MLB rule changes approved: Pitch clock, shift, bigger bases for 2023 – USA TODAY

Major League Baseball, in one fell swoop Friday, made dramatic moves to change its image, while trying to restore excitement to the game that once made it America’s national pastime. 
Baseball officially approved their most sweeping rule changes in the history of the sport beginning in 2023, leaving just one question: 
What took so long? 
There will be a pitch clock in MLB for the first time, forcing pitchers to throw the ball within 20 seconds with runners on base or 15 seconds with the bases bases empty. Batters must be in the box “alert to the pitcher” with at least eight seconds remaining.
Those defensive shifts with the third basemen playing short right field, and everyone playing out of positionare now over. 
The bases will be increased by three inches, hoping to induce players to start thinking about stolen bases again, even limiting the number of pick-off attempts by pitchers, instead of resembling a slow-pitch softball game. 
Baseball has been experimenting with these changes for years in the minor leagues. 
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“I don’t think we have to be right on all of this stuff,’’ Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell said this spring. “I think that’s one of the modes that baseball has to get out of. We can be wrong, but we’re trying to make it better. We have to try things to make it better. Sometimes you have to fail to do things better. We can be wrong, because it will get us closer to a better answer.’’ 
If it doesn’t work, it’s back to the drawing board, but everyone who has watched minor-league games, from executives to scouts to those who actually play the game, are convinced it will improve the game. 
Certainly, something had to give with the league batting average down to .243, the lowest since 1967 and attendance in a steady decline. 
“I think there’s a misconception that MLB has an interest in trying to completely change the game and reinvent the wheel,’’ MLB executive Theo Epstein told USA TODAY Sports after he was hired to help fix the game, “and that’s not the case. We just want to nudge the game back into a better balance. The game is constantly changing, and I think for the last 10 years it’s been moving in a direction that nobody would choose on their own if they were starting from scratch. 
“I don’t think anyone would sit down and say, ‘Hey, we really want to have a 25%, 30% strikeout rate?’ It’s just recognizing that the game’s changing a little bit. It’s important for everyone who cares about the game just to have a discussion that can be thoughtful and intentional about steering in the direction that’s good for everybody, particularly the fans. 
“So, if the game’s going to be evolving, how can we put up some guideposts to make sure it changes in a way that’s the best possible version of baseball, action-packed and the most entertaining version of the game for fans and players alike?’’ 
So why not give it a try? 
“We’re not going to break the game,’’ Counsell says. “We’re going to make it better and we have to start down that path.’’ 
The rule changes implemented in the minor leagues have proven to be effective, shaving 26 minutes off games, from 3:04 in 2021 to 2:38 in 2022, according to MLB. Stolen base attempts increased from 2.23 times per game and a 68% success rate to 2.83 and a 77% success rate.
The changes will be implemented next spring after baseball’s 11-man competition committee officially approved the moves in a 7-4 vote – with the four players on the committee all voting against the pitch clock and shift ban, but unanimously voting for enlarged bases – which Commissioner Rob Manfred has lobbied for ever since he set foot in office.
The players union, which had been resistant to the changes which Manfred could have unilaterally done two years ago, finally agreed to a pitch clock. It will be slightly longer in the major leagues than the minors, giving mandating pitchers to begin throwing a pitch within 15 seconds with no one on base, and 20 second with runners on base. Hitters must be in the catcher’s box with nine seconds left on the clock and in the batter’s box focused on the pitcher with eight remaining seconds. A batter can ask for time only once during a plate appearance. 
The penalty for violating the rule: The pitcher will be charged with a ball, the hitter with a strike. 
“I know they say it will hurt the pitcher, but I had trouble getting adjusted to it,’’ one MLB veteran told USA TODAY Sports who was in the minors on a rehab assignment. “You can’t just step out and clear your head.’’ 
The shift, which was on pace to be used 71,000 times this year according to Sports Info Solutions, will be no more. The new rule requires all four infielders to be in front of the outfield grass when the pitch is thrown, with only two infielders on each side of second base, and banned from switching positions during an inning. Originally, the plan was just for all four infielders to be on the dirt, no matter where they stood on the side of second base, but MLB wasn’t sure that would make a difference. 
The penalty for violating the rule: It will be ruled a ball, unless the hitter reaches base. If the batter hits a sacrifice fly or has a sacrifice bunt, the team will have the right to accept the play or have a ball called. 
Perhaps the most surprising new rule will be limiting the number of pickoff attempts a pitcher can make or the times he steps off the rubber. Pitchers can step off the rubber to reset twice during a plate appearance. They are allowed to step off or attempt a pickoff throw a third time, but will be charged a balk if no out is recorded.
The bases will also be enlarged from 15 inches to 18 inches, which never fueled objections by anyone, making it a bit easier to steal bases while making it a bit safer for first basemen not to be spiked. 
MLB, which could cost them some advertising dollars, also agreed to limit the time between innings to two minutes, 15 seconds in regular-season games, 2:40 for nationally televised games and 3:10 for postseason games. 
Mound visits will be limited to 30 seconds when a manager, pitching coach or infielder leaves their position to come to the mound. 
They’re even shortening the time with walk-up music, leaving just 10 seconds of a few notes and lyrics. 
There will be a time when baseball will have an automatic strikezone, too, just not before 2024. Baseball could even further reduce pitching staffs to 12, instead of the current 13 until September. 
The players, however, were not on board with all the rule changes. 
“Players live the game – day in and day out,” the MLB Players Association said in a release. “On-field rules and regulations impact their preparation, performance, and ultimately, the integrity of the game itself. Player leaders from across the league were engaged in on-field rules negotiations through the Competition Committee, and they provided specific and actionable feedback on the changes proposed by the Commissioner’s Office. Major League Baseball was unwilling to meaningfully address the areas of concern that Players raised, and as a result, Players on the Competition Committee voted unanimously against the implementation of the rules covering defensive shifts and the use of a pitch timer.”
Who knows, maybe strikeouts will drop, hits will rise, action will be brisk, games will be shorter, and baseball can once again become America’s national pastime. 
Well, if nothing else, be the national pastime on the days the NFL isn’t playing. 
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