MLB’s New Rules Have Baseball in Overdrive
Nearly two months into baseball’s pitch-clock era, you sometimes wonder how the sport ever got so slow. Why did we endure standstill traffic on a ride that could have been much smoother?
“It was Red Sox/Yankees — a lot of people in these parts, they certainly know about that,” Scott Servais, the manager of the Seattle Mariners, said with a smile last week before a game at Fenway Park in Boston. “I mean, it was four hours every night. Just a regular 4-2 game was 3 hours and 40 minutes. It’s sped up things a lot.”
The game Servais’s team played that night would not evoke the prose of Angell or Updike. Mariners pitchers allowed 12 runs and 16 hits, while Red Sox pitchers issued eight walks. There were two hit batters, three errors, 10 pitchers and 19 runners left on base. Yet it took only 2 hours 57 minutes — faster than the average major league game in each of the last seven seasons.
“The first five innings of a game fly by,” Servais said. “We’ve got two or three hits, they’ve got two or three hits and you look up and it’s the fifth inning and we’re not even at an hour. It’ll slow down a little bit from there, but there are some nights where I’m thinking, ‘We’re going to get this done in like an hour and 50 minutes.’”
Indeed, a few days later on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” — the stage for so many of those notorious marathons between the Red Sox and Yankees — the Mets and the Cleveland Guardians finished in a tidy 2 hours 6 minutes, the fastest “Sunday Night Baseball” game in eight years.
For veteran players, the pitch clock — the most prominent of several rule changes in Major League Baseball this season — has required a recalibration of the sport’s familiar rhythms. But the results are impossible to ignore: Through Monday, the average time of a nine-inning game was 2 hours 37 minutes, which would be the fastest MLB pace since 1984. Last season’s average, through the same number of days, was 3 hours 5 minutes.
The average time of a nine-inning game had never been as high as three hours until 2014. After a slight dip in 2015, it had been at least three hours ever since. Think of MLB as the lenient parent who suddenly got strict. The kids were staying out too late, so now there’s a curfew: 15 seconds with the bases empty, 20 seconds with runners on base.
“If there was a way to deliver the pace without the clock, we would have done it 20 years ago,” said Morgan Sword, MLB’s executive vice president of baseball operations.
“We started Day 1 of spring training with rigid enforcement of all these new rules, and we felt that that was the best way to help players through that adjustment period and to get to the other side,” Sword continued. “And as we saw in the minor leagues, once you’re on the other side, violations occur in less than half of games and are not a big part of the competition — but you feel the benefit of the clock every single pitch all night .”
The rule changes, Sword said, have worked as MLB intended. With bigger bases and a limit on pickoff attempts per plate appearance, stolen-base attempts are up to 1.8 per game, the most since 2012, and the 78.7 percent success rate is the highest in history. With a ban on defensive shifts that positioned more than two infielders on one side of the diamond, batting average on balls in play is up to .298, an increase of six points from last year — and fielding is back in style.
“You can’t hide the second baseman on the shift anymore,” said Red Sox shortstop Kiké Hernández. “I feel like there were a lot of really offensive second basemen that didn’t necessarily field their position that well, but they could get away with playing second base because they got hidden in the shift. Now you’ve got to be a little more athletic again.”
In some ways, the shift was like a cheat code. The data showed where a batter would most likely hit a ball, so defenders stationed themselves accordingly. Without the shift, intuitive infielders with a passion for preparation have an edge.
“I like the spacing of how the defense is now; it’s just so pure,” said Seattle’s Kolten Wong, a two-time Gold Glove winner at second base. “You’ve got to really pay attention to pitch calling, hitter tendencies, what guys are trying to do in certain situations. It makes the game more intriguing.”
Wong, a left-handed hitter, hasn’t seen a benefit on offense; he is batting under .200. Overall, though, left-handers are hitting 37 points higher on pulled ground balls and 28 points higher on pulled line drives. Future generations of lefties may never know the angst of their predecessors.
“It was a nightmare,” said Matt Joyce, a former outfielder who hit .242 in a 14-year career through 2021. “It drove me nuts. The argument for me was that, if it affected rights the same, OK. But you were just basically killing left-handed hitters, which was obviously not fair. They’re definitely getting rewarded for good contact now, because there’s a lot more holes.”
Joyce is now a television analyst for the Tampa Bay Rays, who have thrived on the bases. The Rays had 53 stolen bases through Monday, tied with the Pittsburgh Pirates for the most in MLB.
Tellingly, the five teams with the lowest payrolls this season — Oakland, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Cleveland — are also the five teams with the most steals. Cheaper players tend to be younger, and younger players tend to be faster. With a better chance of success on stolen-base attempts, low-payroll teams have another weapon.
“Tarrik Brock handles our baserunning, and he started texting me as soon as we thought these rules were going to go into place,” Pirates Manager Derek Shelton said, referring to the team’s first-base coach. “It was playing to your personnel, because we have young, athletic players that have played within these rules a little bit, so they knew what was going on with them. The message from the start of spring training was: We’re going to run the bases aggressively.
The Pirates have struggled in May but were still tied with Milwaukee atop the National League Central through Monday. The Rays, meanwhile, have been the best team in the majors, though they have lost two of their starting pitchers, the left-hander Jeffrey Springs and the right-hander Drew Rasmussen, to arm injuries.
The question remains if the faster pace is affecting player health.
Speaking generally about the pitch clock—and before Rasmussen’s injury—the Rays’ pitching coach, Kyle Snyder, said the hurry-up pace clashed with the modern approach to pitching.
“It’s power-lifting every 15 seconds,” Snyder said. “It’s everything they have. Nobody’s out there holding anything back in 2023. It’s a lot more power and less art than it used to be, and now they have less time to recover in between.”
Pitchers can reset the clock by disengaging from the rubber twice per plate appearance, though only with a runner on base. They have a few other tricks to buy a few seconds here and there, but nothing to markedly change their mental or physical pacing.
“It’s important to slow the game down when you get into trouble, and you don’t really have that opportunity,” Boston reliever Richard Bleier said. “You can only throw so many balls into the dugout before they just tell you no.”
Chicago White Sox reliever Joe Kelly, a former starter, predicted in spring training that injuries to starters would “skyrocket” because their muscles need more time to recover between pitches than the clock allows. That hasn’t quite happened, but it may be a matter of perspective.
From spring training through Day 55 of the regular season (Monday), pitchers had been placed on the injured list 232 times, compared to 204 last year. Then again, spring training was shorter in 2022 because of the lockout — from Day 2 of this regular season through Day 55, pitcher IL placements are down slightly, to 109 from 111.
“The best predictor of injury is prior injury, and we have more pitchers on our rosters today that have significant injury histories than we’ve ever had in baseball history, so there’s sort of a snowball effect,” Sword said.
He added: “But also, the pitching style that has emerged in the last couple of decades that is max-effort, high-velocity, high-spin is also correlated with injury. And so pair that together, we’re definitely experiencing a bit of a long-term increase. I don’t think there’s strong evidence to support a material change this year relative to the last couple of years.”
The true impact of the new rules will take years to assess. With power pitching harder to execute, will finesse pitching become more popular? With less time on the field, will position players feel stronger as the season wears on? With a more appealing product, will attendance—up by 6 percent from last year at the same point—continue to rise?
This much we know already: A whole lot of dead time is gone, and nobody wants it back. Clear the weeds from the garden, and the good stuff has more room to flourish.
“Apart from the pacing of it, the product is just cleaner,” said Howie Rose, the radio voice of the Mets. “Guys are still striking out way too much, pitchers are still walking way too many, guys are still trying to yank the ball out of the park. But because the ball is always being delivered, whether it’s in play or not, it just heightens your senses. And for me, that’s a real welcome thing.”