MLB rule changes for 2023: The shift, pitch clock, pickoffs, bigger bases, etc.
The fabric of baseball will fundamentally alter in 2023, and while the most noticeable will be the clock, there are other new things that you should be aware of.
There is an old adage that men get married thinking that women won’t change, and they will. While women get married thinking that men will change, and they won’t.
I know that might be a steep leap to baseball, but just stick with me for a second. One of the most comforting things about baseball is its constancy. That is what made, and still makes, Field of Dreams such a resonant film. Baseball is constant.
But Rob Manfred has taken baseball by the throat and shaken the game so violently that it is almost unrecognizable to the game that so many of us played all our lives. He has been almost universally hated for it, but the changes keep washing over our beloved game.
Conceived of as a way to make casual fans, or even non-fans, happier with watching baseball, and ultimately spending their money on MLB tickets and merchandise, these rules are fundamentally altering the game into something else entirely.
The most visible is the institution of the pitch clock, the first time in history that time will matter in a baseball game. Sacrilege.
But it doesn’t end there. The bases are also going to be bigger, the infield will require two players on each side of second base and all four with their feet on the dirt when the ball is pitched, and the pitcher will be limited to only two pickoff attempts.
Let’s look at them all one by one.
Banning the infield shift
What is new?
At the time a pitch is thrown, all four infielders are required to have their feet on the infield dirt (or demarcated infield grass if there is no dirt) and position two players on each side of second base. Players may move as soon as the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand, so could run toward a shift position.
If the batter reaches base and all runners advance on a ball hit with the infield in an illegal position, the game simply proceeds. If, however, the batter or any baserunner is put out on the play, the team may accept the penalty which would award the batter a ball to his count, or decline the penalty and allow the play to stand.
Allowing the infielders to move after the pitch is delivered is a paper tiger, giving the appearance of offering the possibility of setting your infield without actually doing anything. It is a lawyers trick, a favorite of politicians, and completely unworkable in reality. Anyone with even a modicum of baseball sense can see this.
What is new?
Pitchers will be allowed 15 seconds to throw a pitch with the bases empty and 20 seconds with a runner on base. Batters must be in the batter’s box and ready with eight seconds on the pitch clock.
If a pitcher has not started “the motion to deliver a pitch” before the expiration of the clock, he will be charged with a ball. If a batter is not deemed to be in the box and ready, he will be charged with a strike.
Much will depend on the umpire’s interpretation of “pitcher’s motion” and in the box “and ready”. There is no question that there has been much abuse in both college and minor league baseball, by umpires who have called a ball mid-windup or given strike three because the batter was wiggling his bat as he waited for the pitcher. Maybe the umpire was hungry or simply wanted to get the game over with so they could go home. Who knows? All that can be said with any certainty is that this rule will certainly be abused by an MLB umpiring corps who like to assert their authority over a game.
Pickoff attempt limit
What is new?
Pitchers will be allowed to disengage with the rubber twice per plate appearance. This number resets if a base runner advances within the same plate appearance.
A third step-off will result in a balk, unless at least one offensive player advances a base or an out is made on the ensuing play.
This is an attempt to bring back base stealing to the game. Since the analytics takeover of MLB in the mid 2000s, stolen bases are down dramatically. Players like Rickey Henderson, Ozzie Smith, or even Ichiro are something of an anachronism in today’s game, where teams focus almost exclusively on home runs and dare not risk an out by letting a speedy runner stretch his legs.
What is new?
The size of bases will be increased from 15 inches to 18 inches square.
The idea is to reduce injury around first base, where runners consistently refuse to run in the running lane. Instead of simply enforcing the existing rule and calling the base runner out, the league have opted to take a hammer to crack a walnut. While media focus is on how the base paths will be three inches shorter than before, the truth is that this is a rule change that will have negligible to no effect whatsoever on the game.
Limits on position players pitching
What is new?
Teams will need to be up by ten or more runs, while the trailing team would need to be down by eight or more, in order to allow a position player to take the mound. The details are still being hammered out between the league and players.
This one is a tricky one to unstitch, because it has required a completely new rule to be invented to accommodate Shohei Ohtani. One of the great things about baseball is that the rules are traditionally the same from Little League all the way to the Show. For kids, grabbing your shortstop or center fielder to pitch a few innings is normal, and even makes sense if he has a strong arm. Kids all play both ways.
Professionals, however, specialize. It is in their interest to be the best at one specialty than to spread themselves too thin. And it benefits the team and the league as well. Every once in a while, you get a player like Ohtani come along, a guy who still plays like he’s in Little League, in the sense that he has one of the best bats and gloves on the team while being a great pitcher too.
The real problem is when it comes to money. Numbers, both offensive and defensive, are what salaries are based on. If a team wants to save a bullpen arm and stick their left fielder on the mound to finish out a stinker of a game, the offensive production will certainly go up. Without question or exception. Over the course of the season, this could artificially inflate offensive numbers, making them an unreliable metric for salary negotiations or arbitration.
Which of these new rules are necessary to baseball?
The short answer is none. Baseball is just fine the way that it is, the way that it has been played for two centuries now. There is nothing inherently special about today’s fan, younger generations, or even modern audiences, that makes any change at all necessary. But some of these are more sensible than others.
The base size and position players rules are likely to go entirely unnoticed, so the question for those new rules should be “why not” rather than “why.”
The shift ban and pickoff limits will certainly be the most visible of the new rules, and both of them will alter the game fundamentally. Lining up in a pre-set position is offering a reward for bad hitting.
And all the people who talk about how it is impossible to adjust where and how you hit the ball have either never played, or they were the worst on their Little League team before they quit. For those of us who have played at any reasonably high level, it is not inordinately difficult to deal with an overshift. Yes, it takes discipline and will power, but it can be done.
MLB, in its infinite wisdom, has decided to now reward hitters who are too lazy to alter their approach, and make out as if the defense is somehow cheating by standing where they know, not think, but know, that this bone-idle layabout will hit the ball.
But if you had to pick one of these idiotic changes to get rid of, one that makes no sense at all, it would have to be the pitch clock.
No longer will the pitcher be delivering his best pitch to the batter. He will be delivering the best that he can muster right now. Ditto the hitter. He won’t be in the correct head space for the pitch, simply the best that he can do in eight seconds. Something akin to speed chess, you won’t be watching grand masters at work any more, just hustlers.
MLB said that they wanted to eliminate “dead time” in between pitches, but that is not what this is. This fundamentally alters the very fabric of the game. You can’t “save” baseball by turning it into another sport, any more than you can save Star Trek by turning it into Star Wars. Different fans watch different sports for different reasons, and if you undermine baseball to win over NFL or NBA fans, you wind up with no fans at all.
The pitch clock is an abomination and needs to be dropped immediately.