At the beginning of the season the implementation of new rule changes dominated the conversation around baseball.
For the first time ever there was a pitch clock – probably the most controversial of all the changes, despite already being a month into the season Few MLB players had appreciated it – and the larger bases went viral on social media because they were compared to pizza boxes. There was also the elimination of shift and a limit on how many times a pitcher could come off the rubber.
Now, as we approach the end of the 2023 regular season – and prepare for the first MLB postseason with the new rules – the impact of these changes on the game of baseball itself has become incredibly clear.
Playing time is scarce while all the things that make baseball fun are on. With 97% of the season completed, batting average is up six points (.249), batting average on balls in play is up seven points (.297), and on-base percentage is up eight points ( .320). We also saw an increase in runs per game (from 8.6 last season to 9.3 in 2023) and stolen base attempts (1.4 to 1.8). Additionally, average attendance increased 9.15%, the largest single-year increase across the league in 30 years, according to MLB.
Now that we have nearly 162 games to look at, we asked ESPN MLB experts Buster Olney, Jesse Rogers and Alden Gonzalez to give us their thoughts on the rule changes based on what they hear from players and managers about a rule have the next change they think could come to baseball.
What statistic or number best summarizes the impact of this year’s rule changes?
Olney: Twenty four. That’s the number of minutes the average playing time has been reduced, which is a huge change. There are still nine innings and 54 outs, but that action is squeezed into a game length that is 15% shorter than in the past. It’s clear from the visitor numbers and ratings that fans have responded to the new product.
Rogers: Some would assume the answer would be “playing time,” but that doesn’t affect the product on the field. Last year, the Texas Rangers led the majors in stolen bases with 128. This season, nine teams already have more than that number and two more are likely to surpass it. And the success rate for thefts is 80.2% highest in the history of the game.
Gonzalez: The increase in stolen base frequency serves as a good indicator because it is a product of several new rules – the larger bases, the disengagement restrictions and, to some extent, the pitch clock. MLB written down that the number of stolen base attempts increased to 1.8 per game in 2023, up from 1.4 in 2022. If you think that’s not a lot – well, it is. Fans certainly want shorter games with a faster pace. But the stolen base has been a real gap in recent years. It’s all the way back now, and that’s a really good thing.
What have you heard most from players and managers about the rule changes?
Olney: Some players and managers – most of them older people – are quietly complaining about some of the new rules, particularly the pitch clock. But the vast majority of people in the industry (players, coaches, managers, referees, clubhouse attendants, stadium workers) seem to do this Love the changes. Especially the shorter games.
Rogers: Pitchers want the ability to leave the base without anyone on the base, without it being counted as a visit to the mound. Batters are given a timeout when runners are on or the bases are empty. Why can’t a pitcher do that?
Gonzalez: I heard several complaints from players about the new rules early in the season – pitchers about having to juggle the pitch clock and disengagement limits while also having to focus on how they attack their opponents, and hitters about how they need more time to get used to the batter’s box. However, according to MLB.com, pitch timer violations increased from 0.87 per game in the first 100 games to 0.34 per game in the last 100 games. In other words: the players adapt.
Who benefited most – and least – from the rule changes?
Olney: I think the young fans benefited the most from it. My 19-year-old sports-loving son is a great focus group for me, and perhaps his experience this year mirrors that of many of his generation. In the past, he was never interested in the idea of sitting through an entire game because he felt like the action was delayed. He hated waiting for slow-working pitchers to take the mound. But this year, since the average playing time was comparable to an NBA or hockey game, he constantly watched the games from start to finish.
Those who benefited the least: batsmen. I think there was a general assumption that position players would get a little more of an increase in production given the shift limitations, but that really didn’t happen. Unless baseball enacts rules limiting the high number of replacement players, there likely won’t be a major surge in offense.
Rogers: There is little doubt that anyone who has posed a stolen base threat has benefited. Nico Horns went from 20 stolen bases in 2022 to over 40 this season. Ha Seong Kim from 12 to 36. Willy Castro from nine to over 30. The list of players setting career highs in steals due to larger bases and new disengagement rules goes on and on.
Gonzalez: I’ll add another group that benefited: left-handers. Not all of them, of course, but shift restrictions have prevented teams from implementing extreme shifts on draft-happy lefties. The batting average of balls played by left-handed hitters was .285 from 2020 to 2022. This year he is at .295. Corey Seager was considered someone who would benefit greatly from the shift restrictions, and without Shohei Ohtani (another lefty, by the way), he would now have a serious MVP career.
How much will the new rules impact next month’s MLB playoffs?
Olney: For years, we’ve heard complaints that some fans couldn’t stay up to watch the entire playoff and World Series games that went past midnight. Well, that will be a different experience. Because of the additional commercial time, postseason games will still last longer than regular season games – but not always the 4 1⁄2 hour behemoths we’ve seen in previous Octobers. And teams will run more in the postseason than in the regular season, taking advantage of limitations on pickoff attempts.
Rogers: Here’s how Atlanta Braves Starter Spencer Strider believes the new rules will impact baseball in October: “It’s more about the strategy than the impact of the rule. The way I look at it is because we’re facing a really big pitch and everyone’s a little too nervous to take a moment to visit the mound, especially early in the game. And you make a pitch that we otherwise wouldn’t have made if we had the time to talk about it.
Gonzalez: That remains to be seen. Much has been said by players and some of their agents about extending or eliminating the pitch clock in the playoffs, or perhaps just in the late innings. Of course that won’t happen. And while I understand the need for continuity, I would hate to see a postseason game decided by a pitch timer violation. It’s okay if it happens occasionally in the 4,860 games played from April to September. But not in October. Hopefully by then the players will have adjusted to the point where this will no longer apply.
What rule change do you think could be next for baseball?
Olney: The sport urgently needs to restore the supremacy of the starting players. It’s an important financial issue for the players’ association, as starting pitchers have been instrumental in raising salary caps in the past. There is a need for MLB to have daily headliners to market the sport – matchups like Pedro Martinez vs. Roger Clemens, Madison Bumgarner vs. Clayton Kershaw.
The parade of relief pitchers designed to exploit game advantages is not a compelling product – just as four-hour games have not been a compelling product – and the masters of the game know it. But it will be very difficult to effect change in this area, considering relief pitchers now make up a huge portion of the union.
Rogers: Automatic balls and shots still need some perfecting, so there are some minor rules in play, such as the runner going first. This has always been confusing when it comes to calling the runner a disorder. The league will likely adjust the rule so that the burden doesn’t fall entirely on the runner, who doesn’t even try to interfere in the play.
Gonzalez: Fully automated balls and strikes may still be a long way off, but I can definitely imagine there being a challenge system for balls and strikes in the near future. It’s a nice, happy middle ground. Referees get the vast majority of these calls right, regardless of what you interpret from social media. What we need to eliminate are the obvious errors, especially at critical points. The challenge system does this while also implementing another cool strategic component to the game. It’s also incredibly fast.