Saturday, July 13

Whole new ballgame: MLB’s new rules changed everything

You know your sport has issues when even its own Hall of Famers say they can barely watch it. But that’s where baseball was — until 2023, when Rule Change Baseball arrived to change everything.

“It was tough watching the game,” Hall of Fame slugger Andre Dawson admitted last July in Cooperstown, surrounded by a significant number of baseball legends who felt just like he did.

But that was in the Before Times. Suddenly, Dawson found himself watching a sport with true rhythm again, where athleticism was valued again, where ground balls were actually hits again, where runners motored from first to third again. So suddenly, Andre Dawson was interested again.

“It makes the game a little bit more exciting,” Dawson said. “And it’s the best way, I think, to get the fan interest back. So that is starting to return. It’s a good sign – and you’re slowly starting to really enjoy the game again.”

Rule Change Baseball. We’ve experienced a full year of it now. So let’s just say this: These were the most important rule changes of modern times, possibly in any sport.

Sure, we still hear the grumbling from the holdouts who think baseball didn’t need fixing. But frankly, what sport were they watching? When the dead time in your sport has begun to overwhelm the action, it’s time to do something already. Baseball did something. And one year in, it’s astounding to look back at how well it all worked.

The pitch clocks never stop ticking now — and the games no longer drag toward midnight and beyond.

The Shift, which overloaded one side of the infield and swallowed up hundreds of hits, is history now — and nobody misses those fly balls to right field that got caught by the third baseman (seriously) 

Those pitchers can’t make 12 pickoff throws to first base anymore — and we just finished a season with more stolen bases per game than any year since 1997.

Rule Change Baseball. It has brought us back much of what we love most about this sport — but without getting gimmicky enough to where it felt, said one club official, like “you were creating a game show.”

“The game is faster now, and more athletic, and it drives forward with a momentum that maintains your attention,” said Morgan Sword, Major League Baseball’s executive vice president of baseball operations, whose department has overseen and driven these changes. “And because of that, I think the best elements of the game really shine.

“Maybe the best part of it is that those elements have always been there. We haven’t introduced something novel to baseball. We’ve really just chipped away at some of the delays and the dead time around what’s always been a wonderful game.”

Here we’ll lay out the dramatic contrast between the home-run-or-bust slog that baseball had become and the streamlined, back-to-the-future rendition these rule changes produced. As you ponder it, maybe you’ll have the same reaction as Theo Epstein, the onetime curse-busting team-builder in Boston and Chicago who is now a special consultant for MLB and working to restore the beauty of the game.

How, he wondered, had this sport veered so far off-course?

“I don’t think anybody realized quite how far it had gotten away from us,” Epstein said, “because that’s the nature of creep. When it happens a little bit each year, for 10-plus years, you kind of just get used to it. And then, when it moves back all of a sudden to the way it’s supposed to be, then you realize how abnormal it had gotten. So it was a welcome correction, and certainly, much more fun watching games.”

This was far more than just a TheoWorks production, of course. The commissioner, Rob Manfred, has lobbied for many of these changes for years. Sword’s Baseball Operations Department did the heavy lifting that brought this effort to life.

The umpires had to buy in and take on responsibilities that were never part of any umpire’s job before 2023. And, especially, the players had to take a crash course in New Rules Baseball 101 and then adapt to a whole new, clock-ified game on the fly.

But somehow, all of them figured it out. Somehow, it still looked like baseball, not a rule-adaptation workshop.

“I think the best part,” Epstein said, “was how the rule changes themselves faded into the background so quickly — and what came to the fore was the best part of the game itself, the action and the players showing their athleticism. That all came to the fore, and what disappeared was some dead time.”

So just how much dead time vanished? And what did the game look like on the field?

Like clockwork

Does anyone miss getting home from the ballpark at 12:45 a.m.? Does anyone miss watching those batting gloves get adjusted after all 300 pitches, every night?

If you do, you have way too much time on your hands. If you don’t, you can thank the pitch clock — 15 seconds between pitches with no one on base, 20 seconds with runners on. After watching the clock tick away for a season, do we even have to ask: Does the pitch clock work? In truth, it’s hard to think of any rule change in recent memory that accomplished exactly what it was designed to accomplish as well as this one did.

Average game time: Who knew it would be this easy to chop a half-hour’s worth of dead time off every game? But that’s the exact magic trick the clock has pulled off. Check out the time of the average nine-inning game over the last three seasons:

But average game time doesn’t even fully tell this story. There’s also this …

Games of 2 hours, 15 minutes or shorter — In 2022, there were 13 nine-inning games that short all season. In 2023? That number went up slightly … to 170. In other words, there used to be one game that quick every two weeks. This year, there was, essentially, one every night.

Games of 2:30 or shorter — But let’s keep going. In 2022, there were 84 nine-inning games all season that lasted 2 1/2 hours or less. In 2023, there were 678.

Games of 3:30 or longer — How routine did the 3 1/2-hour game used to be? So routine that in 2022, there were 232 nine-inning games that lasted at least 3:30. This year, there were nine — four of them in September, after rosters expanded. And in seven of those nine, at least 16 runs were scored. So at least there was a good excuse. But one more thing …

We’ve killed the four-hour game! How many nine-inning games lasted four hours or longer in 2023? That answer is … zero. That’s down from 39 two years ago and 19 in 2022. But even if you include extra-inning games, there were only six four-hour games over this entire season — and every one of them lasted 12 innings or longer. Here’s how dramatic that drop was:

So here’s a salute to the pitch clock. “Rule change” doesn’t truly describe it. “Life-changing” is more like it.

The violations were aberrations

“You know one thing I thought we would see more of,” said a baseball executive who requested anonymity in order to speak freely, “was clock violations that impacted the outcome of games — that either ended games or ended innings, particularly in the postseason.”

Hmmm. Excellent point. Think back to spring training. On the very first day of the Grapefruit League in February, the Braves and Red Sox actually had a game end on a “clock-off” — a pitch-clock violation on the last “pitch” (not that the pitch was ever thrown). Who would have envisioned that when the season got rolling we would see none of that?

Instead, players did what players do: They adapted, because that beat the alternative. Take a look.

But once again, that doesn’t tell the full story:

About two of every three games were played without a single violation.

After July, only two games featured more than two violations, by both teams combined.

And how little impact did those violations have on late-game drama? From Opening Day through July 17, there were 14 pitch-clock violations that resulted in either an automatic walk or an automatic strikeout in the ninth inning or later. But after that, there was just one, by all 30 teams combined — an Angel Hernandez ball-four call against Astros reliever Bryan Abreu on Aug. 6.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say that all players grew to love, or even buy into, the clock. Behind the scenes, many grumbled about feeling rushed, from Day One of spring training all the way into October. But what they apparently did do was learn how to survive — when the hitters needed to call time out, when the pitchers needed to claim that their PitchCom device was on the fritz, when the catchers needed to race to the mound to keep the clock from reaching zero.

They learned to do that so expertly that by season’s end, the pitch clock was barely a topic. Considering how spring training began, that’s a minor miracle.

An incredible clock-tober

Then there was the postseason. As late as midseason, players were still telling The Athletic’s player survey that they wanted to see the pitch clock adjusted in October. As late as the final week of September, players were grumbling privately that the commissioner had ignored them when they made that request to him personally.

So what happened when October arrived? The clock was almost a total non-issue … except for its impact on producing the most manageable postseason game times in over a decade.

There was only one four-hour game: There were 40 games played in this postseason. The only one that lasted four hours or longer was an 11-inning classic, in Game 1 of the World Series. Which means there wasn’t a single nine-inning game of four hours or more in the entire postseason — for only the third time in the last 30 postseasons.

 The other two years with no four-hour nine-inning marathons: 1998 and 2006. That’s a long time ago. There were also fewer games then.

And how did that compare with the very recent past? How about this. Total number of four-hour nine-inning games over the previous four postseasons: 26. This year: zero.

Only one game ended after midnight: This is for every droopy-eyed baseball fan in the Eastern time zone. Just one game in this postseason dragged past midnight EDT — and that was that same 11-inning World Series game. Over the previous three postseasons, there were 17 games that reached the other side of midnight in the East. For a sport trying to fit its showcase events into a vital TV window, that was a huge development.

Even a 3:30 game was a shock: Remember when the 3 1/2-hour October baseball game was almost routine? Not anymore. Even counting extra-inning games, only three games went 3:30 or more in the whole postseason — tied (with 2005) for the fewest in any postseason since 1991. Over the previous five postseasons, there were 108 games that went 3:30-plus.

The pitch clock turned invisible in the World Series: During the World Series, Fox never popped the ticking pitch clock onto its screen. Not for one pitch. Did anyone even notice? In a possibly related development, there wasn’t a single violation during the World Series. There were only seven violations in the postseason. And of the 23 postseason games NL teams took part in, there was just one violation. Amazing.

Was there any better indication of what a non-topic the clock was by October than that invisible TV pitch clock? We’ll vote no.

Shiftless in Seattle (and 29 other places)

Here’s another thing that people within the sport found shocking: Baseball banned The Shift — by requiring two infielders to stand on each side of second base (and putting the kibosh on all those infielders that used to roam around outfield) — and nobody ever did try to find a sneaky way around it.

How many violations of the shift ban would you have expected this year back on Opening Day? A hundred? A thousand? Nope. You know how many there actually were? Would you believe four all season? Didn’t see that coming.

“That’s crazy,” said one AL executive, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely. “I was thinking about what happened this year that we didn’t expect — and I think the answer is just the speed at which players adapted. There were almost no shift violations all year. And it just really surprised me that no one ever tried to stand on the outfield grass and got caught — the whole year.”

But the even bigger news was the impact that banning The Shift had on the portion of the population that was supposed to celebrate that change the most — left-handed hitters.

What the shift ban didn’t do — No one thought that every ground ball to the right side would now be a hit. We still live in an age of precise, computer-driven defensive positioning. So while left-handed hitters’ batting average on ground balls did go up, from .226 to .239, that still was lower than it was as recently as 2017. So that impact was modest. On the other hand, consider …

What the shift ban did do — At least when those left-handed hitters squared up one of those ground balls to the right side, they sure didn’t miss seeing the second baseman, hanging out in short right field, slurping up nearly every one of them. The numbers on hard-hit pulled ground balls told that story.

So did the shift ban work? It did. Is MLB through looking at ideas to make it work better? Judging by the experiments in the minor leagues this year, it’s not. But for now, the tinkering in the big leagues is on hold.


Ronald Acuna Jr. led MLB in steals with 73, the most since 2007. (Photo by Kevin D. Liles / Atlanta Braves / Getty Images)

License to steal

Nobody stole 100 bases. “Only” three players in the whole sport stole 50 or more. But New Rules Baseball was still built to fire up the running game — with larger bases and limitations on pickoff attempts. And while it may not have looked like 1912 all over again (or even 1987), most teams got the memo.

• The stolen-base success rate (80.2 percent) was the highest ever.

• The rate of stolen-base attempts (1.8 per game) was the highest since 2012.

• Five teams stole at least 150 bases. Only three teams stole that many in the previous 10 seasons combined. It was the first season in the 21st century featuring five teams with 150 or more.

• There were 21 teams that swiped at least 100 bases. Two years ago, there were five. As recently as 2022, there were only eight.

• Ronald Acuña Jr. stole 73 — the most since 2007, when Jose Reyes stole 78.

• Six players stole 40 or more — for the first time in a decade.

• And 51 players stole 20 or more — the most since 1989.

So where does this go from here? It wouldn’t surprise anyone if half the analytics departments in baseball are looking at that 80 percent success rate and thinking: We should have run a lot more than we did. So will stolen bases go up or down next year? A lot of people we’ve surveyed would take the over.

A piece of the action

Now here comes the important part. If the only thing New Rules Baseball accomplished was making games shorter, what’s the point of that? Knocking off an extra half-hour of beer sales? Might be tough selling that as the greatest advancement of modern times.

Luckily, that was not all these rule changes wrought. Instead, baseball in 2023 was a significantly more entertaining mix of the two qualities every sport aspires to:

More action. … Less dead time.

How much more action was there? We’re talking about …

Over 1,600 more runs than the year before.

Nearly 1,300 more stolen bases.

More than 1,100 more hits.

Nearly 1,500 more baserunners (a formula based on hits plus walks, minus homers).

But there wasn’t nearly as much waiting around for all that action to unfold. The average time between balls in play dropped by nearly 30 seconds — from 3 minutes, 42 seconds last year to 3:13 this year. That’s a level baseball hasn’t seen since 2009, according to Baseball Reference.

Except that’s not all. We’ve already recapped the rules’ impact on base-stealing and on left-handed hitters. What we haven’t gotten to is how those forces came together to inspire more baserunning, not just more base-stealing.

Let’s use the example of one of baseball’s most fun plays to watch: When a great athlete leads off first base … and a single rockets through the right side of the infield … and that runner fires up the jets to round second and burn for third base … while the right fielder, the dude with the best arm of any position player on the diamond, charges that single and tries to throw him out.

That’s this sport at its essence. And Rule Change Baseball brought back the old-fashioned first-to-third at a level we haven’t seen in decades.

With a runner on first base — meaning the first baseman almost always had to hold that runner on — the batting average of left-handed hitters was up 45 points on pulled ground balls, according to Statcast.

And the upshot of that was that runners went first to third on 31.8 percent of all singles hit this season, according to Baseball Reference.

So what’s the big deal about that? According to Baseball Reference’s Katie Sharp, that’s the highest rate of first-to-thirds on singles in nearly 30 years, since a 31.9 percent rate in 1995.

More great athletes running around those bases. And a half-hour a night that you no longer had to spend watching those great athletes wait for the entire chorus of their walkup tune to fade away, fiddle with their batting gloves, then tap the plate five times before every pitch.

Was there really a down side to that, aside from how it cut into beer-guzzling time? Hey, this just in: They sell refreshing beverages outside the ballpark, too.

So is more coming?

Obviously, the powers that be think there’s still more dead time to be suctioned out of these games, based on further rule-change rumblings that emerged this week. The pitch clock is almost certainly shrinking to 18 seconds with runners on base. There are likely to be further limits on mound visits and hitter timeouts. So game times are undoubtedly about to shrink even more.

But beyond that? Baseball looks as if it’s planning to move slowly on ideas like the automated strike zone … and further shift restrictions … and experiments it has kicked around to try to finally get a handle on the ever-inflating strikeout rate.

There may be no shortage of voices in the game lobbying for all of those things sooner than later. But we’ve just finished Year One of New Rules Baseball. And that meant every player and every team was forced to grapple with everything that entailed — while also having a game to play every night. That was one massive load to process.

But now that they all have a few months to reflect on what they lived through, we can’t wait to see how everyone reacts next year. How differently will teams build their rosters? How many teams model their style of play around the success of teams like the Diamondbacks and Orioles?

Was there a 100 percent approval rating for all of this in Year One? Ha. We don’t need to go there. But you know who was all in — based on attendance data, local TV ratings and the significant increase in people watching entire games on their favorite mobile devices? The customers. And that’s telling the rule-change architects that they seem to be cruising down the right lane of the sports highway. Finally.

“Is it perfect?” mused Theo Epstein. “Are we at our absolute best and most entertaining version of baseball yet? Probably not. But I think the rule changes were really successful, and taking a very meaningful step in the right direction. And I think everyone in the game is happy with how things went — most importantly, the fans.”

Top image: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic. Photos: Lachlan Cunningham / Getty Images; Jamie Squire / Getty Images; Norm Hall / MLB Photos via Getty Images; Chris Coduto / MLB Photos via Getty Images)