Jake Ruderman ’26
While no doubt a time of excitement for hardcore baseball fans, Spring Training is usually not all that crazy; fans of each team get a chance to see their youngest prospects and offseason additions playing games in their team’s uniforms for the first time, but the games aren’t good for anything other than getting reps in after a few months away. But this year, the vibes around Spring Training are significantly different as each player and team undergoes the challenging process of adapting to the MLB’s new set of rules.
Over the last few years, the MLB has been working to find solutions to its biggest problem: young people don’t want to watch baseball games for four straight hours. In a pattern stemming from the late 90s, baseball games have inexplicably been getting longer and longer despite maintaining the same number of outs in a game. Batters have become accustomed to stepping out of the box and taking multiple practice swings after each pitch, pitchers have learned to try and throw the batter off with their own unique rhythms, managers have used mound visits and pitching changes to completely disrupt an opposing team’s momentum, and the list goes on and on. All of these tactics have been upheld by older fans as staples of the game; they claim these mental games are just as important as the on-field product. These same fans often overlap with the group that prided baseball as being the only major sport without a clock. There’s never been a set time to any baseball game, it varies based on each team’s strategy and efficiency, and that’s part of the fun – you never know if you’re going to be at the ballpark for a brief 2 hours or a 4 and a half hour 18-inning slog. But over the last ten years, baseball games have become excessively long, to the point where baseball is no longer anywhere near the conversation for the most popular sport in the US, and barely in the running for second place.
Over the last few seasons, the MLB has been able to implement different rules in place across the Minor Leagues in attempts to speed games up, with varying success. And after what they deemed to be enough of a trial period, these rules were implemented on the MLB level for the first time this offseason; this year’s Spring Training is the world’s first look at them. Let’s take a look at the four major rule changes and how they could potentially affect the game this upcoming season.
The first and most important rule change is the addition of a pitch clock. The pitch clock is set in place to put a short timer on the amount of time between pitches. No longer do the pitcher and hitter have endless reign over the pace of play, but it is now entirely up to the pitch clock how fast the game moves. The pitcher has 20 seconds to pitch the ball once he catches it from the catcher (15 seconds when the bases are empty), and the batter must be ready in the box with 8 seconds left on the clock. All this does is limit the amount of downtime between pitches and helps keep the game moving. Batters still have time to step out and take a swing, if they’re quick about it, and pitchers have enough time to communicate with their catcher about their upcoming pitch. But, this clock eliminates the minutes-long dead time between pitches, and does the same between every new at-bat and pitching change. The results so far have been dramatic, with games running at record breaking speeds to start Spring Training. The average MLB game in 2022 took 3 hours and 3 minutes; the average 2023 Spring Training game is currently taking 2 hours and 37 minutes, a significant decrease in the amount of time elapsed, without a decrease in the amount of playing time. It’s a win-win for fans and players, as everyone’s still getting the same amount of baseball, just without all the dead time and waiting around in the middle. It is a big change though for older fans of the game, like my grandfather, who’ve been watching baseball since Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers played at Ebbets Field. For him, these changes may seem disingenuous to the game he grew up with, and will take some serious getting used to. Some older fans are approaching the new rule changes with an open mind, while others are horrified at the MLB’s betrayal. Regardless, these rules are here to stay, even at the cost of losing some of the game’s most dedicated fans.
The second rule change is the introduction of a limit on pitcher disengagements. In the past, the pitcher has been allowed an infinite number of disengagements, or times where he stepped off the mound to either take a minute, or to attempt a pick-off. Now, every pitcher is limited to two disengagements per plate appearance, with a harsh penalty of a balk incurred if a third is taken without getting an out. This rule falls under the same category of trying to shorten the dead time in games, as pitchers previously could throw over to a base as many times as they wanted, slowing the game down considerably, especially in the biggest moments. Now, pitchers will have to be extra selective of their use of pick-off moves. Again, all this should do is speed the game up slightly by decreasing the amount of dead time; no game time is being lost.
The third rule change is a minor one, with each of the bases being increased in size by a little bit. First, second, and third base are now 3 square inches bigger, which provides runners extra space to avoid collisions on the base paths, while also slightly decreasing the distance between bases. The MLB knows that along with a faster pace of play, fans like more offense, and stealing is exciting and leads to more offense. A shorter distance, even one as miniscule as 4.5 inches shorter, could lead to more courageous base runners and more exciting innings (especially when paired with the limited pick-off rule).
The fourth and final rule is a major one, with big limits coming to the defensive shift. In the past, managers were allowed to place their fielders basically wherever they wanted. For ‘extreme pull’ hitters, or hitters who almost always hit the ball to the same side of the field, extra fielders were often put in place to ensure the defense was prepared for the most likely outcome. The most common use of this shift was when an extreme lefty pull hitter, like Joey Gallo, was at the plate, the third baseman would be brought all the way over to play shallow right field, helping to eliminate the chance that the ball was hit right between the first and second baseman. Shifts gave defenses a major advantage and limited hitters’ success rates, leading to less offense and less exciting gameplay. Like I mentioned earlier, the MLB knows that fans prefer more offense, and took it upon themselves, after years of contentious debate, to ban the shift entirely. As the rule now stands, all infielders must have both feet in the dirt when the ball is put in play, with two fielders on each side of second base. This eliminates the shift and all its capabilities, leaving only the outfielders flexible (although some teams have already experimented with bringing their left fielder over to play that same shallow right field position – the ultimate high-risk, high-reward move).
A few weeks ago I had the privilege of actually getting to see these changes take effect live down in Port St. Lucie, Florida, where the New York Mets hold their Spring Training every year. The transition wasn’t perfect by any means, and there were multiple times where umpires called automatic balls or strikes on players because of pitch clock infractions. But overall, things went pretty smooth, everyone seemed mostly adjusted by the third or fourth game, and the total game time was down considerably. I got to see the Mets play the Cardinals, with a total of 19 runs scored, and the game took less than 3 hours. Just two days later, the Braves beat the Mets 6-2 in only 2 hours and 28 minutes. The game moves at such a better, more palatable speed now, and leaves even the biggest baseball fans (like myself) feeling thrilled about the changes and their impact on the game. For once, I actually feel like MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred got it right – these rules are going to have a tremendously positive impact on the game, and will hopefully help baseball return to some of its former glory.
Featured image courtesy of Jake Ruderman ‘26
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