SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- We know how Major League Baseball’s new rules for 2023 look on paper. But how will they look in practice?
The arrival of the pitch timer, restrictions on extreme infield shifts and bigger bases combine for the most significant alterations to MLB rules in decades, and that’s going to take some getting used to for everybody. That’s why MLB is using this week at the start of Spring Training to demonstrate the new rules for the news media so that we can give you, the fan, a better idea of what to expect at the start of the season.
On Tuesday at Salt River Fields, the Spring Training home of the D-backs and Rockies, MLB executives discussed and demonstrated the new rules for a group of reporters and answered questions about a variety of aspects and angles that are bound to crop up when the rules are implemented.
The overarching theme is that these changes are good for the entertainment product -- creating more action in a shorter window of time.
“I think fans are going to get today's athletes, which are the best that have ever played the game, playing the game with the pace and rhythm that existed in the 1970s and 80s,” said MLB executive vice president of baseball operations Morgan Sword, “which to me is going to produce a form of this sport that no one has ever seen before. I'm really, really excited about it.”
But first, there are questions to answer and specifics to consider. So let’s go over both the basics of each new rule and, following a demonstration from MLB vice president of on-field strategy Joe Martinez, the nuance attached to them.
The basics: To create a crisper pace of play, there will be a 30-second timer between batters and then a 15-second timer between each pitch with the bases empty and a 20-second timer between each pitch with runners on base.
The pitcher must go into his motion prior to the expiration of the timer or else be charged with an automatic ball. The pitcher is allotted two “disengagements” (a step-off or a pickoff attempt) without penalty. A third disengagement will be ruled a balk, unless an out is recorded on the bases (i.e., a successful pickoff attempt).
The batter must be in the batter’s box and alert to the pitcher by the 8-second mark on the timer or else be charged with an automatic strike.
The pitch timer reduced the average game time in the Minor Leagues last year by 25 minutes, and the limit on pickoff attempts led to a 26 percent increase in stolen-base attempts. While it’s too early to say if those exact numbers will translate at the Major League level, it’s fair to expect a noticeable reduction in the length of games and increase in steal attempts.
The nuance: Because the pitch timer is, by far, the most noticeable of the new rules, it has, by far, the most nuance. So let’s break it down into sections …
1. The pitcher’s responsibility.
We know the pitcher must begin his motion before the timer expires. But the most interesting detail to emerge from Tuesday’s event was that MLB will be more strictly enforcing balks in conjunction with the arrival of the pitch timer.
The reason is that, in order to enforce the timer, the umpire on the field and the timer operator need a clear indication of when the pitch has begun.
“When the pitcher is bouncing on his foot,” Sword explained, “it’s not clear when you have begun your pitch delivery.”
In the windup, pitchers are allowed to take one step back and one step forward at the start of their delivery and no more. The clock stops when the pitcher steps back or laterally.
From the stretch, pitchers can still tap their feet prior to the delivery of the pitch, but they must come to a complete stop with their feet set at some point. The clock stops when the pitcher lifts his free leg after assuming and holding the set position.
MLB studied the deliveries of every pitcher in the league via video and reached out to those who will be affected by this more strict enforcement. Astros pitcher Luis Garcia, who has been known to take little “cha-cha” steps prior to his delivery, is one such pitcher.
“There’s a whole host of funky deliveries that are within the rules,” Sword said. “We encourage funky pitchers to be funky within the rules.”
2. The hitter’s responsibility.
What does it mean to be “alert” to the pitcher? It means having both feet in the box with your head looking up at the pitcher. The body does not yet have to be in the hitting position, but it must be able to quickly assume a hitting position.
The batter does have one timeout per plate appearance. It may be called prior to the first pitch or between pitches. The timer will stop and restart once the batter begins to return to the box or play is otherwise ready to resume.
3. The umpire’s responsibility.
Timer enforcement makes the umpire’s job more difficult than ever. But the home-plate umpire will be assisted with a Riedel belt pack (the same one introduced last year for public communications regarding instant replay reviews) that will buzz when the timer hits zero. The in-field umps will have a small, watch-like device called “ClockCom” (made by the same manufacturer as PitchCom) that will also buzz when the timer hits zero.
The home-plate umpire will also have the ability, via the belt pack, to communicate with the Field Timing Coordinator (the person running the timer). More about that process is detailed in this story.
Umpires have the discretion to start, stop or reset the timer in special circumstances. Largely, the job of calling timer violations will fall to the home-plate umpire, but any of the four are empowered to make the call.
4. What are "special circumstances"?
The obvious one is injury. But others might include a catcher making the last out on the bases as an offensive player and needing time to put on his equipment at the start of a half-inning or a PitchCom malfunction for the pitcher or catcher.
5. Positioning of the timers.
There will be a timer positioned on each side of the center-field batter’s eye so that the umpire has a clear view regardless of whether a right-handed or left-handed batter is at the plate.
Similarly, there will be two timers behind home plate, one on each side, so that the pitcher has a clear view of the timer as well. And don’t worry about being distracted as a viewer: Those timers will be out of view of the center-field broadcast cameras.
The basics: As the pitch is thrown, the defensive team must have a minimum of four players within the outer boundary of the infield, with at least two infielders completely on either side of second base, or else the penalty will be an automatic ball. The rule is aimed at showcasing the athleticism of middle infielders and restoring more traditional outcomes on balls in play.
The nuance: Again, let’s take this in chunks …
1. The rule cannot be circumvented.
When MLB discussed this rule with managers, coaches and other personnel in the course of drafting it, two possible methods of circumvention came up, and both are addressed in the written rule.
The first is the idea of a “motion” defense -- i.e., a defender sprinting across the bag or into the outfield as the pitch is released so that he can be in an extreme shift once the ball is put in play. If that sounds physically difficult, it’s because it is. And it is also illegal. Umpires are instructed to call this as a violation of the rule.
The other potential circumvention method that has been nipped in the bud is a team having its best defender swap positions with a lesser defender on the other side of the second-base bag in order to be aligned with the hitter’s pull side. There will be no switching sides in a given inning, unless there is a substitution. Positions must be designated on the lineup card.
2. "Either side of second base" does, in fact, mean "either SIDE of second base."
So there is not an imaginary dividing line running through the middle of the bag. Rather, the imaginary dividing lines run along the left and right corners of the bag.
3. The dirt will be policed.
Regarding the “outer boundary” of the infield, where the dirt meets the outfield grass, MLB will be paying attention to dirt in a way it never has before.
The outfield boundary is defined in the rule book as a 95-foot radius drawn from the center of the pitcher’s rubber, and each infielder must have their feet entirely within the boundary (meaning on the dirt).
For the first time, the dirt area of the infield had to be adjusted over the offseason in several Major League parks in order to comply with the letter of the law and ensure uniformity league-wide. The radius will be measured and monitored by LiDAR technology to ensure all parks are in compliance.
4. Violations can be declined by the offensive team.
Finally, you might be wondering what happens if a pitch and play go off even though a violation of the shift rule has been called by the umpire. The answer is that, as in football when teams can decline a penalty, the offensive team can advise the home-plate umpire to decline the penalty and accept the result of the play.
So if, say, a home run is hit on that pitch, the shift infraction is simply waved off.
5. Outfielders can still shift.
You can position an outfielder as a “fifth infielder,” on either side of second base, and you can move a corner outfielder to the other side of the outfield if you want.
The “base”ics: The bases are now 18 inches on each side instead of the traditional 15 inches on each side. This allows players more room to operate around the bases to reduce the risk of injury (there was a 13 percent decline in injuries near the bases in the Minor Leagues last year) and could also encourage runners to be more aggressive on stolen-base attempts (the success rate on steal attempts in the Minors with the bigger bases increased between 1 and 2 percent).
The nuance: The bigger bases are the most straightforward of the changes for 2023, so there’s not much to write home about here.
But when one sees the new base up close next to an old base, the additional amount of surface area is, indeed, significant to the eye. While the larger bases might appear flatter to the eye, they are actually the same height as ever. The bases are the same material and manufactured by the same provider as they have been in the past.
One other note: The bigger bases reduce the space between home and first by three inches and between first and second by 4.5 inches. But it doesn’t affect the sacred “90 feet between bases.” Why? Because it’s never been 90 feet “between” bases. The measurement from home plate is to the back corner of the corner bases, and the measurement from the corner bases is to the center of second base. That’s unchanged.