Thoughts on baseball's rule changes
Major League Baseball has just announced some significant changes to its rules. They include a pitch clock, a limit on the number of throws a pitcher can make to hold runners on base, a ban on shifts, and larger bases.
I don’t have any blinding insights on these changes, but I do have opinions that some readers find interesting.
Let’s start with an easy one. MLB is increasing the size of the bases from 15 to 18 inches square. Home plate will remain at its present size.
This change will have a small impact on stolen base success rate (an issue I’ll discuss below), but apparently is designed mainly to enhance safety (especially at first base). This is the one change that the owners and the players reportedly agreed on. I have no problem with it.
The pitch clock is something I’ve clamored for almost since I began blogging. Baseball games take too long and the pace of play is too slow. Few dispute this.
The minor leagues are using a pitch clock. Below the Triple A level, pitchers get 14 seconds when the bases are empty and 18 seconds when there are runners on base. This change has shortened games by almost half an hour to a little over two-and-a-half hours.
More importantly, it has made watching games more enjoyable because it picks up the pace. Having attended at least 15 minor league games below Triple A this year, I can attest to this. For me, the change has been a breath of fresh air.
Most minor league pitchers have had no discernable trouble with the clock. In the games I’ve attended, the number of violations (which results in an automatic call of “ball”) has been about one per game. And when I watch games from the 60s, 70s, and 80s on television, as I did when the 2020 MLB season was halted during the pandemic, few pitchers took more than 14 seconds to deliver the ball with the bases empty.
MLB will allow pitchers 15 second when the bases are empty and 20 seconds when they are not. I’m fine these numbers, but would like to see them lowered a little once veteran pitchers get used to the clock.
The pitch clock will confer some responsibility on batters. They must be in the box and alert to the pitcher by the 8-second mark or else be charged with an automatic strike. That’s fair, I think.
I’m less happy with the limit on throws to bases. Under the new rule, once a pitcher has thrown over twice, any additional throws must get the baserunner out. Otherwise, the pitcher will be charged with a balk and the runner will move up a base. Stepping off the rubber is treated like a throw to a base for purposes of this rule.
Limiting the number of pickoff throws while also preventing pitchers (because of the clock) from holding the ball a few extra seconds to disrupt the timing of base stealers will, of course, make it easier for runners to steal bases. That’s the intent of the rule change and has been its effect. In the minor leagues, the stolen base success rate has increased under this regime from 68 percent to 77 percent.
What’s the ideal success rate? For many it’s a rate that will encourage significantly more stolen base attempts than we’re seeing now. That’s a reasonable way of looking at things because stolen base attempts are exciting.
In my idiosyncratic view, though, the ideal success rate is the one at which baserunners help and hurt their team an equal amount by attempting a steal. To help his team by attempting a steal, a runner must succeed significantly more than 50 percent of the time. That’s because the benefit of moving up one base is significantly less than the harm of recording an out.
If I recall correctly, equilibrium is reached at around 70 percent. A runner with that rate has helped his team and hurt his team to an equal degree through his efforts at stealing bases. His efforts have neither increased nor decreased the number of runs the team scored.
If, as I believe to be the case, the equilibrium percentage is close to the current MLB rate, then I’d rather not see stolen bases made easier. Yes, stolen bases are exciting, but I don’t want baseball to become a track meet featuring mediocre runners taking advantage of hapless pitchers.
Now, let’s turn to shifts. The basic change here is that the defensive team must have a minimum of four players on the infield, with at least two infielders completely on either side of second base.
I’m conflicted about this one. I sympathize with the many baseball fans who hate to see runners thrown out by a second baseman playing in not-so-shallow right field. That’s certainly not the game we got hooked on, and it’s jarring to see.
On the other hand, I generally favor more strategy over less. Taking away the shift means less strategy.
I also believe that major league batters should be able to defeat shifts by hitting the ball to the opposite field. Indeed, doing so from time to time will force the defense out of radical shifts.
If batters don’t hit the other way, it’s probably either because they aren’t very good or because they believe going to the opposite field will cut down on their home runs.
I don’t favor eliminating strategy to help bad players. And I’m reluctant to see strategy eliminated to accommodate hitters who want to swing for the fences. In my view, more than enough home runs are being hit as it is. So maybe we shouldn’t take away the penalty for trying to hit them that the shift seems to impose.
As I said, I’m conflicted. Let’s see what happens.
Finally, I’ll note that there is an interplay among the three matters I’ve been discussing — pitch clock, stolen bases, and shifts. There’s probably a relationship between how fast a pitcher is required to work and how quickly he loses a little velocity during the course of an inning or a game. There’s surely a relationship between how quickly a pitcher loses velocity and the number of baserunners and home runs he allows (and an inverse relationship between loss of velocity and number of strikeouts) .
There’s an obvious relationship between the number of baserunners and the number of stolen base attempts. There’s also an inverse relationship between the number of home runs allowed and the number of stolen base attempts — the more homers, the less sense it makes to risk making an out on the bases just to advance one base.
Finally, if I’m right, the less shifting that’s allowed, the more home runs will be hit because with fewer wide-open spaces to aim for, batters will be less inclined to substitute placement for power. And, as noted, more home runs means fewer stolen bases.
We see, then, that baseball is a complex ecosystem. Changing any meaningful rule disrupts the system.
But in my view, the current ecosystem needs disruption — at a minimum, to speed things up and to have more balls put into play (by which I mean fewer walks, strikeouts, and home runs).
I’m glad that MLB recognizes this. If a new rule disrupts things in negative ways on balance, the rule can be adjusted or jettisoned. But baseball needs adjustments.
The pickoff rule will be a disaster. Better runners will take a longer "one-way" lead. Runners take a slightly longer lead and will go back to the base on first movement. This occurs with the more skilled runners now. After 2 pickoff attempts, the runner is daring the pitcher to throw over again. After a few balk calls, the pitcher will become hesitant, allowing the runner to have a longer lead after 2 pickoff attempts, while stealing the base. I remember Maury Wills, who was one of the smartest runners ever. He would turn this rule into a circus. It may work short term, but once the runners find out who's hesitant to throw over, it will become as exciting as the old intentional walk.