The 2023 MLB season will introduce several rule changes in an attempt to speed up the pace of the game and provide more action on the field. Over the past few years, the new rules have been tested in over 8,000 games in the Minor Leagues and the independent Atlantic League.
The three main rule changes are a pitch timer, larger bases and restrictions on infield shifts. These are the most transformative changes to the game in well over a half-century and will definitely take time for everyone to adjust.
Although there will undoubtedly be some hiccups and many discussions about the rules, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred is certain that the changes will provide the fans with a better product. Manfield and the Joint Competition Committee are quickly making changes to try to get more young fans interested. Surveys all said there needs to be a faster-paced game with more action.
We will examine each new rule change and how it will affect the gameplay. Then we will look at specific teams that are more equipped to take advantage of these changes. Younger teams will have a slight advantage early in the season because some of their players have already played with the rule changes in the minors over the last two seasons.
A pitcher must begin his motion before the expiration of the 15-second timer, or 20 seconds with at least one runner on base. There will also be a 30-second clock for pitchers between batters.
Pitchers can step off the rubber twice per plate appearance without penalty, which resets the clock. Any more will be treated as a balk unless an out is recorded on a runner. Furthermore, the pitch clock resets if the baserunner advances.
Additionally, a hitter must be in the batter’s box with at least eight seconds remaining, and they will receive one timeout per plate appearance.
How it will be enforced:
If a pitcher has not started "the motion to deliver a pitch" before the clock's expiration, he will be charged with a ball. If a batter delays entering the box, he will be charged with a strike.
After a third step-off, the pitcher will be charged with a balk unless at least one offensive player advances a base or an out is made on the ensuing play.
What will change?
The main reason for this rule is to speed up the game. The MLB knows the average fan wants to see a pitcher take less time to deliver their pitch. They also know that it kills the game's flow when a pitcher continually throws to first to check a runner.
The pitch clock will take some time to get used to for everyone involved, especially older pitchers. The timer does not provide an advantage to any specific team or set of players. It will make it hard on pitchers and batters who have gotten used to taking their time in between pitches.
The fact that a pitcher can only step off the rubber twice per plate appearance will be a massive advantage for base runners. I am curious how this will play out because speedy runners will be tough to hold at first.
Runners will try to get the pitchers to step off and throw over to check them, and if they don’t, the runners will just take off. And once a pitcher has stepped off the mound twice, he has one more attempt to pick off the runner, but if he fails, the runner gets a free base.
This is huge for teams who have built their teams around speed. The Rangers, Marlins, and Guardians led MLB in stolen bases last season and should be well-equipped to put more pressure on opposing pitchers this season. Getting speedy runners on base will be more important than ever in 2023, resulting in larger contracts for guys with good OBP and speed.
Two infielders must be positioned on each side of second base when the pitch is released, and all four infielders must have both feet within the outer boundary of the infield when the pitcher is on the rubber. They may only switch sides if there is a substitution.
How it will be enforced:
The game proceeds without penalties if the hitting team reaches base and runners advance on a ball hit under the violation. If the play has any other consequence, the hitting team can either accept the penalty, adding one ball to the hitter's count, or decline it, and the play will stand.
What will change?
Batting averages should increase, especially for left-handers. Infield shifts have gradually gone from everyone in the infield slightly moving towards first base for left-handed hitters to having three infielders between first and second base. Many infielders started playing in the shallow outfield during these shifts making it practically impossible for a left-handed hitter to pull a ball through the infield.
Some of the best teams from last season have the most left-handed-hitters on their rosters, which makes sense because they can pay big money for the coveted left-handed power hitters. In 2022 the New York Yankees had the most lefties on their roster, with eight. The Yankees are followed by the Houston Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers, each with six lefties on their rosters. The shift rule should help the teams above because of the number of left-handed hitters, but only a little because they are mostly power hitters.
The Cleveland Guardians have three players who are in the top 10 of batting average from the left side of the plate. Steven Kwan, Andres Gimenez, and Jose Ramirez are all contact hitters with speed. Left-handed hitters that are swinging for contact, as the three Guardians’ players mentioned above, will be able to get more singles, resulting in higher batting averages.
The size of first, second, and third base is increasing from the standard 15″ square to an 18″ square, with the hope of improving player safety and encouraging teams to steal more frequently. The base size reduces the distance between them by 4.5″, making it slightly easier for players to steal a bag, which the league hopes will increase stolen base attempts.
What will change?
More stolen bases and more runners on base. 4.5” may not seem like a lot, but it should result in many close calls going to the runner. Baseball is full of bang-bang plays on the bases where the ball and the runner arrive practically simultaneously. The slightly larger bases mean the runners will get there quicker and will have more room to avoid tags.
Larger bases with a maximum of three pick-off attempts will most definitely lead to more stolen bases. On paper, it seems impossible for a catcher to throw a speedy runner out at second if the pitcher has already used their two pick-off attempts. The runner will start with a bigger lead and have a bigger base to land on.
The game of baseball clearly needed some changes because the home run had become overpowered. The analytics pointed teams and players to swing for the fence, resulting in more home runs, strikeouts, and the lowest league batting average since 1963 in 2022.
The fast-paced game of the 1970s that made baseball super popular has been long gone. Over the years, getting on base has become less important, and the game has turned into a long ball competition. The home run derby is fun, but the game of baseball becomes very dull when it's primarily strikeouts with a few home runs mixed in.
The strategy of the game and building a roster was nearly dead. Small market teams could hardly compete because they could not pay for the home run hitters or the best pitchers. The new rules will bring more excitement to the game by increasing the strategy of the game. OBP and speed will become more valuable in the modern game of baseball. The best teams around the league will no longer automatically be the teams who hit the most home runs.
Cleveland is the organization that is most ready to take advantage of the new rule changes. They were the youngest team in the MLB last season, younger than any Triple-A team, which means they already have a roster full of players who are used to these rules. They also built their team around speed, defense, and contact hitters. Ramirez, the Guardians’ All-Star third basemen, is the exact type of player who should benefit from all the changes.
Switch-hitters like Ramirez, who makes good contact and can run the bases well, will see their value skyrocket in the next few years. Time will tell if the new rule changes will greatly impact the game's strategy and how front offices build their rosters. It seems inevitable that the value of speed and contact hitters will increase in baseball but by how much?
Organizations knew these changes were coming, and some managers like Terry Francona have been preparing years in advance. The Mariners, Marlins, and Rangers are also all young and fast on the bases and should benefit next season.
The Guardians are a great measuring stick for the rest of the league because they have built their roster to take advantage of these changes this season. Cleveland surprised many around the league by winning their division last season and is now expected to do it again. But will they surprise the league again and become one of baseball's best teams because they are ahead of the curve?
What’s most important is if the fans respond and start coming out to the ballparks more often or at least watching their favorite teams on TV more. Baseball is moving forward, but the question remains: will it draw more fans or just upset the purist?