By Barry Shollenberger, Ed.D.
Associate Professor, Sports Management
and James T. Reese Jr., Ed.D.
Associate Professor, Sports Management
Major League Baseball (MLB) has always prided itself in the belief that baseball today is not that different from 100 years ago. There have certainly been rule changes during that time, but the comparison of players and their statistics among eras is still considered valid.
In 1925, the minimum distance for outfield fences was standardized at 250 feet. In 1959, that minimum distance was increased in 1959 to 325 feet down the foul lines and 400 feet to straight-away centerfield.
There were additional changes as well. The pitching mound height was lowered to 10 inches in 1969, and a mostly standardized strike zone was finalized in 1988.
Also, the addition of the Designated Hitter (DH) to the American League in 1973 and to the National League in 2022 also rank among the significant rule changes in the history of Major League Baseball. Since the DH rule allows a player to bat for the pitcher, there are three benefits. First, it allows the pitchers to focus on pitching and avoid possible injuries on the bases. Second, it speeds up the pace of the game since there is less bunting by pitchers.
Third, it increases offense since a better hitter is hitting for the pitcher. After the change, opposing pitchers will no longer have an “easy out” from the ninth spot in the lineup that was normally occupied by the pitcher; pitchers are notoriously weak hitters. Designated hitters were inserted into the lineup because they could hit and hit well.
2023 Season Rule Changes for Major League Baseball
In 2023, Major League Baseball will see three impactful rule changes:
- An increase to the sizes of bases to improve the safety of infielders and baserunners
- The prohibition of defensive shifts that have gained in popularity in recent years
- The implementation of a pitch clock designed to speed up play
Base Size Increase
Presently, the bases used in Major League Baseball are 15 inches square and have been so since the 19th century. Increasing the size to 18 square inches will allow infielders more room around the bases, help avoid collisions on base paths and will be a benefit to batter-runners from the batter’s box to first base while they are running in foul territory.
Some people have speculated that the shorter distance between bases – as a result of the larger bases – might encourage more stolen base attempts or will put an additional premium on a player’s running speed to beat out drag bunts or infield hits. Previous trials of larger bases at Triple A baseball games, however, revealed no obvious effects on offensive conditions, according to The Athletic.
Defensive shifts in Major League Baseball have become more the rule than the exception in recent years. The proliferation of offensive baseball data provided by services like FanGraphs and Baseball Savant have induced the “shift revolution” as we know it today.
Is it fair for the hitters to have to change their batting approach to hit away from the shift? Why is the shift three times more effective against left-handed hitters? The general rule regarding hitting in baseball is that it is hard enough without having to worry about so many infielders on one side of second base.
The new rule change, according to Major League Baseball, will prevent the defense from having more than two infielders on each side of the second base. In addition, infielders will not be able to move during the pitch to assume a shift position. Violations will result in an automatic “ball,” called by the home-plate umpire.
A corollary to the no-shift policy is that all infielders must be positioned within the outer boundary of the infield when the pitcher is on the pitching rubber. As a result, all teams have had to re-measure their infield boundary in order to be compliant.
That outer boundary of the infield is 95 feet from the front/middle of the pitching rubber. More than one Major League Baseball team has had to adjust their infield to meet the specifications of these dimensions. The bottom line for this rule is that eliminating defensive shifts will serve to improve the balance between offense and defense, notes The Athletic.
The third rule change, the implementation of a pitch clock, is the most significant of the three changes in Major League Baseball. It may end up being the most significant change in baseball since the height of the pitcher’s mound was lowered in 1969.
Now, pitchers will have 15 seconds to deliver a pitch from the windup position and 20 seconds from the stretch. Failure to comply will result in an automatic “ball” call by the home-plate umpire.
In addition, pitchers will only be allowed two “non-pitch actions” per batter plate appearance. A non-pitch action (or disengagement) is defined as a “step-off” the pitching rubber or a pick-off throw to a base, which will re-start the pitch clock.
Any third non-pitch action during a plate appearance will result in the runner (or runners) moving up a base, like a balk. It’s not hard to imagine the jump that a base runner will get on subsequent pitches after a failed pick-off attempt. Look for stolen base totals to rise even higher.
Batters will also have increased responsibilities under the new pitch clock rule. They must be in the batter’s box and “alert” by the eight-second mark of the pitch clock.
Batters are allowed to step out of the box (if they call time and it is granted by the home plate umpire), but only once in each time at bat. There will be 30 seconds allowed between batters, and this time limit may curtail throwing the baseball around the infield after a strikeout.
Several Major League Baseball teams employed AAA umpires in their inter-squad practice games before spring training began. These umpires had experience working with the pitch clock in minor league games last season.
Using a pitch clock will also be a learning experience for Major League Baseball umpires in enforcement. For the first time, all umpires at a game will be wired so they can converse without huddling in the field to debate a questionable situation.
The Implications of These 3 Changes to Major League Baseball
Major League Baseball has traditionally changed its rules to improve the game. Larger bases, the outlawing of shifts and the use of a pitch clock are all designed to achieve this goal.
It will be next to impossible to find any hitters (especially left-handed ones) who will have any issues with outlawing the shift. According to Sports Illustrated, infield shifts have taken away at least 2,000 base hits in the last seven years.
The pitch clock could shorten games by as much as 26 minutes on average and eliminate many of the dead times during a ball game, which baseball executives view as anathema to the game. There’s no question that the changes look good on paper. We will see how they affect the game shortly once the regular Major League Baseball season starts.
About the Authors
Dr. Barry Shollenberger is an Associate Professor in the Sports Management program at the University. He is a former college baseball player and coach. Dr. Shollenberger holds a B.A. in general studies from Moravian College, a M.A. in education from Western Kentucky University, and an Ed.D. in health, physical education, and recreation from The University of Alabama.
Dr. Jim Reese is an Associate Professor and Internship Coordinator in the Sports Management program at the University. He is a former NCAA Division III baseball player. Dr. Reese holds a B.A. in business and economics from St. Andrews University, a M.S. in in sports management from Georgia Southern University, and an Ed.D. in physical education and sport administration from the University of Northern Colorado.