A pitch clock might speed up the game, but limits on defensive positioning and pickoffs are going to make MLB games different, and worse
Well, my friends, it’s come to this. I regret to inform you that as entertaining as this season has been, even with the dreadful expanded playoffs… things may get much worse.
In short, as broken by Evan Drellich and Ken Rosenthal at The Athletic, MLB is set to pitch a comprehensive package of rules changes for the 2023 season and beyond. These rule changes, in total, will lead to a very different game when implemented. I say “when” because the structure of the 11-member “competition committee” (newly-formed as part of the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement) includes six representatives from the league office, and only a majority vote is needed to enact the proposal. As such, unless some brave MLB employee wants to throw the switch and stop this trolley from careening off the tracks, we’re gonna be stuck with some awful changes.
Starting with the least-bad elements, there will be a pitch clock of 20 seconds, or 15 seconds with the bases empty. There are a host of other sub-restrictions, with the main takeaway being that a violation by the pitching team results in an automatic ball, and a violation by the hitting team results in an automatic strike.
There’s nothing inherently problematic about this proposal in and of itself, as excising dead time is at least a noble goal. What isn’t particularly noble, though, is the ability for games to get derailed because of a pitch clock violation. Having a game be known as the “Pitch Clock Game” because a key plate appearance swung on taking 21 seconds instead of 20, per an umpire’s discretion, is something I hope never happens.
I won’t go into all the details, but part of the pitch clock changes also involves “disengagements,” which refers to pitchers stepping off. It is unclear whether bona fide pickoffs count as disengagements. If they do, then pitchers only get two pickoffs, and the third is a balk unless it succeeds at throwing the runner out. If they don’t, then it’s far less consequential, but an MLB with only two pickoffs per plate appearance is basically going to be handing out free doubles to a bunch of batters. It’s also going to result in more pickoffs as nearly every runner pushes the pitcher to their limits, trying to get that sweet, free balk over to second.
Burying the lede here, though, is that the big killer for my enjoyment of baseball is the shift changes. These aren’t benign, they’re extreme, and MLB appears to have taken a very blunt instrument to the idea that anyone could try and circumvent their restrictions.
- Four players have to have their feet on the infield dirt at the time a pitch is thrown.
- Two players have to be on either side of second base.
- Teams have to specify which two fielders will play on which side of second base, and can’t alter them play-to-play or pitch-to-pitch. (No, I have no idea how this works with multiple substitutions moving guys around the infield, and I doubt MLB does either.)
- Violating these rules results in an automatic ball and a dead ball unless the batter reaches base. Sacrifice flies, bunts, and maybe some other results let the hitting team’s manager choose whether they want to accept the play (or, presumably, take a free ball).
- Umpires can penalize “attempted circumventions” of these restrictions with a free ball.
- Positioning can be challenged.
All in all, this is just a mess. I suspected that teams would try to circumvent more freeform shift restrictions, but now that umpires can just hand out free balls for getting a running start to cross the second-base bag, I’m not sure how viable that is. I also suspect that challenging fielder positioning is just going to be a huge boondoggle — can you imagine a replay review that eats a few minutes off the clock because a manager wanted to know if a fielder’s cleat was sufficiently to one side of second base? Oy. This is to say nothing of all the philosophical issues of not letting teams position players in a way they feel is most effective, we can get into that at some other point. In any case, this is just a disaster in the making, from a pure “avoiding stupid gameplay interruptions and outcomes” perspective.
Oh, and there are larger bases, too. Joy.
I won’t rant and rave too much here, but the combination of expanded playoffs and these changes is a very clear signpost from MLB to me saying: “stop watching.” Am I going to listen? Who knows. But MLB is doing a great job of driving me away from a game that, until now, rewarded being diligent and clever in addition to strong and durable.
You can see all the changes here: https://theathletic.com/3578254/2022/09/08/mlb-2023-rule-changes-pitch-clock/, or probably somewhere else once they re-paste them from Drellich and Rosenthal’s work in full.