Major League Baseball's 2023 regular season gets underway Thursday. That means it's time for players, coaches, and fans across the league to get accustomed to the new rules that have been introduced in 2023. How different is the MLB product going to look this year? Morgan Sword, the EVP of Baseball Operations, told ESPN that the new regulations represented "probably the biggest change that's been made in baseball in most of our lifetimes."
It would be easy to accuse Sword of overstating matters, but he has a point: the league has introduced a pitch clock; restricted defensive positioning; and installed larger bases as means of improving pace of play and, in theory, adding more action to the game by re-incentivizing contact and speed. (MLB will also enforce its own balk rules more religiously.)
With so much change in the air, we figured this would be a good time to provide a handy primer of sorts, breaking down the new rules, as well as how they've worked and been received to date and what other tweaks may be coming.
The new rules and how they work
As noted in the introduction, there are three main changes you'll notice this season: the pitch timer, defensive positioning restrictions, and larger bases.
New on-field rules are coming in 2023, and we have answers for your questions: https://t.co/Zk1KFZMumG pic.twitter.com/hFyrkagA34— MLB (@MLB) February 7, 2023
The pitch timer will be the most omnipresent of the new features. Essentially, pitchers will have to begin their deliveries within 15 seconds with the bases empty, and within 20 seconds with at least one runner on board. Time violations will result in an automatic ball. Furthermore, pitchers are allowed to "disengage" just twice during any given plate appearances -- that includes stepping off the rubber, or even attempting to pick off a baserunner.
Hitters have timer-related rules they need to heed, too. Namely, they have to be in the box and "alert" to the pitcher with at least eight seconds remaining on the clock. They're now allowed just one timeout per plate appearance. If batters violate either aspect, they'll be charged with an automatic strike.
The new defensive positioning rules will do away with overshifts. Teams must have four fielders within the infield boundary whenever the pitcher is on the rubber, with two fielders stationed on either side of the second-base bag at the time of the pitch. Teams are still allowed to bring an outfielder in, either onto the infield or into the shallow outfield. They are not, however, allowed to employ a four-outfielder alignment. Positioning violations will result in the opposing team's choice of an automatic ball or the result of the play.
As for the bases, they'll be measured at 18 square inches instead of 15 square inches. There are two possible benefits to the chunkier bags: one is enhanced player safety, since there's more room available for fielders and baserunners to avoid a potential collision. Another, perhaps less likely benefit, is providing teams with a greater incentive to attempt a stolen base. After all, the larger bases reduce the distance between stations, upping the chances of success.
How are baseball folks taking to all of this change? Glad you asked.
Did they work in spring training?
Predictably, camp saw its share of rule violations and notable quotables. Some players were in favor of this or that tweak, and others were decidedly not.
Houston Astros closer Ryan Pressly, for instance, is no fan of the pitch clock in part because it goes against what players were taught coming up through their development. He did concede, though, that it will be on the pitchers to make the needed tweaks in order to comply with the rulebook.
"I think every pitcher is taught to be on your own tempo, be controlled, breathe and slow the game down," Pressly told the Houston Chronicle. "Now the pitch clock is going to affect that a little bit, but we're all big leaguers. We can make an adjustment."
The timer has had the desired effect of improving the speed of the game. According to our Mike Axisa's research, spring training games averaged 3:00 (three hours) in 2021 and 3:01 in 2022. Through mid-March, they averaged 2:36 (two hours and 36 minutes) this spring.
Whereas the timer might work against pitchers' ingrained beliefs and developed habits, the overshift's extinction could benefit hitters -- particularly those who defer to their own instincts and believe that hitting the ball hard up the middle is a good, if not great piece of business.
"I think a lot of us are really looking forward to that," Chicago Cubs first baseman Eric Hosmer told MLB.com. "It just kind of seems like there's going to be more hits out there for guys. There's no worse feeling than hitting the ball hard up the middle and seeing the shortstop standing right there. So maybe this could be better for the offensive player, especially the left-handed hitter."
Again, per Axisa, the defensive positioning restrictions may indeed result in more hits. Spring training batting average on balls in play had been .314 or .315 in each of the last three years; this exhibition season, it was up to .323. Regular season BABIP is consistently lower, so don't expect that number to stick once the real games begin. Still, it shouldn't come as a surprise if MLB hitters are rewarded more often than they were in the past.
We would be remiss if we didn't take this opportunity to point out how Red Sox manager Alex Cora compared the larger bases to "pizza boxes." On a more serious, informative note, Cora downplayed the chances of the new bases rekindling everyone's desire to run wild whenever they had a player on board.
"Talking to the minor-league coaches and everybody that used the rules last year -- it's not that all of the sudden we're going to steal 100 bags with a guy," Cora said. "The value of the out is still in play, and you get 27. So you got to be smart, you got to be efficient."
Cora appears to have been overly conservative in his assessment. Teams were not only averaging more than 1.15 stolen base attempts per game (after checking in at 0.77 last spring), they were succeeding 81 percent of the time (as opposed to 73 percent last year). It's to be seen if those numbers will transfer to the regular season, of course.
Our own Matt Snyder talked to dozens of players in Arizona this spring and all seemed to echo that idea: It's the year of the stolen base.
Of course, this is baseball, and that means teams are going to try to find ways to work around the new rules. Still, it appears that the league will be monitoring clubs closely to make sure they don't get too creative in an effort to circumvent or outright exploit the new additions to the rulebook.
"From what I've understood, you cannot push the envelope," Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash told the Tampa Bay Times. "If MLB defines it, or the umpire says you're exploiting the rule, they're gonna say no."
More rule changes could be coming
MLB might say no to exploiting these new rules, but the league (and the MLBPA) may eventually say yes to introducing even more wrinkles and deviations to the sport.
Most notably, MLB will continue to experiment with the automated ball-strike system (aka robot umpires) at the Triple-A level. All Triple-A games played Monday through Thursday this year will have their zones dictated by technology. Games played Friday through Sunday, conversely, will employ the automated ball-strike system on a challenge basis.
MLB has, at various levels and in various leagues, also tinkered with the "pie wedge" defensive positioning restriction that makes the area behind second base off limits; the "double-hook" system that stipulates teams lose their DH if their starting pitcher fails to last five innings; and the "dropped-pitch" rule that empowers batters to reach base on wild pitches and passed balls. (Successful batters are credited with a hit.)
Will any of those rules or tweaks make their way to the majors? Maybe someday. For now, MLB has enough new additions to keep everyone on their toes -- and, hopefully, on the right side of the pitch timer and the infield boundaries.