Change is coming to the major leagues! Last September, Major League Baseball’s competition committee voted to implement rule changes that will begin when spring training games begin this month. All of these rules have been in place in the minor leagues over the previous seasons, leading to wide-ranging changes in pace of play and on-field action.
The rules include a first-ever pitch clock, the elimination of the shift, bigger bases and a limit to how many times a pitcher can disengage from the rubber. Here’s everything you need to know about the new rules, what they’ll mean for the players and how the game is likely to change.
The new rule: At the time a pitch is thrown, all four infielders are required to be on the infield dirt (or infield grass) with two on each side of second base. Players will be able to move as soon as the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand. Originally, infielders who began the game on one side of the field would not be allowed to switch to the other side for the entirety of the game, but that was revised to just each inning — unless there’s a mid-inning substitution. In other words, a player who starts an inning at first or second base has to remain on that side of the field for the whole inning but can switch to short or third base the next inning. If there’s an injury mid-inning, then the infield can be reset.
How it will be enforced: If the hitting team reaches base and runners advance on a ball hit under the violation, the game proceeds without penalties. If the play has any other consequence — an out, a sacrifice, etc. — the hitting team can decide either to accept the penalty — which would add one ball to the hitter’s count — or decline it, and the play would stand.
What they’re trying to change: The leaguewide batting average was down to .243 in 2022, the lowest since 1968. A lack of singles in particular is at the heart of the decline, with 2022’s rate of 5.33 per team the third lowest in MLB history — and the 2021 and 2020 seasons filling the two spots ahead of it on the all-time list.
What it’s meant in the minors: During the first two months of the 2022 minor league season, in the lower levels of the minors where shifts are regulated, the batting average on balls in play by left-handed hitters rose by eight points. At Triple-A — where shifts are not banned — it was up only three points.
What players are saying: It would be hard to find a hitter — especially a left-handed one — who isn’t on board with eliminating the shift.
“Growing up, we never had that,” Dodgers outfielder Joey Gallo said last season. “It’s tough to adjust to it because it wasn’t a thing in the minors. … Over time, it’s gotten more extreme and more effective. From a hitter’s standpoint, it’s something that could be changed.”
Perhaps surprisingly, some pitchers are onboard with the move, as well.
“My biggest complaint about the shift is, how do you explain that to kids?” Phillies reliever David Robertson said. “What’s the point of having a shortstop if he can’t play shortstop?”
The new rule: Pitchers will have 15 seconds to throw a pitch with the bases empty and 20 seconds with a runner on base. Hitters will need to be in the batter’s box with eight seconds on the pitch clock.
How it will be enforced: If a pitcher has not started “the motion to deliver a pitch” before the expiration of the clock, he will be charged with a ball. If a batter delays entering the box, he will be charged with a strike.
Each stadium will have two clocks located behind home plate on either side of the umpire while two more will be required in the outfield on either side of the batter’s eye. Spring stadiums may only have one clock in the outfield but will otherwise be fitted to the exact parameters as the MLB ones. Each umpire will be equipped with technology which will inform them when the pitch clock has expired. And for the first time, umpires will also have the ability to speak with each other via communication devices without having to meet in the middle of the infield.
What they’re trying to change: The average time of a nine-inning major league game in 2022 was 3 hours, 4 minutes, which is actually a six-minute decline from 2021’s all-time high — but the time of game has been rising consistently since first crossing the three-hour mark in 2014.
While it is not directly correlated, Statcast’s pitch tempo tracker shows 110 pitchers averaged at least 20 seconds per pitch with the bases empty in 2022.
What it’s meant in the minors: When stricter pitch clock enforcement — based on a 14-second clock with the bases empty and an 18-second clock with runners on — began in the minors earlier in 2022, the results were immediate. Over the first 132 minor league games under the new rules, the average game time was 2 hours, 39 minutes. That’s 20 minutes shorter than the average time of a control set of 335 games run without the clock to begin the season (2 hours, 59 minutes) and 24 minutes shorter than the average of the 2021 season (3 hours, 3 minutes average).
What players are saying: There’s been mixed reactions to the pitch clock, with veteran relievers worried about rushing through high-leverage situations. But many young players who have spent time in the minors during the past couple of seasons are already used to it. In addition to the new pickoff rules, which are tied to the pitch clock, this is bound to create the most debate among players.
The new rule: Pickoffs are one version of a “disengagement,” which consists of any time the pitcher makes a pickoff attempt, fakes a pickoff, or simply steps off the rubber for any reason, as well as when the defense requests time. Pitchers are allowed two disengagements per plate appearance without penalty. The disengagements rule resets if a runner or runners advance a base within the same plate appearance.
How it will be enforced: After a third step-off, the pitcher will be charged with a balk, unless at least one offensive player advances a base or an out is made on the ensuing play after the step off.
What they’re trying to change: A lack of action on the basepaths has been a concern of MLB’s in recent attempts to improve the aesthetics of the sport, with stolen bases per team down to 0.51 per game in 2022 from 0.66 a decade ago. (In the 1980s and 1990s, stolen base rates hovered around the 0.75 range.)
What it’s meant in the minors: In 2021, when the pickoff rules went into effect in Single-A and High-A, stolen base attempts skyrocketed. In 2022, as the rules expanded to every league, baseball saw big gains throughout the minors.
The new rule: The size of bases will be increased from 15 inches to 18 inches.
What they’re trying to change: The increase in the size of the bases should reduce injuries around them while increasing stolen base attempts.
What it’s meant in the minors: In Triple-A, the first season of larger bases didn’t create much of a change on its own — but in the lower levels, bigger bases combined with rules about pickoffs saw large increases in steals per nine innings. Even combined with the disengagement rules, though, MLB doesn’t believe either change will lead to teams being unable to control the run game. Injuries were reduced around the bag after the increase in the size of the bases was instituted in the minors.
Position players pitching
The new rule: Teams will be more limited in when they can pitch a position player. The previous rule allowed them to use one when up or down by six or more runs, but the sides are discussing a tweak in which the leading team would have to be up by as many as 10 or more while the trailing team would have to be down by eight or more in order to pitch a position player.
What they’re trying to change: The league and now even the players agree that too many position players are taking the mound over the course of the season. In fact, players believe it’s having a bigger and bigger impact on production, from offensive numbers to even defensive metrics — all of which come into play during arbitration and free agency. In 2017, there were 32 instances of position players pitching in a game. Last season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, that number jumped to 132.
More questions? We’ve got you covered
Are catcher pickoff throws limited?
No. Catchers can throw down to any base as much as they want. The pitch clock then restarts as soon as the pitcher gets the ball back from an infielder.
Can a catcher hold onto the ball longer to give a pitcher more time?
No. Any attempt — or at least repeated attempt — will result in a warning and/or violation being called. Umpires have discretion here.
Is the distance from home to first and third base now shorter, or just first to second and second to third?
Yes, all baselines are shorter because the size of the base is now 3 inches square bigger than it was previously. That means first and third are that much closer to home plate.
When can a batter step out to reset the pitch clock?
Only when he calls timeout, which can happen once per plate appearance. A batter is allowed to step out of the box after any pitch as long as he’s ready and alert to the pitcher with eight seconds remaining on the clock. To reset the clock, he has to use his timeout.
Can a fielder get a running start to beat the shift rules?
No, running starts won’t be allowed. The fielder can move to the other side of second base only after the pitcher releases the ball. Violations will result in a ball being called. If the ball is put in play, however, the offensive team can choose to accept the result of the play.
Does a catcher get additional time to put his gear on and get to his position if he makes the final out of the inning?
Yes, umpires have discretion when it comes to all matters involving equipment or injury. Common sense will be used by umpires in those moments unless teams are clearly attempting to circumvent the rules.
What happens with the pitch clock after a foul ball when the outfielder has a long run to make?
Again, common sense will be used, but an outfielder doesn’t have to be standing in a specific position for the umpire to start the clock. If he’s a few steps from it and the pitcher has the ball, the clock will start.
Can a pitcher ask for a new ball?
Yes, but he must do so with at least eight seconds remaining on the clock. It’s possible that repeated asks — such as four or five in a row — will result in a warning.
What’s the catcher’s responsibility in getting ready?
He must be in the box and ready to catch with at least nine seconds remaining on the clock.