sometimes is a little bit slower than we would like,” Ross said before the game. “I like a fast game, I like the action, I like defenses in play, I like these guys showing off their athleticism.
“I would like the balls put in play. I was part of the media a little bit, did some games where a ball wasn’t in play the first 30 minutes of a game. You run out of stuff to talk about.”
Echoing Higgins, Ross said players and coaches will adjust and new strategies may emerge.
“I mean, the shift was weird when we first saw it, wasn’t it?” said Ross, a former catcher. “Now you’re used to it. There’s an adjustment period for all of it, but players do a really nice job of adjusting to the new stuff and there may be some (complaining) and moaning for a minute. It’s what we do.
“I was the same as a player. I complained about it and then I went out and tried to compete underneath the rules. We’ll have to find strategies within that.”
Meanwhile, the Cubs broke a two-game skid with Friday’s victory in the series opener.
Yan Gomes hit a two-run home run in the second inning, and Hoerner added a two-run shot in the sixth.
Drew Smyly allowed one hit and struck out eight in seven innings in his duel with former White Sox starter Carlos Rodón.
“That was a really big performance,” Ross said of Smyly. “He was pretty consistent pounding the zone. Breaking ball looked really good, kept hitters off balance.”
Ross said Hoerner’s single in the second, followed by a stolen base, set the infielder up for “distracting (Rodón) a little bit at second base and being able to get Yan a really good at-bat there with the slider coming in to him.
“But the homer (in the sixth) was nice to get that leeway, and Drew took it from there.”
Evan Longoria hit a two-run ground-rule double in the eighth for the Giants. Joc Pederson played his 1,000th career game.
Cubs second baseman Nick Madrigal left the game in the fifth with groin tightness.
“We’ll get some images tomorrow to rule anything out,” Ross said.