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Pitch clock, defensive shift ban, larger bases coming to MLB in 2023

Players votes against pitch timer and shift ban

Syracuse Mets v Lehigh Valley IronPigs Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Major League Baseball’s competition committee voted Friday to adopt three new rules that will be in place for the 2023 season — A pitch timer, banning defensive shifts, and larger bases.

As part of the new collective bargaining agreement, MLB’s competition committee was reconstituted to include representatives from the league office, active players, and an umpire. A majority is needed to implement rules, and the players voted against banning the shift and a pitch clock.

“Player leaders from across the league were engaged in on-field rules negotiations through the Competition Committee, and they provided specific and actionable feedback on the changes proposed by the Commissioner’s Office,” the MLBPA said in a statement. “Major League Baseball was unwilling to meaningfully address the areas of concern that Players raised, and as a result, Players on the Competition Committee voted unanimously against the implementation of the rules covering defensive shifts and the use of a pitch timer.”

Pitch timer

The pitch clock has a few notable aspects. Pitchers must begin their motion within 15 seconds of the previous pitch when nobody is on base, and will have 20 seconds between pitches if anyone is on base.

As a way to prevent a workaround of simply throwing to first base to reset the clock, there is now a limit of two pitcher disengagements — even stepping off the rubber — per plate appearances. Each subsequent disengagement results in a balk, with a caveat. Pitchers are still allowed to disengage a third time during a plate appearance, and if their pickoff attempt is successful the runner is out. But if the move is unsuccessful, a balk will be called.

Should a runner advance to another pace, the disengagement counter resets for that plate appearance.

As you might expect, this will lead to more stolen base attempts. MLB, using data from the minor leagues, where this was tested this season, says stolen base attempts increased from 2.23 per game at a 68-percent rate in 2019 to 2.83 attempts at a 77-percent success rate this season.

Hitters are also subject to the pitch clock. They must be “in the batters box and alert to the pitcher” with eight seconds remaining. Hitters get one timeout per plate appearance.

MLB says in the minors, the average nine-inning game decreased from three hours, four minutes in 2021 without the pitch clock, to two hours, 38 minutes this year with it.

Bye bye shift

Beginning in 2023, teams will no longer be able to load up infielders on one side of the infield, nor will they be able to use four outfielders.

The two rules in place to prevent this are that two infielders must be positioned on each side of second base at the time the pitch is released, and all four infielders must have both feet within the outer boundary of the infield (e.g. on the dirt) when the pitcher is on the rubber.

This was tested in Double-A in 2021 and 2022, and at both Class-A levels this season. J.J. Cooper at Baseball America dug into the data in the minors and found, “But so far there has been little evidence that it leads to higher batting averages on balls in play (BABIP) in the minors.”

This will bring a fundamental change to how the Dodgers play defense. They shift at over half of all plate appearances — 51.7 percent — while on defense, second in the majors this season. It’s helped them turn batted balls into outs, and helped fuel a pitching staff that over the last four seasons have allowed the lowest on-base base percentage in major league history.

Data is king for the Dodgers, who will, like every other team, have to adapt. As Mookie Betts said during last Sunday’s ESPN broadcast regarding the defensive positioning card every Dodger has in their back pocket, “It’s hard to argue with computers. For the last few years I tried it, and they won.”

Farewell, the Wally Wall. We hardly knew ye.

Bigger bases

The bases at first, second, and third base are increasing from 15” inches square to 18” inches square. The driver for this was player safety, and was agreed to by all parties. The competition committee vote on this was unanimous, says Jeff Passan at ESPN.

In announcing these rules changes, Major League Baseball also announced a multi-year agreement with PitchCom, which teams have been using on a voluntary basis this season to communicate between pitchers, catchers, and other teammates in lieu of hand signs for pitches.