New MLB rules just might be the ticket

MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications Sports

Major League Baseball has made the most significant rules changes in the game since the American League told its pitchers to lose the bats and introduced the designated hitter in 1973 (New York Yankees’ Ron Blomberg, by the way, was the first DH in AL history – he walked).

The game was coming off a nasty players’ strike the previous spring that cut the 1972 season short by a couple of weeks and then experienced a year of low-scoring games and poor attendance; so the AL, led by the flamboyant owner of the Oakland Athletics, Charles O. Finley, decided to do something about it by v adopting the DH, which had been used up to that time in some of the minor leagues.

Finally, after 49 years, MLB made the National League get with the program in 2022 and now both leagues at last play by the same rules.

The 2023 MLB season will see the advent of the pitch timer, restrictions on extreme infield shifts and bigger bases, which is going to take some time to get used to for players, managers, umpires and fans, which is why spring training games in the coming weeks should be a little more interesting to watch than in past years.

The reason MLB has implemented these changes is to spruce up the entertainment of the game for the more casual fan – namely the younger demographic, since those of us who have loved baseball for years and years are growing a little short on more years to continue to pay for MLB products such as tickets, television, radio, streaming and merchandise.

The aim is to create more action in a shorter period of time because, apparently, MLB’s data finds that younger people have short attention spans. And cell phones.

To create a faster 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 via pickoff.

The batter must be in the batter’s box and ready for the pitch 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. Thus, we can look for some reduction of time in the Major League games this year and likely more attempted steals.

As for the shift restrictions, as the pitch is thrown, the defensive team must have a minimum of four players within the dirt of the infield, with at least two infielders completely on either side of second base or be penalized with an automatic ball.

MLB says the rule is aimed at showcasing the athleticism of middle infielders and restoring more traditional outcomes on balls in play, which is total malarkey. They just want more hits, which I have no problem with, but it just seems wrong to me that strategy in the form of defensive alignment that has always been within the rules is being taken away from the manager, with vanilla, stationery positioning now being state-mandated by The Man(fred).

Teams will be able to position an outfielder as a “fifth infielder” on either side of second base, and a corner outfielder can be moved to the other side of the outfield if a team so desires.

As for the bigger bases, they are now 18 inches on each side instead of the traditional 15 inches, which MLB believes will reduce the risk of injury, saying there was a 13 percent decline in injuries near the bases in the minors last season.

MLB says the bigger bases could also encourage runners to be more aggressive on stolen-base attempts, as its data says the success rate on steal attempts in the minors with the bigger bases increased between 1 and 2 percent. Wow, right?

The bigger bases, you see, reduce the distance 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,” 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 remains unchanged, but one would think there could also be fewer double plays since runners do not have to touch the back corners of the corner bases or the center of second to be safe. Now the bases are just closer than they were for the runners, regardless of the 90 feet then and now.

All of this very well could give MLB crisper (shorter) games with more action. My feeling is once everybody adapts, nobody will even notice after a couple of weeks, so it might actually work.

We shall see.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT