We found out during the 2023 MLB regular season that we could watch a game lasting two and half hours again and it would not be completely rare. We found out we could survive a game played without defensive shifts. We found out we could be completely okay with scoring and base stealing on the rise.
And we found that the game was not dramatically changed in any way.
As any of us that had seen the pitch clock used in the minors already knew, fans would quickly adjust to the clock. After a few games, they would forget it was even there.
For the avalanche of criticism Rob Manfred gets as MLB commissioner – and he did not implement any of this on his own – these changes worked, and I contend they were very good for the game.
The average time of a big league game lasting nine inning was two hours and 40 minutes last season, down from 3:04 in 2022 and 3:10 in 2021. Yep, we gained a half hour. Beautiful. And needed.
This was the shortest game length since the 1985 season and first time the average fell under three hours since it was 2:56 in 2015.
We quickly adjusted to the improved pace of play and so did pitchers. There were few pitch clock violations, and the pitchers were not rushed. Even limiting pitchers to two “disengagements” or pickoffs, proved useful. We stopped an endless run of pickoff throws and base stealing was up. But not by such a margin that the game was different. In 2022 teams averaged 1.0 steals per game on 1.4 attempts. Last season they averaged 1.4 steals on 1.8 attempts. Also, the success rate of steal attempts produced a gain from 75.4 percent in 2022 to 80.2 percent which was a record high in 2023.
This all helped lead to an increase in scoring. We saw runs per game for both teams increase from 8.6 in 2022 to 9.2 last year. Again, a gain but nothing that dramatically changed anything in my humble opinion.
MLB players batting averages went up too with no shifting. From an MLB average of .244 in 2021 and .243 in 2022 to .248.
Teams had to place two infielders on the dirt on each side of second base, but they could position a third defender almost completely up the middle to produce a 2023 version of a shift. But power lefty hitters were no longer hitting grounders into what seemed like a picket fence of defenders.
Whether the rules changes were the biggest factor or just one factor of many, attendance was up too. Total attendance for the regular season was 70.7 million – the first time MLB went over 70 million since 2017. The attendance gain was 9.6 percent and 26 of 30 clubs saw attendance increases.
It’s hard to look at these numbers and conclude anything but the rules changes were good for the game and made the game better.
One of the next changes, which could come as soon as next year, but more likely in 2025, is use of the ABS system – automated balls and strikes called by technology. The ABS system was used at Triple-A ballparks in 2023 where for half the games they used the full ABS and for half they used a challenge system.
I could foresee MLB opting to start with a challenge system. Under this plan, the umpire at the plate still calls balls and strikes, but the technology can be used when a team challenges a called pitch. The pitcher and catcher can challenge a strike that was called a ball and batters can challenge too. Each teams gets a limited number of pitches that can be challenged. If you are correct, you retain the challenge. On the farm this year the challenge system worked very quickly and did not produce delays at all.
The ABS system, in some form, is coming to MLB barring a big surprise or big change of heart in the industry.
During the 2023 season the rules changes were implement smoothly and made for a better game. MLB did it right, experimenting with and perfecting the changes on the farm before they moved to MLB.