The new rules are (almost) here, the new rules are (almost) here
The potential benefits to baseball's long overdue new rules, set to be implemented next season, are more than you can possibly imagine
Perhaps proving baseball has no idea how to market itself, the precise rule changes destined to make it better, more exciting and fan friendly were dropped on a Friday, just in time for college football and NFL Sunday to make certain nobody heard about it.
It wasn’t even “dropped,” really, because that would have demanded the calling of a press conference, an official announcement, a coordinated shouting from the rooftops the game’s about to get better.
None of that happened.
Instead, ESPN’s Jeff Passan, who’s sort of to MLB for the Worldwide Leader what Adrian Wojnarowski and Adam Schefter are to the NBA and NFL, was left to tweet it out, write a none-too-long story about it under the headline “Major League Baseball passes significant rules changes including pitch clock, banning defensive shifts,” and be done with it.
Too bad, because it should have been a national holiday, a let’s-throw-this-sport-a-parade day, because finally it was a baseball’s-no-longer-its-own-worst-enemy day.
Here it is, approved by the game’s competition committee, which includes six ownership representatives, four players* and an umpire, set to take effect next season:
* Of course, the players voted against it, surely fearing a new market for contact hitters and a lessening market for the .180-hitting, 30-home-run-belting strikeout artists currently populating the game.
• A 15-second pitch clock, 20 seconds with runners on base, the catcher having to be ready at the 10-second mark and the batter at 8, the penalty for malfeasance an imposed ball or strike in accordance with the perpetrator.
The pitcher may step off the rubber no more than twice per plate appearance, limiting pick-off attempts. Though he may attempt a third pick-off attempt, if unsuccessful the runner will be awarded the next base.
• All four infielders positioned on the infield dirt until the pitcher’s foot comes off the rubber, two on one side of second base and two on the other, effectively banning “the shift” which has routinely moved three (or four) infielders to the right side of second base, cutting down so many would-be hits.
• Larger bases, from 15 square inches to 18, making the distance from home to first and third to home 1 1/2 fewer inches, because the plate’s still the same size, and the distance from first to second and second to third three fewer inches.
What will it mean?
The pitch clock, as well as a 30-second limit on mound visits and time between batters, will speed up play pronto.
In minor leagues where the pitch clock’s been enforced, games are running just over 2 1/2 hours, compared to the 3:07 average required to play major league games this season, 3:11 last season and three hours or longer every season since 2011.
Pitchers are bound to not throw quite as hard because no longer may they milk time between pitches allowing their arm to recover. That should to lead to fewer strikeouts, more base hits, fewer home runs as a percentage of all hits and more stolen bases because not only is the distance to each base a tiny bit shorter, but once the free pick-off attempts have been spent, the threat of being picked off is nearly zilch.
The shift took over the game because it works. Put three and sometimes four defenders on the right side of second base within throwing distance of first base, pitch to the inner half of the plate against left-handed batters and about the only way to beat it is to go over it, leading to lower batting averages, more home runs and an absolute dearth of baserunners.
Ending it puts so many good things on the table.
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Like batting averages going up.
Right now the entire league’s hitting .244, Los Angeles Dodger Freddie Freeman leading at .330. For fun, choose a random pre-steroid era season like 1992 and what might you find: Seattle’s Edgar Martinez leading at .343; eight players hitting at least .320 against just three now; an average average of .256 and only one team, the Mets, at less than .240, though right now it’s 11, four teams hitting below .230.
Less reason to swing for the fences, bringing more singles and extra base hits, creating more defensive chances, more highlights in the field, more electrifying double plays.
Now, the Cardinals, Rockies, Pirates and Orioles, four teams, are turning at least 0.9 double plays per game. In 2012, it was 12.
Imagine, games ending in time to be home by 10 or 10:30, so much more terrific stuff bound to happen during them, with still more on the table.
Like pitchers who go deeper into games because they’ll be physically able, the pitch clock forcing them to go easier on their arm.
Like situational small ball, because no shift means more runners on base, more opportunity to steal bases, more chances to hit and run and double steal and, because it’s no longer the whole lineup’s job to go deep, at least a few will learn how to bunt again.
Like not just individual players recognizing new ways to help their team, but whole organizations choosing an identity built around one or several of the myriad ways the game may again be played effectively.
Oh, to have fewer pitchers.
Now, teams are allowed 13, 14 when rosters expand in September and back to 13 for the playoffs. Not so-so long ago, a team might carry 9 or 10, entering each game with a deeper bench.
Remember utility players?
They no longer exist.
All that and given the wealth of possibilities soon available, nor may a team be so easily managed on the field by a front office in the suites. Not only must managers still manage personalities but they’ll have to learn how to manage games again, too.
If you can believe it, real strategy’s bound to make a comeback.
Just about everybody who loves baseball, misses baseball.
At last, it’s coming back.