Major League Baseball just doesn’t get it

Major League Baseball announced rule changes today that continue to reflect that the league just doesn’t get it.

There are two basic complaints with MLB baseball in its current form: Games take too long, and there’s not enough offense. Therefore, MLB announced rule changes today that seek to address those complaints. These are: a pitch clock, a ban on defensive shifts, and larger bases.

Long tested in the minor leagues, the pitch clock, when strictly enforced, has significantly accelerated the speed of games. 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 rule is strict: The catcher must be in position when the timer hits 10 seconds, the hitter must be 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.

The banning of defensive shifts, which were once a fringe strategy but have become normal occurrence and the bane of left-handed hitters, is among the more extreme versions, preventing defensive player movement in multiple directions. With all four infielders needing to be on the dirt, the days of the four-outfielder setup will be over. Even more pertinent, shifting an infielder to play short right field, or simply over-shifting three infielders to the right side of the second-base bag, will no longer be legal.

The position of defensive players can be reviewed — and, if a defense is deemed illegal, the batting team can choose to accept the outcome of the play or take an automatic ball instead.

By limiting disengagements with the mound, either via pickoff move or step-off, the rules hold accountable pitchers who would otherwise have a pitch-clock workaround — and are likely to significantly increase stolen bases, part of the action MLB intended to increase.

Pickoffs and step-offs reset the pitch clock, and the rules will limit pitchers to two for each plate appearance. (The number would reset if a runner advances.) A pitcher can make a third pickoff attempt, but if it’s unsuccessful it will be a balk, allowing the runners to move up a base. . . .

Meanwhile, the bases will increase from 15 to 18 square inches, with expectations that the larger size reduces collisions around the bag along with slightly shortening the distance between bases.

Additionally, teams will be granted an extra mound visit in the ninth inning if they have exhausted their five allotted visits. If a team still has visits remaining, it does not receive an extra one.

Let’s unpack these changes.

MLB is one of the only for-profit organizations on earth that is hell-bent on giving you as little of its product as possible. I like baseball, so I don’t mind watching it for three hours. That’s especially the case if I’m paying to watch a game in person. Tickets aren’t cheap, and food certainly isn’t cheap, and I don’t especially want a game to be over quickly when I’ve paid to watch it.

If your objection is, “Oh, they’re just standing around anyway,” you don’t really get baseball. They aren’t just standing around. The catcher is thinking about what pitch to call, and the pitcher is thinking about whether he wants to throw it. The batter is thinking about what the pitcher is thinking, looking at the defense, and thinking about where he’s going to take a pitch. It’s fun, as a fan, to go through those motions with the players, thinking in your own head about what pitch is coming next, whether the pitcher is hitting his spots, and whether the batter made the right guess.

Even if you’re not that into it and are hardly paying attention, baseball is supposed to be a leisurely game during which you can have a conversation with your friends or family in the stands, enjoy some food and drink, and get outside on a nice summer evening.

Regardless, the time between pitches is not what makes games take a long time. A 2019 paper from baseball researcher David W. Smith found that for the 2018 season, the average time between pitches was 23.8 seconds. “Time between pitches makes only a minor contribution to total time,” he wrote, and he found that the actual causes of longer games are primarily that games now contain more strikeouts, and therefore, more total pitches than they used to.

The mechanistic way in which this particular pitch-clock rule has been designed is also sure to infuriate. The rule, especially the intermediate points involving the catcher and the batter, is sure to be inconsistently enforced. And it’s all an academic exercise until your favorite pitcher is facing a hitter with a 3–2 count and walks him on an automatic ball because he took 21 seconds to pitch instead of 20.

“That one second adds up!” — sure, but so does reviewing the position of defensive players to see whether their feet were on the dirt. This might be the most unbelievable part of the rule changes: They’re making the shift ban reviewable. (If you want to talk about a reason why games take longer, look no further than video review of random plays in the middle of a game when no runs score.)

You might like the shift ban on principle, but please let me know how you like it when your favorite team’s shortstop makes a great play in the field to get a batter out that then becomes an automatic ball after a replay review because a camera saw that the second baseman’s right heel was touching the outfield grass. This review will, of course, add roughly two minutes to the game, erasing dozens of pitches’ worth of time saved by the pitch clock, as everyone stands around and waits for a decision from people at MLB headquarters in New York on something that we all know full well had no impact on the actual play.

The fundamental problem facing hitters is not shifts, though those do matter. The fundamental problem is that hitting is really, really hard, and pitchers have gotten really, really good. Where it was considered a novelty to have a pitcher throw at 100 miles per hour ten or 15 years ago, now it has become much more common. Pitchers have focused more on throwing a really fast fastball and one truly devastating breaking ball, rather than trying to throw four different pitches as many did in the past, and they look for strikeouts rather than pitching to contact.

And, as Smith found, that’s the real reason games have gotten longer. It takes more time to strike someone out than to have them ground out. But it’s also true that offense in baseball takes time. MLB doesn’t seem to realize that its two primary goals are fundamentally in tension.

The ideal baseball game for the purpose of expediency is two pitchers pitching to contact, getting lots of groundouts and flyouts, and a final score of 1–0 with the home team winning so that the bottom of the ninth inning doesn’t need to be played. The ideal baseball game for the purpose of offense is going to take a long time, simply because it takes a long time to score a lot of runs. Getting on base takes time, advancing runners takes time, hitting home runs takes time, batting around takes time — and that’s the entertaining action that MLB claims to want more of.

A high-offense baseball game is not a quick baseball game. A quick baseball game is not a high-offense baseball game. MLB wants both, but it can’t have both, so instead it is proposing nonsense rule changes that don’t even address the problems they are supposed to address but still manage to, as Passan writes, “fundamentally overhaul the game” — the best game on earth that does not need any fundamental overhauling.

And that leaves the bigger-bases rule, which MLB says will increase stolen bases. Maybe it will. But what will really increase stolen bases are the new pickoff rules as part of the pitch clock. Limiting pickoff attempts limits a pitcher’s ability to hold a runner on. At the major-league level, that’s what keeps runners from stealing, far more than the catcher’s arm. Even the most successful catchers only throw out stealing runners less than half the time. Many catchers are much worse than that. It’s the pitcher’s job to keep runners from getting too big a lead, but if a runner can just draw two pickoff attempts and then have a huge rule-based advantage, the extra few inches on the width of the base won’t matter nearly as much as the huge jump he’ll get when he attempts to steal.

I’m not just being a stick in the mud. As I’ve written before, I support Tim Carney’s idea of moving the outfield walls back to change the statistical reasoning that makes the “three true outcomes” (strikeouts, walks, and home runs) so prevalent. I’d also support changes to the running-lane rule to first base, and the dropped-third-strike rule. When MLB lowered the mound from 15 inches to ten inches after the 1968 season to counteract pitching dominance, it was a smart move that achieved its goal. Given the pitcher dominance of today, it might be time to lower it again.

One of the most popular baseball YouTube channels is Jomboy Media. Jimmy O’Brien, who founded the channel (which has become a full-on sports-media company), rose to prominence making breakdown videos of baseball games. He’ll take a specific situation and analyze what the players are thinking, giving viewers a window into the strategy that goes behind every single pitch and every single play, and he does it with an aim to entertain, zooming in on funny fan reactions from the grandstands and throwing in some humor of his own. People love it. O’Brien’s having fun, and many times you’ll learn something new about baseball from watching his videos.

But instead of acting on the belief that baseball is fun and we should want more people to enjoy it, MLB is obsessed with self-flagellation. To appease hypothetical people who do not watch and don’t want to watch baseball, the league makes rule changes that bother the actual people who like baseball.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe a complicated pitch-clock rule, policing where players stand in the field, and making the bases a teensy bit larger is exactly what millions of people are waiting for. But until we see any evidence in attendance numbers or TV ratings that these rule changes are what people desire, MLB is messing with the game with nothing to show for it.

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