Playing Fast Ball in 2023: Breaking Down New Rules Ahead of MLB Season
Baseball has always occupied most of my brain cells from April through October. In 2022, the last four games of the World Series were played in November — including a no-hitter in Game 4 and one of the most compelling Fall Classic games you could ever hope to see in the Astros’ 3-2 victory in Game 5. And just 139 days later, on March 21, the World Baseball Classic final produced Team Japan’s 3-2 victory in a legendary matchup that culminated with Mike Trout striking out against Shohei Ohtani.
In Game 5 of the World Series, the Astros held on because of defensive plays made by first baseman Trey Mancini (smothering a lined shot off the bat of Kyle Schwarber that stranded the game-tying run at third base and preserving Houston’s one run lead) and outfielder Chas McCormick (who robbed J.T. Realmuto with a sensational leaping catch at the wall in right center).
Those two defensive plays were baseball at its best and show how exciting the game can be when the ball is put into play.
And that’s why I’m so excited about the 2023 season. Baseball has new rules that will put more action (great defensive plays, stolen bases, doubles, triples) in the games. And it will create a crisper game that takes all the dead moments out.
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Overview of new rules for 2023 MLB season
The three new rules involve:
The use of a pitch timer (pitchers have 15 seconds with bases empty, 20 with men on base…before the Timer reaches zero, the pitcher must begin the natural movement associated with the delivery of the ball to the batter)
Shift restrictions (two infielders must be positioned on each side of second base; and all four infielders must have both feet within the outer boundary of the infield), and…
Bigger bases (it’s a safety issue, but also decreases the distance between bases, hopefully igniting more stolen bases).
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Let me explain why the rules are necessary by using the Astros’ combined no-hitter in Game 4 of the World Series. In that nine-inning game, there were 18 half-innings. In 17 of those half-innings, there was no score and barely any action. Batters were .089 (5-56 AB) in the game, save for the top of the fifth, when the Astros went 5-7 AB with a sacrifice fly and scored five runs.
Four Astros pitchers needed 141 pitches to complete their combined no-hitter and the game took 3:25. It’s remarkable: the Phillies’ batters faced 141 pitches, and put exactly 13 in play (four groundouts, nine flyouts). For comparison, let’s examine the only other no-hitter in World Series history. Don Larsen needed only 97 pitches to throw his perfect game, and only went to three balls on a hitter just once. The time of that game was 2:06.
Houston starter Cristian Javier also threw exactly 97 pitches—but he only worked the first six innings. Javier faced 20 batters, and struck out nine of them, while walking two. He was masterful, but the nation watched a game of “pitch and catch.”
Impact of the pitch clock in 2023
The average time of a major league game in 2022 was 3:07, down slightly from the year before. Baseball’s new rules should bring that down about 25 minutes, which is significant. Call me crazy, but you shouldn’t be able to hard boil an egg in less time than seeing “batted ball events” in a major league game. The pitch timer will fix things and bring a better pace to the game. The pitch timer worked in the minor leagues. The pitch timer has worked in Spring Training.
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Will the new tempo speed up some of the slowest workers last year? You bet. According to StatCast Baseball Savant 2022 Leaderboards, relievers Jonathan Loaisiga, and Giovanny Gallego each had a Pitch Tempo of 25.8 seconds with the bases empty, with Kenley Jansen right behind at 25.6 seconds. That measures the median time between pitches. The MLB average with bases empty was 18.1 seconds. For added context, StatCast labeled any pitch thrown after longer than 30 seconds to be “Slow.” Jansen was “Slow” on 22.3% of his pitches last year with no one on base. Loaisiga was “Slow” on 21.2% of pitches with bases empty. And Gallego was “Slow” on 20.6%. With runners on-base, Gallegos was “Slow” on 58.2% of his pitches, Jansen 57.4%. Now, this is not measuring the same timing as the MLB pitch timer. But it’s an example of needing pitchers to pick up the pace.
Keith Hernandez in his 2018 Memoir, I’m Keith Hernandez, writes on Page 131:
“Three hours for an average game is not good for baseball…The game was meant to be played at a faster clip, and if it is allowed to slow down further, I fear baseball will become a bore: a tedious exercise of managers and general managers trying to micromanage every second of the game. Why do they do it? Because the game, like everything else, has gotten so hyper-analyzed that those in charge…mitigate risk at the expense of the game’s pace….
While baseball was never meant to be played at a frenetic pace, there is, again, a rhythm to it, and with all the stopping and starting—from the batters stepping out of the box for days on end; to pitchers, particularly relievers, who take an eternity between pitches; to 3-2 counts ad nauseam…that rhythm is under siege.”
And the pitch timer will not only cut time but increase action. Will there be some controversial violations? Yes! Will a batter be called for a third strike to end a game merely because he wasn’t in the plate quick enough? Yes! Will a pitcher be charged with a ball that walks in a run to end a game, because of a pitch timer violation? Yes! I hope so. It will create chaos and controversy and it will become part of the game.
Don’t NFL teams get charged with penalties for not being ready in time? Yes, sometimes in crucial junctures of postseason games.
The number of violations per game has gone down with each week. Baseball saw that happen last year in the minors. Baseball saw it this spring, when there were more than 2 violations per game the first week, and gradually the average has been cut in half.
And no one in MLB is trying to play “gotcha” with anyone. MLB sent what is expected to be the final series of clarifications on the new rules before the season starts. There are seven points to the memo, mostly involving the pitch timer. Basically, the clock will no longer be immediately reset when a batter is brushed back or swings so hard he loses his footing and/or helmet. When PitchCom malfunctions, teams should now be able to address that without an automatic ball being called or having to use a formal mound visit. If a pitcher dashes to cover first base and needs additional time, he’ll have it.
You know, common sense will dictate.
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These new rules (pitch timer, shift restrictions, bigger bases) represent the biggest changes to the rules since 1973 and the beginning of the designated hitter in the American League (In 1972, A.L. pitchers batted .145 with .366 OPS and hit 22 HR all year. In 1973, DHs hit 20 HR in April alone, and batted .238 with .657 OPS).
Baseball was always loathe to change rules, but in the last few years they have incorporated changes that have improved the game. In 2022, they made a rule to benefit Shohei Ohtani, tweaking the designated hitter rule. That tweak stated that if a team has its starting pitcher in its lineup as the DH and pulls him from the game, the player can remain in the batting order even after he leaves the mound.
Shohei had 666 Plate Appearances last year, thanks in part to the new rule.
It sounds simple to adjust rules that allow the sport to showcase its stars and their athleticism. I give MLB all the credit in the world for making it happen.
Because of deep analytic departments that have grown exponentially, defenses have learned how to defend where the ball is likely to be hit. Shifts have increased every year against left-handed batters. Last season, MLB teams positioned their infielders in an overshift (more than two fielders on one side of second base) on 55% of plate appearances against left-handed batters.
Left-Handed Batters OPS
Some players that will likely see their slash line improve greatly with new rules:
Trent Grisham, Padres
Joey Gallo, Twins
Anthony Rizzo, Yankees
Trent Grisham should benefit from a host of things this year. He took forever to get into the batter’s box and should be more locked in this season. The shift restrictions should help him, as he batted only .184/.284/.341 a year ago with a .231 BABIP. And less divisional games in pitcher’s parks in LA and SF should also help Grisham.
Like Grisham, Gallo can’t help but improve upon woeful numbers. He batted .160 last year. And Anthony Rizzo is coming off a terrific season, but his .216 BABIP is indicative that defenses knew how to play him. Rizzo batted .292 in 2016 and .293 in 2019. He batted .224 in 2022. Watch that batting average skyrocket.
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Some players that will likely see their stolen bases improve greatly with new rules:
Tommy Edman, Cardinals
Trea Turner, Phillies
Myles Straw, Guardians
The bigger bases mean there is slightly less distance to cover, and I fully expect that stolen base percentage in the majors (75% a year ago) will go up (especially since pitchers will be limited in pickoff throw attempts). The three players I think will benefit were pretty damn efficient with the old bases, leading the majors in w/SB (Weighted stolen bases by Fangraphs). Edman was 32-35 in steals a year ago. Turner was 27-30. And Straw was 21-22. And now, they’ll have a bit of an advantage. Trea Turner has had seasons where he stole 43 and 46 bases; and with the prolonged absence of Bryce Harper and Rhys Hoskins, the Phillies will not hit nearly as many home runs and may need Turner to steal additional bases.
One more bold prediction for 2023
Despite the fact that only one player last year stole more than 40 bases (Miami’s Jon Berti, 41), it is my feeling that we will see a new member of the 40/40 club (a player hitting 40+HR and stealing 40+ bases) this year. The exclusive club has only four members. Jose Canseco in 1988, Barry Bonds in 1996, Alex Rodriguez in 1998, and Alfonso Soriano in 2006.
This year, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Braves’ Ronald Acuña Jr. (41 HR, 37 SB in 2019) does it. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Phillies’ Trea Turner (after his performance in the World Baseball Classic, the $300 million dollars the Phillies agreed to pay him may turn out to be a bargain) gets to 40/40. And if Shohei Ohtani wanted to join the 40/40 club, I’m sure it would be attainable.
There are so many great storylines that will emerge in 2023. So many depend in part on which teams are best prepared to adjust and take advantage of the new rules.
The very core of baseball is time and rhythm. It should be a beautiful rhythm. Baseball is back, for the start of the 148th season since 1876. For the first time, baseball is on the clock.
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Playing Fast Ball in 2023: Breaking Down New Rules Ahead of MLB Season originally appeared on NBCSports.com