MLB to Ban Extreme Shift, Implement Pitch Clock Among Major Rules Changes for Next Year

MLB’s competition committee voted Friday to enact several rules changes for 2023 and beyond that could dramatically impact the game. Those changes include a pitch clock, a ban on extreme shifts, larger bases, and limits on pickoff moves. ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported that the vote was not unanimous, with player reps on the committee voting against implementing the shift limitations and pitch clock.

I’m surprised they went as far as they did with the shift rules, which will mandate that two infielders be on either side of second base with both feet on the dirt. This eliminates the four-outfielder situation that sees a shortstop in shallow right field, but it also means you can’t overload one side of the infield. The goal, of course, is to boost offense at a time when pitchers are more dominant than ever.

This is easily my favorite of the changes because I’ve been waiting years to see it. The idea that hitters should simply “hit it where they ain’t” is silly and antiquated, especially when you consider the disadvantage offensive players have in today’s game. It’s a cute notion to think a hitter can just inside-out a pitch and go oppo when the left side is open, but good luck turning around a 102 mph Jhoan Duran fastball on the hands.

Sometimes, even getting a pitch on the outside isn’t enough.

Remember, this isn’t like back in the day when a team just shifted because a pull hitter was up. These teams have exact data on each hitter’s spray chart and the pitcher is working into that same strategy. Now the field is leveled to an extent. Anyone up in arms about this is simply averse to change, because no one has ever tuned in to watch a shift in action and I guarantee nobody will notice next year when a shift isn’t deployed.

The pitch clock is a little different because it’s more in your face, though it too will quickly vanish from fans’ conscious minds after a short time. Under the new rule, pitchers have 15 seconds to deliver a pitch with empty bases and 20 seconds with runners on. The catcher has to be ready at 10 seconds and there’s an alert at 8 seconds, then the pitcher has to begin his motion before time expires.

Minor league games have seen a decrease in length, coming in just over 2 hours and 30 minutes, since the clock has been strictly enforced. This is not purely about pace of play, though the two ideas are often conflated. Pace is how fast the game feels, the clock is more about how long the game lasts. This could improve pace as well since pitchers need to work relatively quickly, and that’s really what the league is going for.

As noted above, the players didn’t agree with these changes and explained their reasoning following the vote.

“Player leaders from across the league were engaged in on-field rules negotiations through the Competition Committee, and they provided specific and actionable feedback on the changes proposed by the Commissioner’s Office,” read a statement from the MLBPA. “Major League Baseball was unwilling to meaningfully address the areas of concern that Players raised, and, as a result, Players on the Competition Committee voted unanimously against the implementation of the rules covering defensive shifts and use of pitch timer.”

Pickoffs and step-offs are being limited because they are a means by which to reset the pitch clock, so pitchers will only get two in each plate appearance. That number resets if a runner advances and a pitcher can make a third attempt as long as he’s successful. If not, it’s considered a balk.

Bases are being increased from 15 to 18 square inches in an attempt to reduce collisions and give runners just a skosh more ability to reach the bag ahead of a tag. Combined with the aforementioned rules, this could bring about a base-stealing renaissance.

“That was the consensus one,” Ian Happ said about the change in the bases. “Shifts, it was pretty close, but the players just felt like there should be a little more leeway with letting that guy go back a couple feet if he felt like the runner was really slow…We wanted a little more ability to have a slow change instead of to exactly what it is.

“And then the pitch clock — players had some suggestions about what all of the changes are going to mean and how much more information is at the big league level than the minor league level.”

My hope is that they get a lot of the kinks worked out through spring training so that the enforcement of the new rules can be kept to a minimum once the season starts. While there will certainly be an adjustment period, I have to imagine it’ll be solely on the players’ end. Which is to say fans probably won’t know otherwise if they weren’t already aware of the new rules.

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