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ON BASEBALL

Baseball makes inevitable rule changes in hopes of speeding up the action

Theo Epstein (left), MLB consultant, speaks during a press conference at MLB Headquarters in New York City as Major League Baseball announced a set of rule changes that will change the way the game is played.Michael M. Santiago/Getty

Baseball has long fancied itself America’s Pastime. Yet even in an era when the most dazzling array of athletes in the sport’s history takes the field, baseball increasingly has felt like America’s Past Time, divorced from the quickening pace, shortening attention spans, and infinite at-the-fingertips alternatives of the surrounding world.

The final moments of tense games are playing out in front of crowds thinned out by a steady stream of departures that begins in the middle innings. The overpowering state of pitchers — an average fastball is 94 mph? really? — combined with unhurried deliveries meant to aid the unleashing of max-effort comets has made it ever more challenging to sustain focus on the game.

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As a form of live entertainment, baseball’s hold has steadily dwindled as action has become less frequent.

“The game has evolved in a way that nobody would have chosen if we were sitting down 25 years ago to chart a path towards the best version of baseball,” said former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, an MLB consultant in its exploration of rules changes. “Nobody would have asked for fans to have to wait more than four minutes for balls to be put into play.”

And so, on Friday, the league reached a conclusion that has seemed inevitable for years: Major League Baseball is finally on the clock.

The announcement that MLB would introduce a pitch timer to games in 2023 – with pitchers limited to 15 seconds between offerings with the bases empty next year and 20 seconds with a runner on base, and requiring batters to be ready with at least eight seconds left on the clock — represents an obvious course.

Across the lower minors this year, an even more aggressive pitch clock has been employed, limiting pitchers to 14 seconds with the bases empty and 18 with a runner on base, and mandating that batters be ready 9 seconds before the clock runs out.

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The result? According to MLB, nine-inning minor league games through Aug. 31 had been trimmed by 26 minutes, from an average of 3 hours 4 minutes in 2021 to 2 hours 38 minutes in 2022.

Time of game by decade
Decade Average time of game
2020s 3:08
2010s 3:02
2000s 2:54
1990s 2:54
1980s 2:43
1970s 2:30
1960s 2:35
1950s 2:28
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

In explaining the new rule, MLB offered a split-screen video of two bases-empty, five-pitch sequences from righthander Blake Parker — one in the big leagues in 2021 without a pitch clock, and one in the minors this year with it. In the minor league sequence, Parker threw five pitches in 1 minute 19.5 seconds; without a pitch clock, he took 1 minute 55.7 seconds to throw the same number of pitches.

For spectators, the resulting flow is dramatically different. Beyond the specifics of a 14 percent reduction in the average time of game, fans and gameday employees have raved about the pitch clock — with many saying that they rarely notice it pitch to pitch, but that overall they’ve felt more engaged in games that don’t seem to crash to a halt between every pitch.

Love of the clock isn’t universal. Players are loath to alter the dynamics of the batter/pitcher confrontation, particularly at a game’s most critical moments. The four players on the joint Competition Committee all voted against the pitch clock; they were outvoted by the six league/owner representatives and one umpire on the committee. (The MLBPA and MLB agreed on the structure of the Competition Committee in the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement.)

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That’s especially true of pitchers. While minor league hurlers have adapted to make violations (which result in an automatic ball) infrequent, many have found the new rule uncomfortable if not loathsome, particularly when they throw pitches even when they haven’t felt ready to do so.

Their frustration has been amplified by the fact that in the minors this year, batters have been permitted a timeout in the box while pitchers haven’t been permitted the same luxury. (The MLB rule is attempting to address that concern by permitting pitchers to step off the rubber — whether to reset or throw to a base — twice per plate appearance; batters can call for time once.)

But fans overwhelmingly love the change. A Twitter poll on Friday asked fans who’d been to a minor league game this year for their thoughts on the clock; of the 1,210 participants, 78 percent said they liked it, 7 percent said they didn’t like it, and 15 percent said they neither liked nor disliked the clock. Meanwhile, every comment about the clock was favorable.

The pitch timer rule also caps the number of times a pitcher can step off the rubber to two — something that could encourage base stealing, given that a third step-off must either produce an out or result in a balk. In the minors this year, stolen-base attempts are at 2.83 per game — a 27 percent increase compared to 2019, with the stolen base success rate rising in that time from 68 to 77 percent.

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MLB announced two additional changes — one likely subtle, the other potentially (though not certainly) profound. The length of bases will increase to 15 inches per side to 18 inches — a move intended to decrease injuries but with the ancillary benefit of decreasing the distance between bases by 4 ½ inches, perhaps subtly encouraging more action on the bases. The player representatives harbored no objections to the rule change.

On the other hand, the players did object to a rule that will limit shifts by requiring all four infielders to have both feet on the dirt when the pitcher is on the rubber, and requiring two infielders on each side of second at the time of the pitch. The lefthanded masher who experiences outrage when ripping a liner to shallow right only to have it turn into a 4-3 can heave a sigh of relief (perhaps David Ortiz can petition retroactively for a few dozen extra hits).

Up-the-middle hits, however, likely will remain in short supply given that infielders can continue to shade almost directly up the middle so long as they remain on their designated side of the bag. Interestingly, the new rule may actually hurt those few players who have enjoyed an advantage in recent years thanks to their shift-beating all-fields approach.

But the rule, according to MLB, was driven not by concern over what is or is not a hit, but instead by a desire to let players’ athleticism shine, to have range determine whether balls in play become hits or outs rather than having a team’s analytics department playing the biggest role in the outcome.

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“This game is about the players and it is for the fans, and we hope that these rule changes underscore that,” said Epstein. “We’re confident that they [will] help move us closer to the very best version of baseball.”

And if they don’t? The Competition Committee will continue to meet, theoretically with the ability to continue to recalibrate until a better and more entertaining brand of baseball emerges.

Undoubtedly, the start of 2023 will feature widespread griping about the rules changes. Yet while the outcome and effect remains to be determined, the effort to improve the game is an undertaking whose time clearly had come.


Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.