NEW YORK (AP) – Major League Baseball is introducing some of its most radical rules next season, adopting a pitch clock and limiting defensive shifts after concluding that modern analytics created a slower, less entertaining sport.
The decisions were made Friday by the sport’s 11-member competition committee over unanimous opposition from the panel’s four players. Commissioner Rob Manfred pushed for the innovations with an executive team that included former Boston and Chicago Cubs manager Theo Epstein, now an MLB consultant.
“The influx of data in our industry,” Epstein said, “hasn’t improved the game from an aesthetic point of view or from an entertainment point of view. So in my role now, it’s my responsibility to try to look at the big picture, think about what that’s good for fans.”
Players supported the third major initiative: larger bases, which are expected to reduce damage and lead to more stolen bases due to a reduced distance of 4 1/2 inches.
Manfred called the rules an attempt to “bring back the best form of baseball.”
“Number one, fans want better-paced games,” he said during a news conference. “Two, fans want more action, more balls in play. And three, fans want to see more of the athleticism of our big players.”
Union boss Tony Clark was noticeably absent when he was at the announcement of a deal in March that ended a 99-day lockout.
“The players live the game – day in and day out. Rules and regulations on the field affect their preparation, performance and ultimately, the integrity of the game itself,” the union said in a statement. “Major League Baseball was unwilling to meaningfully address the areas of concern raised by the players.”
The pitch clock will be set to 15 seconds with no runners on base and 20 seconds with runners — up from 14/19 tested at Triple-A this season and 14/18 at lower minor league levels.
There will be a limit of two of what MLB calls release attempts — pickoff attempts or steps of the rubber — per inning. plate appearance and a balk will be called for a third or more unless there is an out. The release limit, which some players predict will benefit baserunners, will be reset if a runner advances.
A catcher must be in the catcher’s box with nine seconds left on the clock and a hitter in the batter’s box and focused on the pitcher with eight seconds left. Penalties for violations will be a ball called against a pitcher and a strike called against a batter.
A batter may ask an umpire for time once per inning. plate appearance, and thereafter it will only be granted at the umpire’s discretion if the request is made while in the batter’s box.
The clock, which some players suggested changed for late and close situations, has helped reduce the average time for a nine-inning game in the minor leagues from 3 hours, 4 minutes in 2021 to 2:38 this season. The average time for a nine-inning game in the major leagues this year is 3:07, up from 2:46 in 1989 and 2:30 in the mid-1950s.
“It reminded me of the game that I grew up watching in the ’70s and ’80s,” said former outfielder Raúl Ibañez, now a senior vice president of MLB.
Two infielders must be on either side of the other, and all infielders must be within the outer boundary of the infield when the pitcher is on the rubber. Infielders are not allowed to switch sides unless there is a substitution, but five-man infields will still be allowed, MLB vice president Morgan Sword said.
Shifts have increased from 2,357 times on balls hit in play in 2011 to 28,130 in 2016 and 59,063 last year, according to Sports Info Solutions. Skifter is on pace for 68,000 this season.
“I think fans will appreciate the moments that aren’t the extreme defensive shifts when games are decided not by whether their team’s infield is positioned by the perfect algorithm, but by whether their team’s second baseman can range to make an athletic dive and play with everything on the line,” Epstein said.
MLB’s season batting average has dropped from .267 in 1997 to .243 this year, with a team’s average number of runs dropping from 4.77 to 4.33.
“The game has evolved in a way that no one would have chosen if we set out 25 years ago to carve out a path toward the best version of baseball,” Epstein said. “No one would have asked for fans to wait more than four minutes for balls to be put in play. No one would have asked for generational slaves and stolen bases, triples and doubles.”
The base size will increase to 18-inch squares from 15 – first basemen are less likely to be stepped on.
In addition, each team will be allowed a sixth mound visit in the ninth inning next year if it has used five during the first eight innings.
Until last winter, MLB needed a year’s notice to change on-field rules without union approval, but the lockout settlement in March established the committee. Members include St. Louis CEO Bill DeWitt Jr., San Francisco Chairman Greg Johnson, Colorado CEO Dick Monfort, Toronto CEO Mark Shapiro, Seattle Chairman John Stanton and Boston Chairman Tom Werner and Judge Bill Miller. Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty, Rays pitcher Tyler Glasnow, Blue Jays infielder/outfielder Whit Merrifield and Giants outfielder Austin Slater represented the players Friday, a group that included Cubs infielder Ian Happ as an alternate.
“It’s hard to get consensus among the group of players to change the game,” Manfred said. “I think ultimately what we did here was about giving fans the kind of games they want to see.”
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