By now, you’ve probably had a good chance to watch or listen to a game during Spring Training and have recognized the 1.5x speed that is now Major League Baseball. 

If you like your games to be longer than the typical three-hour film from Martin Scorcese, get used to something closer to the two-and-a-half mark thanks to a series of new rules for the 2023 season.

Depending on how you may look at it, there are about six new wrinkles to the Major League Baseball rule book that will be implemented during the season… And not during the World Baseball Classic. (The WBC plays it old school, which is why Japan’s 8-1 win over China on Thursday, March 9 lasted 3:41.) 

One of those new rules is actually a holdover since the pandemic-shortened season of 2020: the California tiebreaker. Whether you were hoping it would disappear or be banished from the sport, placing a runner on second base at the start of extra innings is here to stay thanks to a decision by MLB’s Joint Competition Committee last month.

That committee, comprised of mostly owners and executives from MLB’s 30 teams with some player and umpire representation, also altered the rule on position players pitching, requiring a 10-run lead or an eight-run deficit in the ninth inning. (No restrictions during extra innings; however, why you’d want a position player pitching to start an inning of a close game is beyond me.)

The three rules most prominently implemented for 2023 deal with larger bases, a pitch clock and the banning of shifts. All are quite reasonable, but for those having to play the game with these rules, it may be a lot at once.

Mar 6, 2023; Salt River Pima-Maricopa, Arizona, USA; Colorado Rockies third baseman Ryan McMahon (24) at bat with nine seconds on the pitch clock in the fourth inning against the Texas Rangers during a Spring Training game at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

“We changed a lot of variables at one time. That’s the one thing I wish they would have done: one at a time,” Colorado Rockies closer Daniel Bard explained. “You’re adding things that are going to increase offense, you’re speeding up the game with the clock, possibly lengthening the game with more offense. You’re going through a lot of goals at one time.”

By increasing the size of the bases, from 15 inches on all sides to 18 inches, the hope is for increased safety around the bag – MLB cited a decrease of injuries near the bases of 13% in the minor leagues – and, potentially, more aggressive base stealing as the distance between bases has now decreased by 4.5 inches.

The pitch clock first debuted in the minors and brought down their time of game in 2022 by 26 minutes to a snug two hours and 36 minutes, on average. As you’ve witnessed already, pitchers will need to deliver a pitch within 15 seconds when the bases are empty and 20 seconds when a baserunner is present. (If the clock runs out, an automatic ball will be charged to the batter.) Batters need to be ready in the batter’s box with eight seconds remaining. (If the hitter fails to be ready in the box with their eyes facing the pitcher with eight second remaining, an automatic strike will be charged to the batter.)

One fold within the pitch clock rule is a limitation on pickoff attempts. Pitchers will get two opportunities to check a base runner per plate appearance and the third attempt must result in an out or else the attempt will be ruled a balk and all runners advance one base. (An opportunity or pickoff attempt is defined as a disengagement from the pitching rubber. So, if a player needs to step off and wipe the sweat from his brow, that now counts as a disengagement/pickoff attempt.)

Lastly, the days of a line drive out between the first and second basemen are gone as the shift is now banned. Two infielders, with both feet on the dirt, are required on both sides of second base. Sliding the left fielder behind the second baseman is allowed at the moment, but it remains to be seen how much this strategy will be employed. MLB has told teams that any attempts to circumnavigate the rules will be met with an implementation of redefined rules to prevent such undesired behavior.

Balk This Way

The 122 balks that were called last season – including three on Richard Bleier during one inning – were the fewest since 1973. Expect an increase in balks like we’ve never seen before as the amount of pickoff attempts has been limited, in addition to a crackdown on quirky deliveries. 

Armando Reynoso holds the Rockies’ record for most balks in a season with 6, set in the club’s inaugural year of 1993. That original squad set the franchise mark for a purple pitching staff with 22 balks. (Since the start of 2018 season, Colorado has been charged with 22 balks.)

Reynoso is also tops for career balks with the franchise. His 11 could be in jeopardy depending on how much we see of Antonio Senzatela this season as he returns from ACL surgery. Senzatela has six balks during his six seasons in the Major, but he’s also the last Rockie to balk twice in the same game. Without a handful of starts during Spring Training to get a feel for these new rules, Senza could be the new record holder in nearly every balk category at some point.

Jul 1, 2022; Denver, Colorado, USA; Colorado Rockies starting pitcher Antonio Senzatela (49) delivers a pitch in the first inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Coors Field. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Among active pitchers, Clayton Kershaw leads with 22 career balks. The balanced schedule, yet another new element being implemented this season across MLB, means every team plays every team. As such, teams will play each club in the division 13 times instead of 19. A potential matchup that pits the three-time Cy Young Award winner against Colorado’s base stealing extraordinaire Zac Veen on first base only has two opportunities now to take place in the second half instead of three or four series. (Save this page and get back to me to see if Kershaw will pick off the rookie or if Veen will make the future Hall of Famer balk.)

Pitch Clock Pondering

One of the players in the Rockies clubhouse who has thought the most about the pitch clock is Bard. Speaking with him on multiple occasions, it’s apparent that he’s ready to adapt to the challenges of the most significant rule changes in the history of the sport.

“It moves fast,” he said of the pitch clock. “I’ve found, for me, a lot of the dead time is – I don’t mean this in an accusatory way – waiting for the hitter to get back in the box. And that’s gonna go away because (the hitter is) gonna have to be there. In talking with our catchers, (they key is to) get the ball back to me. The clock’s gonna start, so give me a pitch on PitchCom as quick as you can so that we have time to work through it if you want to do something else. Because then the focus is not so much worried on figuring out what you’re going to throw. That’s already settled early in the 15 seconds and then you can just think about having a good set, holding the ball if you need to and having a normal start to your delivery and not being rushed. Get the sign quick and then you can take your time getting on the rubber a little bit. It’s actually not too bad.”

Bard’s week with Team USA during the World Baseball Classic has cut into his tinkering time as many of the new rules for MLB in 2023 are not in place during the tournament. (WBC is governed by the World Baseball Softball Confederation in partnership with MLB. For all the big leaguers participating in the WBC, there are countless others who play in leagues around the world that still allow shifting and do not have pitch clocks. So, the rules that governed the 2017 WBC are still in play.)

Brothers Braden (left) and William Blake cheer on team USA against Mexico during the World Baseball Classic at Chase Field in Phoenix on March 12, 2023.
Baseball World Baseball Classic Day 2

However, he’s made good use of his four appearances with Colorado this spring, messing with as many of the new machinations of gameplay as possible to prepare for when the results really count.

“I’m going to try to set up however many outings I get. I’m gonna try to get a guy on base and pick over twice just to know what it feels like to be sitting there with no picks left. That might not happen very often in the season, but I want to know what that feels like. I want to see what the runners do in those situations, if they’re (automatically going to steal),” Bard revealed. “Try to set up all these weird scenarios that might happen so that you’ve at least felt it before. Let the clock run down. Things like that.”

There were also a few plans that Bard and the rest of the Rockies pitchers will use to their advantage, according to some of the gray areas allowed within the rules. The one thing the pitching staff or anyone on the roster will not be doing is denying the reality of these changes. It is what it is. 

“I think it’s helpful to look at it and be like, ‘This is new challenge that everyone has to deal with. It’s not just me.,’ Bard shared. “Guys in minor leagues, all everyone I’ve talked to said is that they figured it out in a week or two. It wasn’t a problem. So no matter how uncomfortable it feels, it’s new. It’s gonna be weird. That’s okay. I assume it’s just gonna get easier and easier.” 

Bard has crafted some advice he would have doled out when he was a player mentor and mental skills coach with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2018. Might even be advice he’d give any of his three children.

“I think being able to take a step back and say, ‘Just because something’s hard the first time doesn’t mean you can’t do it, or that it’s gonna stay hard,’ the 37-year-old recommended. “It might take some time. It takes some planning between you and the catcher. But other people have figured it out. I have that better perspective on that than I used to.”

Feb 24, 2023; Scottsdale, AZ, USA; Colorado Rockies relief pitcher Daniel Bard (52) poses for photo day at Salt River Fields. Mandatory Credit: Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time in the history of the sport, big leaguers are asking minor leaguers for insight. They’ve got knowledge of the pitch clock, not the veterans. The entire clubhouse and coaching staff is working together to figure this out. They’re watching how other clubs approach it as well. It’s a learning process for all parties. 

One of the ideas we kicked around in conversation was the concept of banking time for a pitcher. As Bard noted, a pitcher could throw 20 consecutive pitches with five seconds remaining on the clock. If the 21st is delivered after the clock runs down to zero, the pitcher is penalized despite following the spirit of the rule way more times than not.

“I love that idea. Probably too complicated. It’s already too complicated,” he said of a pseudo-reward system. “I hope they tweak it. I hope they realize, ‘Hey, we knocked 20 minutes off the average game, but there’s things about the quality of the game that have suffered.’ Maybe we can tweak it back in the other direction just to allow for some of the things like holding the ball with the guy on first. It’s gonna be tough with the clock, but everybody’s got to do it.”

Strange Scenarios

  1. Fans attending games at Dodgers Stadium have gotten a reputation for arriving late and leaving early. Part Los Angeles traffic and part the culture of attending an event (rather than actually soaking in the entirety of the event), the pitch clock will speed up the lengths of games at Chavez Ravine resulting in even later arrival times. Does this mean more fans will stay until the end of the game? Or will they leave even earlier? Walk in during the top of the 5th, grab a Dodger Dog and a beer, and beat the traffic by leaving in the bottom of the 5th? Absurd, but funny to consider.
  2. There have been 112 immaculate innings thrown. Nine pitches, three strikeouts. Immaculate. Rex Brothers (2014) and Germán Márquez (2018) are the only Rockies to have accomplished the feat. What will we call it when an automatic strike is called on a hitter and a pitcher records three strike outs on only eight pitches thrown? More Immaculate? Immaculatest?
  3. If the average length of game dips to around 2:45 – or less than Avengers: Endgame – perhaps we’ll see a rise in attendance as fringe fans could begin considering a baseball game as similar to going to the movies, especially with action increasing and down-time diminishing.
  4. Later this year, Márquez should pass Jorge De La Rosa for most strikeouts in franchise history on his way to 1,000 for his career. What if, as he prepares to throw a 1-2 offering to a hitter who has not yet settled into the batter’s box with their eyes up and eight seconds remaining on the pitch clock, the umpire calls a violation on the hitter and awards an automatic strike three to the pitcher? Cue the in-game celebration despite Márquez having even thrown a pitch. (And which baseball is the commemorative one? The foul ball in the stands that resulted in the second strike or the baseball that hasn’t even been used resting in Germán’s mitt?)
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