Spring storylines: MLB's dramatic rule changes

We’ve reached the final countdown to spring training, so we’re counting down the biggest storylines facing the Nationals this spring in West Palm Beach. We begin today with a storyline that will impact every major league club this year: The implementation of several dramatic rule changes …

As long as baseball has existed, what has distinguished it from every other prominent team sport? No clock.

As long as anyone can remember, what has remained constant in this sport? The size of the bases.

As long as teams have been trying to record outs in the field, where have the seven players behind the pitcher positioned themselves? Anywhere they want, so long as they set up in fair territory.

Until now.

The 2023 major league season will include some of the most dramatic changes to some of the most hardened rules baseball has existed under for more than a century. There’s now going to be a pitch clock. The bases are going to be 18-inch squares instead of 15-inch squares. And infielders will no longer be allowed to shift to the other side of the diamond or into shallow left or right field.

After several years of discussion and testing at the minor league level, Major League Baseball announced the implementation of these changes for the 2023 season. And, as was to be expected, the reaction has been passionate.

Some have been clamoring for these changes, believing they will speed up the game, create more action and reduce dead time. Others have been dreading this, believing it’s an overreaction to the current state of the game and flies in the face of everything baseball has preached since it was created.

Like it or not, though, it’s here. When spring training games begin in two weeks, these rules will be enforced. And there will most definitely be hiccups.

The pitch clock promises to be the most difficult adjustment for players, especially for veterans who didn’t get a chance to get used to it in the minor leagues the last several seasons.

How it works: The moment a pitcher receives the ball back from his catcher, the clock will begin counting down. If there’s nobody on base, the pitcher has 15 seconds to begin his delivery. If there are runners on base, he has 20 seconds. Batters also are subject to the timer; they must be in the box and ready to go with eight seconds remaining.

Pitchers who start their deliveries too late will have a ball called on them. Hitters who aren’t in the box in time will have a strike called on them. There will be arguments, no doubt, especially during the first week or two of games.

MLB insists the pitch clock will dramatically shorten the length of games, saying an average of 25 minutes was shaved off all minor league games in 2022 that utilized the clock, from 3 hours, 3 minutes to 2 hours, 38 minutes.

Another rule change that goes along with this – a limit of two pickoff throws per plate appearance – also figures to help pick up the pace of play.

The resizing of bases from 15 inches to 18 inches, meanwhile, is expected to encourage more stolen base attempts and perhaps turn a few more groundouts to the hole into infield singles.

And the elimination of the shift, a reaction to the proliferation of three infielders standing on one side of the diamond in recent years, promises to turn more hard-hit outs into singles and doubles, raising league-wide batting averages that plummeted to .243 last season. That was the lowest mark the majors had seen since 1968, the so-called “Year of the Pitcher” that prompted another dramatic rule change for the 1969 season: The lowering of the pitcher’s mound.

“You know what? I played in the era where there was no shifting, and I liked it,” said manager Davey Martinez, who batted .276 during a career that ran from 1986-2001. “Hopefully, our hitters will understand just to put the ball in play a little bit more, and we’ll start moving the ball a little bit better.”

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