Major League Baseball is implementing some notable rule changes heading into the 2023 season, changes designed to both increase the pace of play and promote hitting the ball into the field of play, as MLB games averaged four minutes between balls put into play in 2022.
Theses changes were used in the minor leagues in 2022, providing data on the general effect they may have on major league hitters and pitchers in 2023.
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Timer between piches: The pitch clock will be 15 seconds with the bases empty and 20 seconds with runners on. In the minors in 2022, game length was reduced by an average of 25 minutes thanks to the pitch clock. This change will likely have minimal effects on pitchers, except for potentially disrupting the rhythm of hurlers who have become accustomed to taking an exorbitant amount of time between pitches. Some pitchers that will have to speed things up in 2023 include Jonathan Loaisiga (25.8 seconds between pitches with the bases empty in 2022), Giovanny Gallegos (25.8) and Kenley Jansen (25.6).
Pick-off attempts limit: Pitchers will be allowed only two pickoff attempts or step-offs per at-bat. If a pitcher attempts a third, the runner on base will need to be tagged out, or they will be able to advance a base with the official scoring being a balk. This change led to a 26 percent increase in stolen base attempts in the minor leagues in 2022, which is music to the ears of top base stealers such as Jon Berti, Jorge Mateo, Cedric Mullins, Randy Arozarena and Tommy Edman.
One timeout per at-bat: Hitters will be granted one timeout per plate appearance and must be in the batter’s box with eight seconds left on the pitch clock.
Base size increase: This will also benefit speedsters, as the bases will be increased in size from a 15-inch squares to 18. The justification for this rule is player safety. There was a 13 percent decrease in injury events near the bases in the minors in 2022.
Larger bases will also have a noticeable effect on base running. First and third base will each be three inches closer to home plate, while second base will be 4.5 inches closer to both first and third. Given the number of close plays we see in any given game, these seemingly small changes can make the difference between being called safe or out when legging out an infield single or stealing a base.
Defensive shift restrictions: Two infielders must be positioned on either side of second base when a pitch is released. Additionally, all four infielders must have both feet within the infield when the pitcher is on the mound rubber. These changes are meant to eliminate the defensive tactic of stacking three infielders to a hitter’s dominant side and turning would-be pull singles in the hole into outs. The shift has been employed against pull hitters from both sides of the plate in recent years but has had a particularly negative effect on hitters from the left side. If the rules have the planned effect, hitters will enjoy higher batting averages on balls in play.
Old-school baseball purists and pull hitters shouldn’t rejoice just yet, though. With no restrictions on outfielder placement, teams are expected to replicate the effects of the now-banned shifts by putting an outfielder just past the infield on a pull hitter’s dominant side. Such a move would have the same effect as the pre-restriction shift, though the opposing hitter would have an easy double by hitting the ball the opposite way into the outfield. Since hitters proved either unwilling or unable to take advantage of the previous opening in the infield, defenses will likely take their chances on leaving a large opposite field gap in the outfield until the hitters being shifted against make them pay.
Circles in the outfield? MLB has reportedly considered drawing big circles in the outfield and making each outfielder remain in his respective circle, but such a change would only be implemented if the current change to the infield shifts proves to make an insufficient difference. For now, we can expect pull-heavy hitters such as Carlos Santana, Jose Ramirez, Kyle Tucker and Kyle Schwarber to see some jump in batting average and general production in 2023 -- all of whom are left-handed sluggers who faced the shift on more than 90 percent of their 2022 plate appearances.
IMAGO / ZUMA Wire