Major League Baseball has gradually attempted to improve the game and enhance the fan viewing experience for a number of years. Between the revamped playoff system, the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers, reducing the number of September roster additions, banning sticky substances, and other tweaks, most of the rule changes have been received positively by fans with limited bitching and moaning from players.
2023, however, will introduce two groundbreaking changes with the potential to have a bigger impact than all other recent rules changes combined.
15/20-Second Pitch Clock
Thank God for this! Pitchers have been taking their sweet time on the mound for decades while dismissing fan pleas to speed the game up as a mere aggravation. It’s no secret that pitchers are the biggest reason why games last so long these days, and I’m thrilled that MLB is finally forcing them to adjust with the times.
Personally, I have no problem with the current pace of play. I’m on record saying that baseball’s viewership problem is far more the fault of a society with increasingly short attention spans and a need for immediate gratification than a by-product of a brilliantly nuanced game of anticipation being too boring.
But I’ve been a die-hard baseball fan for 35 years. There are less casual baseball fans now than I remember seeing at any point in my life. It’s all or nothing with Major League Baseball in 2022 … you either love it or you can’t stand it. Most of those who can’t stand baseball cite the lack of action and abundance of downtime as their biggest problems with the sport. Since we can’t change people, we need to change the game to adapt to an antsier, whinier demographic.
The new pitch clock will be set to 15-seconds with the bases empty, increasing to 20-seconds once men reach base. In addition to speeding up the pace of play, this should also assist the running game. Pitchers typically vary the timing of their delivery to prevent baserunners from getting good jumps on stolen base attempts. With pitch times being restricted, pitchers will now have a definitive constraint on how much they can vary their delivery from pitch-to-pitch. This should result in better jumps for baserunners and quite a few more runs being scored over the course of the season.
The pitch clock has trimmed minor league game times by an average of about 20 minutes since its implementation in 2019. With average MLB game times steadily increasing for decades, culminating at 3 hours and 11 minutes in 2021, a similar reduction in big league game times would surely be a breath of fresh air for fans.
Banning the Shift
Unfortunately, I feel like MLB’s significant step forward with the inception of the pitch clock is being taken in tandem with a giant step back with the abolishment of the defensive shift.
I find dead pull hitters to be kind of annoying. I’m all for catering to your natural strengths and talents, but playing sports at the highest level is all about adjustments. The easiest adjustment a MLB hitter can make is learning to bunt. It’s not that hard, and it’s the perfect way to combat the shift.
David Ortiz begrudgingly did it from time to time, and it was always a crowd pleaser to see Big Papi try to leg out a slow roller to the left side. If dangerous pull hitters could drop down a bunt attempt or two per week, they’d surely find the shifts deployed against them to be far less extreme before long.
Instead of adjusting, one-trick ponies like Joey Gallo, Anthony Rizzo, Joey Votto, and Kole Calhoun have chosen to simply complain about how the shift is cutting down on offense, which reduces fan interest. Some players have even used the Helen Lovejoy argument, claiming that infielders being positioned on the opposite side of the diamond or in the outfield is the wrong way to teach kids how to play baseball.
God forbid we teach youngsters how to think outside the box to discover innovative ways to solve a problem!
Banning the shift will yield a far greater uptick in offensive production than the pitch clock will, and clearly that is MLB’s desired result. The league batting average in 2021 was .243, the lowest it has been since 1968. Defensive shifts, harder throwing pitchers honing computer-analyzed spin rates, and jacked up hitters trying to hit everything into the seats has made baseball much more about hucking, whiffing, and trotting than painting, poking, and sprinting.
More hits beget more action, which begets higher scores. Higher scores and shorter games should lead to greater fan interest, and increased interest in the game is definitely what baseball needs in this day and age where kids prefer to see seven-foot monsters execute slam dunks and fleet-footed receivers haul in 40-yard touchdown grabs with glue smeared all over their gloves.
I understand the tendency to favor the offense when changing rules. The NHL instituted stricter clutch and grab penalties and eliminated the two-line pass violation to increase scoring at a critical juncture for the sport. NFL defensive players practically can’t touch a quarterback anywhere but their belly button. NBA defenders can’t breathe on a ballhandler without being called for a foul, and they’re subject to suspension if they even think about breathing on a guy with a sneaker deal.
I have nothing against the practice of promoting offense and player safety. However, I have a big philosophical problem with the concept of legislating where to position defensive players in any sport.
The NBA’s illegal zone defense is the only similarly prohibitive rule that we’ve seen in the four major American sports, and that was repealed 20 years ago (to be replaced with the defensive three seconds rule that simply mirrored the preexisting rule for offensive players).
NHL goalies cannot go past center ice, but why the hell would they even want to? Defensemen may travel wherever they’d like, up to and including the crease.
NFL defenses are allowed to position themselves anywhere they wish, as long as they are behind the line of scrimmage.
Defense is inherently reactionary, which immediately puts defensive players at a disadvantage. The offense puts the ball/puck in play, and the defense must react based on the usually pre-determined moves made by the offense. It’s hard enough to play defense when given free reign over how to position your players. Throw in positional restrictions, and it makes it even harder to stop your opponent.
The new shift limitations not only demand that infielders stay on their traditional side of the diamond, but it also requires them to keep both feet on the infield dirt until the ball is put in play.
Middle infielders were playing on the outfield grass with dangerous sluggers at the plate decades before Joe Maddon and the Rays ruined the shift for everyone. In trying to attract more pink hats and action junkies to the ballpark, I think MLB has gone a step too far by banning defensive shifts. Any institution has to beware of trying to be too many things to too many people. When you overextend like this, you run the risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
Look at instant replay, for example. The calls on the field are made correctly more often now than ever before thanks to replay review. Yet certain shock jock sports radio hosts cry about the one extra minute per game that replay challenges have added for the sake of getting the call on the field correct. You’re never going to please everyone.
Starting next season, infield roles will be far less dynamic and managers will have limited ability to schematically tilt the game in their favor. While the pitch clock will undoubtedly be a win for all fans, it’s discouraging to see it combined with a rule that encourages the continued dumbing down of offensive strategy by hamstringing the versatility of the defense. Like it or not, professional sports are all about catering to the masses.
Me? I’m just a baseball fanatic.
Why should MLB care what I think?