8 changes fans need to know for the '23 season

March 28th, 2023

You’ll be familiar with most of the MLB rules this season. It will still be three strikes for an out and four balls for a walk. It’s still nine innings and nine lineup spots. The team that scores the most runs in a game will win that game 100% of the time. Guaranteed.

But within the sport’s standard structure will be a crisper, more engaging, more athletic, more entertaining experience, brought about by a series of rules changes.

While these changes pushing the game forward are new, their ultimate impact is to take us back to an earlier era during which you couldn’t do your taxes in the time between pitches, when hitters gripped it and ripped it, when infielders instinctively made dazzling defensive plays up the middle and when bold runners blazed the basepaths. Those elements have been all too rare in the modern game, so MLB listened to its fans and came up with creative ways to increase the energy level and get everybody home at an appropriate hour.

Here's a complete list of the changes that have come to MLB in 2023, starting with the three that have gotten the most attention.

1. Pitch timer

To create a quicker pace with less dead time, there is now a 30-second timer between batters and then a shorter time limit between pitches. After receiving the ball, pitchers must begin their motion within 15 seconds with the bases empty or 20 seconds with runners on base, or else be charged with an automatic ball.

Batters, meanwhile, must be in the batter’s box and alert to the pitcher by the 8-second mark on the clock, or else be charged with an automatic strike. Batters get one timeout per plate appearance.

Minor League games featuring the pitch timer were, on average, 25 minutes shorter last year, and we saw a 26-minute reduction in average game time during the Spring Training exhibition season.

1a. Pickoff/step-off limits

This is listed as 1a because it is directly connected to the pitch timer. Pitchers have the ability to reset the timer by stepping off the mound. To prevent them from abusing this workaround, pitchers are limited to two of these so-called “disengagements” per plate appearance. If a runner advances during the plate appearance, the limit is reset.

What this means is that pitchers can only attempt a pickoff move twice without penalty. They can make a third attempt but, if they don’t record an out, it is ruled a balk and the runner automatically advances.

The pickoff limits are expected to greatly elevate the base-stealing environment in MLB, which has seen a big decline in stolen-base attempts in the past 30 years. When these rules were in place in the Minors, stolen-base attempts increased by 26 percent.

2. Defensive shift restrictions

To increase the batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and allow infielders to showcase their athleticism with great defensive plays, infielders must be positioned in a more traditional alignment. The defensive team must have a minimum of four players on the infield, with at least two infielders completely on either side of second base.

In other words, shortstops will play shortstop and second basemen will play second base.

Teams still have the ability to move a corner outfielder to the other side of the field to create an alignment similar to the infield shift, but they would now be taking a bigger risk of an opposite-field hit going for extra bases.

3. Bigger bases

First, second and third have been expanded from 15 inches on each side to 18 inches on each side, while home plate remains unchanged. The primary goal here is safety, giving fielders and runners more room to operate without colliding. After all, athletes are much larger today than when the bases were originally designed. With the bigger bags, injury events near the bases declined by 13% in the Minors last year.

As a result of bigger bags, the distance between the bases from home to first and third has been reduced by 3 inches, and the distance from first to second and second to third is down 4.5 inches. The slightly decreased distance between bases also helps runners on stolen-base attempts. Combined with the pickoff limits, the environment will be much more friendly to base-stealers.

4. A more balanced schedule

No longer are teams’ schedules so severely skewed toward division opponents. For the first time in MLB history, every team will have at least one series against every other team. Each team’s number of division games has been reduced from 76 to 52, intraleague games against non-division opponents have decreased from 66 to 64 and Interleague games against teams from the other league have been increased from 20 to 46.

From a competitive standpoint, this move to a more balanced schedule fits with the expanded postseason format that was introduced in 2022. With three Wild Card spots in each league, it is more important for teams across each league to play more similar schedules. All wins and losses are counted the same, so a more balanced schedule conceivably limits the advantage a team from a weak division has over a team from a deep division in the Wild Card race.

Beyond that, this altered schedule allows fans in all markets to experience the talents of star players from across baseball. It allows all 29 fan bases to watch their clubs face Shohei Ohtani, Aaron Judge, Juan Soto, Mookie Betts and all the other big names in baseball, and it ensures they host these stars at their home parks no less than once every two years.

5. Faster replay reviews

Faster play will come with faster replay.

In conjunction with the arrival of the pitch timer, managers will have a shorter window of time to request replay reviews. They must hold their hands up immediately after a play to signal to the umpires that they are considering a challenge. This is a change from the previous rule, which allowed 10 seconds before managers had to give such a signal.

Once the manager alerts the umpire to a potential challenge, the umpire will initiate a 15-second timer. The manager must then decide whether to challenge the call on the field before that timer reaches zero. Otherwise, any challenge request would be denied. Previously, managers had 20 seconds to decide whether to challenge. Managers have been instructed that the 15-second timer will be strictly enforced.

Once a review is requested, the system operates as it has in the past. Each team will have one challenge per game and maintain that challenge each time a call gets overturned.

6. Position player pitching limits

Watching a position player pitch is cute the first dozen times or so. But last year, there were a record 132 pitching appearances by position players, easily surpassing the previous high of 90 in 2019. Teams took advantage of their position players to save their other arms.

MLB tweaked the rules related to position players pitching to make them more restrictive. Previously, a position player could appear as a pitcher only in extra innings or if his team was trailing or winning by at least six runs. Now, a position player can only enter as a pitcher if at least one of the following criteria is met:

  • Game is in extra innings
  • Team is trailing by at least eight runs at any point
  • Team is winning by at least 10 runs in the ninth inning

Don’t worry. These restrictions do not apply to those who qualify as “two-way” players. So Shohei Ohtani is not impacted.

7. PitchCom for pitchers

Last season, the PitchCom system was introduced to speed up the relaying of signs from catcher to pitcher. The catcher would input the call on a device on his wristband, and the pitcher would hear the call via a receiver in his cap.

This year, pitchers have been given the ability to call their own pitches via PitchCom, with the catcher hearing the call in his helmet. At any time, two transmitters are permitted to be in use on the field (one for the pitcher, one for the catcher), and up to five receivers in total can be worn by the defensive team.

8. Permanent automatic runner in extras

The automatic runner at second base in extra innings is not new. It has been in use ever since the pandemic-shortened season in 2020. What’s new is that we have clarity that this rule is now an MLB fixture.

And as has been the case since 2020, the rule – designed to expedite endings and prevent marathons that wreck rosters – will only apply during the regular season. Postseason extra innings will begin with the bases empty.

Since the rule was instituted in 2020, no regular-season game has gone longer than 16 innings.