New season, new rules for MLB

The Orioles take the field today in Sarasota, Fla., for the first official workout of the new season. Yes, baseball is back. The first spring training game is set for a week from Saturday at Ed Smith Stadium against the Minnesota Twins.

With the new year comes new rules in Major League Baseball. We will see a pitch clock, restrictions on infield shifts and larger bases.

The pitch clock has at least one intended goal: reducing time of games. The average MLB game lasted three hours and seven minutes last season, and officials think there is a chance we see that time trimmed as much as 25 minutes per contest.

Requiring that two infielders be positioned on either side of second base should allow for more action in the game. More balls should get through to the outfield, leading to more hits, but infielders also will have more ground to cover, putting a premium again on range and possibly bringing more great defense back to the game. Think more diving plays and off-balance throws.

Last year teams shifted a combined 60,765 times on the infield, with more shifts coming versus lefty batters on the right side of the infield. Now there can only be two infielders on each side of second base, and they must be on the infield dirt. The MLB batting average for 2022 of .243 should go up a bit. That was the lowest in the game since 1968. On the other hand, minor league teams last year saw just a two-point gain in batting average – from .247 to .249 - with the shift-limiting rules in place.

I have never felt completely comfortable with legislating defense and telling defenders where they can and cannot play. But the game needs more offense. Big league batting averages were in the .240s in four of the last five years. As recently as 2007, the MLB batting average for the year was .268.

Last year the average team runs per game figure was 4.28. In the 2007 season, that number was 4.80.

The Orioles, I was somewhat surprised to find, shifted less than did most teams in 2022. The Los Angeles Dodgers ranked first, shifting on 52.2 percent of plate appearances, with Houston next at 50.4. The Birds ranked 28th at 23.6. They were 24th in shifts versus lefty batters and 28th against right-handed hitters.

I like bringing more defense and action into the game. The increase in base size, from 15 to 18 square inches, is said to be mostly for safety reasons. But with the distance from first to second base lessened by 4.5 inches, we could see more steals and steal attempts.

Pitchers now can use just two “disengagements” per plate appearance. That means two pickoff attempts and/or stepping off the pitching rubber. On the third, if they don’t get a baserunner out, a balk is called and the runner advances a base. So this should keep runners from trying to turn a 10-foot lead into one of 15 feet or something like that after two disengagements.

As always, some teams may use their smarts to try to get around the rules. MLB officials contend they will be watching for such loopholes that could develop and that they could close during spring training games.

Some predict times of chaos in spring games as fans, media and, most importantly, players and coaches get used to and learn the new rules. The umpires now have more on their plates too.

The pitch timer could impact pitchers and hitters. Pitchers will have 15 seconds to pitch with no one on base and 20 seconds with a runner on. The clock starts when the pitcher catches the throw back from the catcher, and it stops when the pitcher begins his motion, and not when he actually releases the ball.

Batters must be in the batter’s box and “alert to the pitcher” with :08 remaining on the clock. That means looking at the mound and ready to hit, not just kicking dirt around in the box or adjusting a batting glove. A pitch-clock violation means a ball awarded to the batter. A batter violation gets the pitcher a strike.

We can guess that the first controversy will come when it’s late in a game and a key strike or ball is called in a close contest. Think of the outrage, for instance, if a hitter like Aaron Judge is up with a 2-2 count, but comes into the box late, prompting the umpire to call strike three without a pitch being thrown. Get ready for the first time this happens, because it probably will.

But more action, shorter game times, a better pace of play and more hits could be a good thing for baseball. I'm keeping an open mind as we all watch and learn about the new rules.

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