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Are the MLB's Rule Changes Good for the Game?

Braves' 1B Matt Olson

Major League Baseball has recently rolled out a series of rule changes aimed at making baseball more exciting. Baseball can be hard to watch at times, causing many fans to stop watching and the next generation to align its fandom with other sports. This can largely be traced to a large emphasis on the Three True Outcomes. Not familiar with it? Basically, in every plate appearance, the highest probability goes to a strikeout, walk, or home run, leading hitters to focus on the long ball and pitchers on punch outs. I am sorry to the analytics guys out there, but there is so much more to baseball than that.

Things like being a gap-to-gap hitter or a high RBI batter have lost their meaning in the game because that is not where high-dollar contracts are going. Players will tailor their game so they can make the most money, and we cannot hold that against them. Otherwise, why would the Cubs offer Cody Bellinger 17 million dollars on a one-year deal when he hit .210 last year? In the past, he demonstrated an incredible ability to hit for power.

But that shift in ideology has made the game unwatchable for some. As such, the MLB felt it was their duty to shift the pendulum back towards the middle. Several notable rule changes are being implemented that should lead to more exciting aspects of the game (balls in play, steals, lack of four-hour-long games) becoming more prevalent. Without further ado, let’s break them down.

The League has increased the sizes of the bases with the hopes of encouraging more steals and, more importantly, improving player safety. The last thing a fan wants to see is their first baseman have his achilles spiked after the batter ran out a routine grounder to third or a shortstop trying to turn a double play get clipped by a sliding runner. This is a positive step forward. As for steals, it is unlikely that players will run wild on the base paths as they did in the 70s and 80s when stealing bases was fundamental to the game. The game has changed since those days; catchers have moved away from the stereotype of burley power hitters to extremely explosive and fast-twitch muscle athletes. With defensive capabilities at an all-time high, it is not worth the risk for teams to fail stolen base attempts and sacrifice potential runs. While the bigger bases are well-intentioned, the probability of having a significant amount of more steals or attempts in the game is unlikely.

In addition to bigger bases, the league has also put restrictions on how teams can shift their infield players. Why is this an issue? Simply put, the fans did not like watching a third baseman play shallow right field and rob deserved hits from players. Shifting was at an all-time high, and teams were placing three defenders in a hitter's most common spray areas, which can be easily found using baseball savant. As a result, many players would try to just hit it over the shift for a home run. Think of this as the MLB trying to avoid having a bunch of Joey-Gallo-type players. He focuses purely on getting under the ball to hopefully lift it into the outfield or, better yet, the stands. The only downside to this approach was his strikeout rate of 39.8%. His home-run-or-strike-out nature is a result of the shift. It has prevented grounders up the middle or through the four hole from turning into hits, playing a major role in the rise of the Three True Outcomes.

The restrictions on the shift are as follows: all infielders have to have both feet on the dirt, there must be two players on each side of second base, and teams cannot switch players over from one side to the other side unless there is a substitution. Limiting the shift is going to be a good thing because it will allow players to showcase their athleticism and make more highlight defensive plays. Also, it is crucial to keep the fielders’ position in the traditional spots. It sends the right message to kids learning how to play - either you make the play or you don’t. A team cannot just hide a defensive liability by putting 3 defenders on the right side of second base. Will this fix baseball’s historically low offensive numbers from the past few seasons? That’s unknown, especially since the shift does not matter if batters are not able to make contact. This rule change is a net positive, but it is unlikely to have the desired outcome.

Onto the most controversial rule change, the pitch clock. One thing that many used to love about baseball was the fact that it was not time-based like football or basketball. It is purely based on how well one team plays. That can lead to two extremes, with the possibility of games either being lightning-quick or super long. Baseball has been trending in the wrong direction in terms of pace of play. Year after year, the average game time increases, but the amount of action in each game does not. This leads many to believe that baseball games are too long and too boring. People do not want to sit down and spend three hours and fifteen minutes watching a baseball game, which is fair. It takes a different breed of fan to subject yourself to a three-and-a-half-hour-long game just to watch your team lose on a daily basis. This is why baseball fans are the most dedicated fans out of all the major sports leagues, but I digress.

When the bases are empty, pitchers have fifteen seconds to pitch the ball from the time the catcher receives the pitch, and they have twenty seconds when runners are on base. The MLB experimented with this in the minor leagues, and it was a huge success. The average game time dropped by twenty minutes and did not completely change the run scoring environment. Additionally, there was no correlation between elbow injuries and the clock, which is the most important factor. This rule change is huge and one that traditionalist baseball fans hated at first but seem more open to after seeing the effect it had on minor league games. This rule will be very effective, since the goal is to offer a quicker pace of play to a game that does not always progress swiftly.

So how does all this work to solve the problems facing baseball? It is hard to answer that without data from the effects at the major league level, so only time will tell. While these are steps in the right direction, it still does not target the underlying issue. Pitchers are incredible at manipulating a baseball. People said that offensive numbers would bounce back after the crackdown on foreign substances, but they have not rebounded much. Leaguewide offensive numbers are down and at historic lows. The last time batting average and OPS were this low was in 1968, also known as the Year of the Pitcher. In 1969, the league lowered the mound to get the offensive numbers back up. There is precedent for altering the mound.

The MLB has two options: lower the mound from its current height of ten inches or move it back. Moving the mound back has its pros and cons but seems very unlikely because offspeed pitches will have too much lateral momentum, making it nearly impossible to catch. Both options seem extreme, but the MLB might need just that to make games more exciting. This is not about making it better for lifelong fans who will love the game no matter what; this is about attracting more fans.

At the end of the day, the MLB is a business and will not compromise that because of tradition. Otherwise, there would not be blackouts or jersey ads. These new rules are a positive step and will have immense impacts on the game over time.


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