NEW YORK (AP) — Major League Baseball is introducing some of its most sweeping rules next season, adopting a pitch clock and limiting defensive changes after concluding that modern analytics have created a slower, less entertaining sport.
The decisions were made by the sport’s 11-man competition committee on Friday over unanimous opposition from the four players on the panel. Commissioner Rob Manfred pushed for the innovations with a leadership team that included former Boston and Chicago Cubs executive Theo Epstein, now an MLB consultant.
“The influx of data into our industry,” Epstein said, “hasn’t improved the game from an aesthetic point of view or from an entertainment point of view. So in my role now, it’s to my responsibility to try to see the big picture, to think about what’s great for the fans.
Players supported the third major initiative: larger bases which should reduce injuries and lead to more stolen bases due to a reduced distance of 4 1/2 inches.
Manfred called the rules an attempt to “bring back the best form of baseball”.
“First, the fans want games with a better rhythm,” he told a press conference. “Second, the fans want more action, more balls in play. And third, the fans want to see more of the athleticism of our great players.
Union leader Tony Clark was conspicuously absent, as he was when an agreement was announced in March that ended a 99-day lockout.
“The players live the game, day after day. The rules and regulations on the pitch impact their preparation, performance and ultimately the integrity of the game itself,” the union said in a statement. “Major League Baseball was unwilling to meaningfully address the areas of concern raised by players.”
The pitch clock will be set at 15 seconds with no runners on base and 20 seconds with runners — up from 14/19 tested at Triple-A this season and 14/18 at the lower minor league tiers.
There will be a limit of two of what MLB calls disengages — attempts to take out or not out of the rubber — per plate occurrence, and a disallowance would be called for a third or more unless there is a withdrawal. The disengage limit, which some players believe will benefit base runners, would be reset if a runner advances.
A catcher must be in the catcher’s box with nine seconds remaining on the clock and a batter in the batter’s box and focused on the pitcher with eight seconds remaining. Penalties for violations will be a ball called against a pitcher and a strike called against a batter.
A batter may request time from an umpire once per plate appearance, and after that it would only be granted at the umpire’s discretion if the request is made while in the batter’s box.
The clock, which some players have suggested changing for late and close situations, has helped reduce the average time for a nine-inning game in the minor leagues from 3 hours and 4 minutes in 2021 to 2:38 this season . The average time for a nine-inning major league game this year is 3:07, down from 2:46 in 1989 and 2:30 in the mid-1950s.
“It reminded me of the game I grew up watching in the 70s and 80s,” said former outfielder Raúl Ibañez, now MLB’s senior vice president.
Two infielders must be on either side of the second and all infielders must be within the outer boundary of the infield when the pitcher is on the plate. Infielders can’t switch sides unless there’s a replacement, but five-man infielders will still be allowed, MLB executive vice president Morgan Sword said.
The changes went from 2,357 times on balls hit in play in 2011 to 28,130 in 2016 and 59,063 last year, according to Sports Info Solutions. Shifts are at the rate of 68,000 this season.
“I think fans will cherish the moments without the extreme defensive changes when games are decided not by whether their team’s infield is positioned by the perfect algorithm, but by whether the second baseman of their team can take an athletic dive playing with everything on the line,” Epstein said.
MLB’s season batting average has fallen from .267 in 1997 to .243 this year, with a team’s running average dropping from 4.77 to 4.33.
“The game has evolved in ways no one would have chosen if we had sat down 25 years ago to chart a course for the best version of baseball,” Epstein said. “No one would have asked the fans to wait more than four minutes for the balls to come into play. No one would have asked for generational lows and stolen bases, triples and doubles.
Base size will increase to 15 x 18-inch squares – first basemen are less likely to be stepped on.
Additionally, each team will be allowed a sixth visit to the mound in the ninth inning next year, if they have used five in the first eight innings.
Until last winter, MLB needed a year’s notice to change on-field rules without union approval, but the March lockout settlement established the committee. Its members include St. Louis CEO Bill DeWitt Jr., San Francisco President Greg Johnson, Colorado CEO Dick Monfort, Toronto CEO Mark Shapiro, Seattle President John Stanton, President of Boston, Tom Werner, and referee Bill Miller. Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty, Rays pitcher Tyler Glasnow, Blue Jays infielder/outfielder Whit Merrifield and Giants outfielder Austin Slater represented the players on Friday, a group that included the Cubs infielder Ian Happ as a substitute.
“It’s hard to get consensus among the group of players to change the game,” Manfred said. “I think ultimately what we did here was give the fans the kind of game they want to see.”
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