Bigger bases, no more defensive shifts and a new pitch clock. Last month, Major League Baseball passed sweeping rule changes in an effort to change the game and make it a more fan-friendly experience.
It’s no secret baseball has been losing fans over the past few decades and these rule changes are an attempt to wrangle those lost fans back to America’s pastime. There’s just one problem: the changes halt the evolution of the game.
I fell in love with baseball because it is a storyteller’s game. Each pitch is a chance to learn about the players on the field and the stories beyond the game. If you pay close enough attention, you’ll start to see the game within the game — the body language in between pitches, the cogs turning in a manager’s mind as he decides whether to leave a pitcher in the game or call to the bullpen.
And yes, I have heard from many friends over the years that baseball is “boring” and that the game takes too long, but I contend that in itself is the beauty of the game. It is the sport with no clock. The pace of play is entirely controlled by players, particularly by the pitcher. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, the winning team has to get 27 outs on defense and score more runs than the other team in nine innings.
As a pitcher toes the white rubber in a high tension situation, they can hold the ball just a little longer before firing toward the plate to ease his nerves. Or quick pitch the hitter when he stands outside the batter’s box just a little too long. The pitch clock ruins this essential element of the game.
Those in favor of the pitch clock say fans want a faster game. The clock has long been tested in minor league play and brought game times down significantly. Minor league games this season have consistently clocked in at under 2 hours, 30 minutes — a time seen by many as ideal — and average game times have settled a little over it.
The new rule states a pitch clock of 15 seconds with empty bases and 20 seconds with runners on. The catcher must be in position when the timer hits 10 seconds, the hitter must have both feet in the batter’s box and be “alert” at the 8-second mark and the pitcher must start his “motion to pitch” by the expiration of the clock. A violation by the pitcher is an automatic ball. One by the hitter constitutes an automatic strike.
This rule is incredibly strict and a harsh transition with changes expected to be implemented at the start of next season. The vote for the change was not unanimous, with most dissents coming from the MLB Players Association.
Cincinnati Reds first baseman and surefire hall of famer Joey Votto said it best when asked what he loved about baseball. “I love that there is no uniformity to our game,” he said on a Bally Sports Ohio broadcast. “It’s my favorite part about our sport.”
He said the great thing about baseball is there is room for every type of fan — those who keep score in handwritten scorebooks or those who tune out for four innings while shooting the breeze and drinking a beer.
I couldn’t agree more, which is part of why I am so frustrated at these rule changes. I think about some of the pitchers who are so exciting to watch in the game today and those I grew up loving. One thing they had in common was their uncanny ability to control the pace of the game on their terms.
For example, one of the most fascinating pitchers today is New York Yankees starter Nestor Cortes. The funky lefty constantly changes his delivery to the plate and timing of his pitches in an attempt to throw hitters off their rhythm, and so far it’s worked wonders with a season ERA of 2.44 and 12 wins, good enough to put him among the top 20 pitchers in the league. White Sox pitcher Johnny Cueto has a similar methodology by frequently changing his windup and timing — tactics that have made him a two-time all-star and former league strikeout leader.
Both of these pitchers have built their success around messing with the pace of the game, a strategy that will soon go by the wayside with the new pitch clock. This rule change, along with the removal of defensive shifts detract from the evolution of the game.
Defensive shifts have become commonplace for teams to adjust the positioning of players if data shows a hitter is significantly more likely to hit the ball to one portion of the field. It can result in some odd defensive formations like a second baseman in right field or a completely empty third base side of the diamond.
Shifts are a primary example of the increased use of data analytics in the game. Managers can realign their teams to make them more likely to get those elusive 27 outs. To me, it’s part of the evolution of the game — more data to make decisions means better outcomes.
The rule change eliminates the shift in the name of “more action.” Teams must now have two infielders on either side of second base and three outfielders. The unnecessary change, which was also opposed by players, moves the game backward.
If MLB wants to attract more fans to the game, it can’t drag the game back as it evolves. Pitchers need to mess with the pace of play to throw off bigger, stronger hitters of today. Data is now an essential part of managerial and front office decision-making on who to play and where to place them.
In many ways, MLB’s rule changes detract from the story of the storyteller’s game.