At the beginning of the season, the implementation of new rule changes dominated the conversation surrounding baseball.
There was a pitch clock for the first time ever — probably the most controversial of all the changes, though a month into the season, a few MLB players had come to appreciate it — and the bigger bases went viral on social media as they were compared to pizza boxes. There was also the elimination of the shift and a limit to how many times a pitcher could disengage from the rubber.
Now, as we near the end of the 2023 regular season — and prepare for the first MLB postseason with the new rules in play — the impact these changes have had on the game of baseball itself has become incredibly clear.
Game time is down, while all the things that make baseball fun are up. With 97% of the season completed, batting average is up six points (.249) from 2022, batting average on balls in play is up seven points (.297) and on-base percentage is up eight points (.320). We also saw an increase in runs per game (from 8.6 last season to 9.3 in 2023) and stolen base attempts (1.4 to 1.8). On top of that, average attendance is up 9.15%, the biggest one-year increase across the league in 30 years, according to MLB.
Now that we have almost a full 162-game slate to draw from, we asked ESPN MLB experts Buster Olney, Jesse Rogers and Alden Gonzalez to give their takeaways on the rule changes — from what they have heard from players and managers to one rule change they think could come to baseball next.
What’s one stat or number that best sums up the impact of this year’s rule changes?
Olney: Twenty-four. That’s the number of minutes that the average game time has been reduced by, which is a monumental change. There are still nine innings and 54 outs, but that action is crammed into a game duration that is 15% shorter than it was in the past. It’s clear from attendance figures and television ratings that fans have responded to the new product.
Rogers: Some would assume the answer would be time of game, but that doesn’t impact the on-field product. Last year, the Texas Rangers led the majors in stolen bases with 128. This season, nine teams already have more than that number and two more are likely to surpass it as well. And the success rate on steals, 80.2%, is the highest in the history of the game.
Gonzalez: The increase in stolen-base frequency serves as a good gauge because it’s a product of several new rules — the bigger bases, the limits on disengagements and, to some degree, the pitch clock. MLB noted that stolen-base attempts increased to 1.8 per game in 2023, up from 1.4 in 2022. If you don’t think that’s a lot — well, it is. Fans want shorter games at a quicker pace, certainly. But the stolen base was a real void in recent years. It’s all the way back now, and that’s a really good thing.
What have you heard most about the rule changes from players and managers?
Olney: A few players and managers — most of them older guys — quietly complain about some of the new rules, especially the pitch clock. But the vast majority of those in the industry (players, coaches, managers, umpires, clubhouse attendants, stadium workers) seem to love the changes. Especially the shorter games.
Rogers: Pitchers would like the ability to step off with no one on base without it being counted as a mound visit. Hitters get a timeout with runners on or when the bases are empty. Why can’t a pitcher?
Gonzalez: I heard several complaints from players about the new rules early in the season — pitchers on having to juggle the pitch clock and the disengagement limits while also focusing on how to attack their opponents, and hitters on needing more time to get settled into the batter’s box. But pitch timer violations went from 0.87 per game within the first 100 games to 0.34 per game in a very recent stretch of 100 games, according to MLB.com. In other words: Players adjust.
Who has benefited the most — and least — from the rule changes?
Olney: The young fans, I think, have benefitted the most. My 19-year-old sports crazy son is a great focus group of one for me, and perhaps his experience this year mirrors that of a lot of his generation. In the past, the idea of sitting through a whole game was not something that ever interested him because he felt the action lagged. He hated waiting for slow-working pitchers to get on the mound. But this year, with the average game time comparable to an NBA or hockey game, he constantly watched games from beginning to end.
Those who benefited the least: hitters. I think there was a broad assumption that position players would get a little more production boost in light of the shift restrictions, but that really didn’t happen. Until baseball makes rules limiting the high volume of relief pitchers, there probably won’t be a big spike in offense.
Rogers: There’s little doubt that anyone who is a stolen base threat has benefitted. Nico Hoerner jumped from 20 stolen bases in 2022 to over 40 this season. Ha-Seong Kim from 12 to 36. Willi Castro from nine to over 30. The list goes on and on of players who are setting career highs in steals due to the bigger bases and the new disengagement rules.
Gonzalez: I’ll throw another group that benefited into the mix: left-handed hitters. Not all of them, of course, but the shift restrictions have prevented teams from implementing extreme shifts on pull-happy lefties. Batting average on balls in play by left-handed hitters was .285 from 2020 to 2022. This year, it’s .295. Corey Seager was looked upon as somebody who would greatly benefit from the shift restrictions, and he’d be making a serious run at MVP right now if not for Shohei Ohtani (another left-handed hitter, by the way).
How much will the new rules impact the MLB playoffs next month?
Olney: For years, we’ve heard complaints about how some fans couldn’t stay up to watch the entirety of playoff and World Series games that continued past midnight. Well, this will be a different experience. Because of the extra commercial time, postseason games will still be longer than regular season games — but not always the 4 1⁄2-hour behemoths we’ve seen in past Octobers. And teams will run more in the postseason than they did during the regular season, taking advantage of the limits on pick-off attempts.
Rogers: Here’s how Atlanta Braves starter Spencer Strider thinks the new rules will impact baseball in October: “The strategy is what’s at stake more than the effects of the rule. I see it as we have a really big pitch coming up and everyone’s a little too nervous to take a moment or take a mound visit, especially early in the game. And you make a pitch that we wouldn’t have otherwise made had we had the time to talk about it.”
Gonzalez: That remains to be seen. A lot has been said — by players and some of their agents — about lengthening or eliminating the pitch clock in the playoffs, or perhaps just in the late innings. That won’t happen, of course. And while I understand the need for continuity, I would hate to see a postseason game decided by a pitch timer violation. It’s fine if it happens occasionally within the 4,860 games that are played from April to September. But not in October. Hopefully the players are adjusted enough by then to render this moot.
What’s one rule change you think could come to baseball next?
Olney: The sport desperately needs to restore the preeminence of starting pitchers. For the players’ association, it’s an important financial issue because, historically, starting pitchers have been instrumental in pushing salary ceilings. For MLB, there is a need for day-to-day headliners to market the sport — matchups akin to Pedro Martinez vs. Roger Clemens, Madison Bumgarner vs. Clayton Kershaw.
The parade of relief pitchers designed to exploit matchup advantages is not a compelling product — just as four-hour games did not make for a compelling product — and the lords of the sport know this. But making changes in this realm will be very hard, given that relief pitchers now make up an enormous proportion of the union.
Rogers: Automatic balls and strikes still need some perfecting, so some smaller rules are in play, such as the runner’s lane to first. This has always been confusing when it comes to calling interference on the runner. The league is likely to tweak the rule so that the burden isn’t completely on the runner, who isn’t attempting to interfere with the play in the first place.
Gonzalez: Full-on automatic balls and strikes might still be a ways away, but I can definitely see a challenge system for balls and strikes coming in the near future. It’s a nice, happy medium. Umpires get the vast majority of these calls right, regardless of what you might interpret from social media; what we need to eliminate are the obvious misses, especially in critical spots. The challenge system does that, while implementing another cool strategic component to the game. It’s also incredibly fast.