When Major League Baseball adopted some new rules for the 2023 season, it was clear the sport would look and feel at least a little bit different.
Bigger bases, fewer pickoffs, banning the shift and, of course, the pitch clock were all introduced. Each of those changes were designed to create more action and a faster pace for a game that had slowed to a crawl at times in recent years.
Early returns suggest the new rules are working as intended, at least to some degree.
While fans had to get used to these changes, players had to come to terms even quicker.
“I think, overall, MLB has kind of accomplished what they wanted to accomplish,” Braves reliever Kirby Yates said.
The most obvious change has been the length of game.
After averaging 3:04 last season, games now routinely finish in under 2:30. The average MLB game time is down nearly 30 minutes from 2022, something the league hopes will encourage fans to stay for the entire game more often.
Pace has quickened noticeably thanks to the pitch clock.
Pitchers get 15 seconds to throw home with no one on base and 20 seconds with runners on, while the batter must be in the box and alert to the pitcher with 8 seconds remaining on the clock, while also getting just one timeout per at-bat. Failure of either party to adhere to those rules results in the umpire assessing an automatic ball for the pitcher or a strike on the batter.
“I think it’s blended in a little bit,” Yates said of the pitch clock. “You still have to be conscious of it, but everybody’s internal clock has probably gotten better with it.”
Outside of a strike three violation in the Braves’ spring training opener, no games have ended with an infraction. In fact, the average amount of pitch clock penalties remains under one per game.
Whether or not the time saved is worth the tradeoffs will remain a topic of debate, particularly for those who were never warm to the idea of a clock being introduced to Major League Baseball.
“The spirit of the rules are good,” Braves starter Charlie Morton said. “They’re well-intentioned to try and make the pace better for everybody, not just the fans. I think there’s some kinks in there, but I’m glad that we’re trying to do it, so that we can actually see it implemented. Then, you can objectively decide whether or not it was a good idea.”
Morton is a 16-year veteran, but he grew up a baseball fan. While the changes and adjustments to pace of play are understandable, Morton believes there are larger forces at play than simply trying to save a few minutes.
“I know that, growing up and being a fan of the game, so much so that I tried to make a career out of it, I have some romantic thoughts and feelings about baseball that have nothing to do with how long the game takes,” Morton said. “That was something I never even thought of. Objectively speaking, is it better to have a more time efficient game for all parties? Probably, yeah. But I also think that it’s a reflection of where we are societally, that we have less time to spend just sitting watching a game.”
It is not just the pitch clock that is changing the game, however.
Teams had grown increasingly risk-averse to losing runners on stolen base attempts over the past decade, so much so that stolen base totals had dropped 27% league-wide since 1999.
With base sizes slightly larger and pickoff throws now limited, teams are encouraged to steal bases again. Over the first month, stolen bases per game reached their highest levels since the 1992 season.
Michael Harris II, who was slowed by a back injury in April, is hoping to get in on the fun. Teammates Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies joked about wanting to steal 50 bases apiece back in spring training.
Acuña went into the weekend leading the National League with 15 stolen bases, while Albies got his first steal last Saturday.
“Yeah, I want to be up around where their goals are set,” said Harris, who has four stolen bases around his stay on the injured list. “It could still be possible, but I’ve got to put in some real work on the bases if I want to get up there and catch up to Ronnie, because he’s probably going to be up around 70, to be honest.”
The Atlanta-era stolen base record belongs to Otis Nixon, who swiped 72 in 1991. The last major leaguer to reach the 70-steal plateau was Jacoby Ellsbury of the Boston Red Sox in 2009.
“Given the new rule changes and everything, I feel like (Acuña) definitely can do it,” Harris said. “It’ll be exciting to see how the rest of the year goes for him.”
While those new rules might seem an obvious catalyst for running more, Acuña has led the National League in steals once already, doing so in 2019 with 37. He credits improved health rather than the change in rules for his spike in stolen bases.
“Last year, I was recovering from a surgery, and so I had to alter the way that I played,” Acuña said through an interpreter. “I was battling a lot of pain and discomfort. This year, I’m just feeling 100 percent healthy, and I think that’s the biggest difference.”
Acuña may not be willing to credit the new rules for revitalizing his running game, but he is quite pleased with one notable change that has somehow taken a backseat to the pitch clock.
That is the elimination of exaggerated defensive shifts.
Infielders must now stay on their respective side of the second base bag and keep both feet on the dirt prior to every pitch. While the data does not show a drastic uptick in offense year-over-year, count Acuña among the hitters who appreciate having a better chance of getting a ball through the infield this year.
“The only thing I’d say that I think I like about the new rules is that they’ve removed the shift.” Acuña said. “That’s giving people a lot of hits.”
This article originally appeared in the Marietta Daily Journal. Find it here.