MLB rule changes, explained: Pitch clock, shift ban and more coming to baseball in 2023

Edward Sutelan

Edward Sutelan

www.sportingnews.com

Major League Baseball is no stranger to change. In recent years, extra-innings rules have been adjusted. Enforcement of foreign substances have drastically increased. Pitching change rules have been instituted.

But starting in 2023, there are going to be some major changes that come up in the sport.

On Friday, MLB’s competition committee voted to approve several rule changes that will significantly alter how the game is played. Pitchers are going to be timed, infields will no longer be able to shift and the bases are going to be larger, according to MLB.

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“These steps are designed to improve pace of play, increase action, and reduce injuries, all of which are goals that have overwhelming support among our fans,” commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement.

Throughout the extensive testing of recent years, Minor League personnel and a wide range of fans — from the most loyal to casual observers — have recognized the collective impact of these changes in making the game even better and more enjoyable. We appreciate the participation of the representatives of the Major League Players and Umpires in this process.

While the rules were adopted, that doesn’t mean everyone was happy about it. Members of the MLB Players Association unanimously voted against the rule changes. However, since they have four seats with MLB having six and umpires having one, their unanimous dissent did not impact the result.

These changes are going to produce a game that looks significantly different in 2023. The Sporting News is here to help sort out what to expect from each of these changes, per information from MLB.com.

MLB rule changes, explained

Ban on shifts

In terms of the visual of the sport, this will be the most striking. Fans have grown accustomed to seeing three infielders to the left of the second base bag when left-handed batters like Joey Gallo, Corey Seager and Kyle Schwarber step up to the plate. That will no longer be permitted.

Under the new rules, infields will be required to have two infielders on either side of second base, and they will not be allowed to switch sides during the game. Those infielders also must have both feet completely within the dirt of the infield. In other words, no more standing in shallow right field to keep the ball in front of the defender.

If an infield violates this rule during an at-bat, the batter will be awarded a ball to the count, unless the batter reaches base in some way during the play. Should the batter put the ball in play for a sacrifice fly or bunt, the manager of the hitting team can determine whether they would like the batter to return to the box with a ball added to the count or accept the sacrifice.

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Shift rule enforcement can be challenged by managers.

Over the past several years, the deployment of the shift has drastically gone up. Back in 2015, teams used the shift only 9.6 percent of the time. That number has been well over 30 percent since 2020, and has been used in 34.6 percent of plate appearances in 2022, per Baseball Savant. In years where shift usage is higher, batting average on balls in play (BABIP) has tended to be lower.

Pitch clock

MLB is always looking to find ways to improve pace of play, and the pitch clock is certainly aimed toward changing exactly that.

Pitchers will now have 20 seconds to pitch with runners on base and only 15 with the bases empty, with the timer starting as soon as the pitcher has the ball in hand. Catchers have to be behind the plate ready for a pitch with at least nine seconds left on the timer.

The clock will have 30 seconds during batting changes and two minutes and 15 seconds when an inning break or pitching change is made. Violations of the clock will result in an automatic ball if the violation is on the pitcher.

But that isn’t all that comes with this rule change. Pickoff attempts are going to be closely monitored moving forward. No longer will pitchers be able to throw over to first on five straight attempts. Now, pitchers can step off twice to attempt a pickoff move, which would then reset the clock to 20 seconds. On a third attempt, however, an out has to be recorded in some fashion, or the pitcher will be called for a balk. The only exception to this will be if the runner still advances on the third pickoff try. This resets to two pickoff attempts if the runner advances during a plate appearance.

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That rule won’t just apply to pickoff attempts, either. Pitchers stepping off the rubber to re-adjust or take a breather will also be limited to just twice per plate appearance. Pitchers asking for a new baseball should do so before the clock reaches the nine-second mark, or they will be charged for disengaging from the mound.

MLB had already instituted a rule that limited teams to just one mound visit per pitcher per inning unless the second is to remove a pitcher from the game. Now, those visits will be timed for 30 seconds, starting from when a coach, catcher or either position player leaves their spot to reach the pitcher. Umpires can provide extensions on the team if the pitcher is dealing with an injury, and if the trainer comes out, there is an unlimited timer. The clock can reset to 20 seconds if, for example, a catcher goes out to visit with the pitcher, and then a coach decides to head out after the clock had already begun to run down. Additional mound visits will now be permitted in the ninth inning.

This isn’t all about the pitcher, however. Batters have to be standing in the box and ready for a pitch with at least eight seconds left on the clock, and they can only ask for time once during a plate appearance. Batters who aren’t ready for a pitch within eight seconds or who ask for time to step out a second time will receive automatic strikes. Batter walk-up music also will only be able to last 10 seconds, at the most.

Pace of play has become more of a concern for the sport in recent years, as the average length of a game has now exceeded three hours. Even as recently as the mid-2000s, games averaged only around two hours and 40 minutes.

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Larger bases

Perhaps a more minor change, but bases will now be 18 square inches rather than 15 square inches as they have been in recent years.

Why bigger bases? The goal is to both promote player safety and help create more offense. With the bigger base, runners and fielders have more room to share the base without as much risk of players stepping on one another or colliding while trying to make a play or reach base safely.

In addition, the larger bases should, in theory, encourage more base stealing in the majors. While there was not much of a change at Triple-A in 2021, when the bases were installed, the larger base gives the baserunner technically a slightly shorter path to the base and gives them more space to reach the base when sliding.

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