The new MLB rules have baseball in overdrive

Almost two months into baseball’s pitch clock era, you sometimes wonder why the sport got so slow. Why did we endure standing traffic on a ride that could have been so much smoother?

“It was Red Sox/Yankees — a lot of people around here, they sure know that,” Scott Servais, the manager of the Seattle Mariners, said with a smile last week before a game at Fenway Park in Boston. “I mean, it was four hours every night. Just a normal 4-2 match lasted 3 hours and 40 minutes. It has sped things up a lot.

The game played that night by Servais’s team did not evoke the prose of Angell or Updike. Mariners pitchers allowed 12 runs and 16 hits, while Red Sox pitchers allowed eight walks. There were two hit batters, three errors, 10 pitchers and 19 runners left on base. Yet it took just 2 hours and 57 minutes, faster than the average major league game in each of the past seven seasons.

“The first five innings of a game are shuttlecocks,” Servais said. “We have two or three hits, they have two or three hits and you look up and it’s the fifth inning and we’re not even an hour away. It’s going to slow down a bit from there, but there are some nights where I think, ‘We’ll do this in about an hour and 50 minutes.’”

In fact, just days later at ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” — the stage for so many of those infamous marathons between the Red Sox and Yankees — the Mets and Cleveland Guardians finished in an order of 2 hours and 6 minutes, the fastest “Sunday Night Baseball” in eight years.

For veteran players, the pitch clock — the most important of Major League Baseball’s many rule changes this season — required a recalibration of the sport’s familiar rhythms. But the results are impossible to ignore: Through Monday, the average runtime in a nine-inning game was 2 hours, 37 minutes, which would be the fastest pace in MLB since 1984. Last season’s average, in the same number of days, it was 3 hours. 5 minutes.

The average time in a nine-inning game had never been three hours until 2014. After a slight decline in 2015, it’s been at least three hours since then. He thinks of MLB as the lenient parent who has suddenly become strict. The kids were out late, so now there’s a curfew: 15 seconds with the bases empty, 20 seconds with runners on base.

“If there was a way to keep pace without the clock, we would have done it 20 years ago,” said MLB executive vice president of baseball operations Morgan Sword.

“We started Day 1 of spring training with strict enforcement of all these new rules and felt it was the best way to help players through that adjustment period and get to the other end,” Sword continued. “And as we’ve seen in the minor leagues, once you’re at the other end, violations happen in less than half of the games and they’re not a big part of the competition, but you feel the clockwork advantage every single shot throughout. the night .”

The rule changes, Sword said, worked as MLB intended. With larger bases and a cap on pickoff attempts per plate aspect, stolen base attempts are up to 1.8 per game, the most since 2012, and the 78.7 percent hit rate is the highest in the league. history. With a ban on defensive shifts that placed more than two infielders on one side of the diamond, the batting average on balls in play rose to . 298, up six runs from last year, and fielding is back in vogue.

“You can no longer hide the second baseman from the shift,” said Red Sox shortstop Kiké Hernández. “I feel like there have been a lot of really offensive second basemen who didn’t necessarily line up their position that well, but got away with playing second base because they hid in the shift. Now you have to be a little more athletic again.

In a sense, the shift was like a cheat code. The data showed where a batter was most likely to hit a ball, so fielders positioned themselves accordingly. Without the shift, intuitive interiors with a passion for preparation have an edge.

“I like the spacing of what the defense is like now; it’s so pure,” said Seattle’s Kolten Wong, a two-time Gold Glove winner at second base. “You have to pay close attention to the pitch call, the tendencies of the hitters, what the guys try to do in certain situations. It makes the game more intriguing.”

Wong, a left-handed hitter, didn’t see an advantage on offense; he’s batting under .200. Overall, however, lefties hit 37 more points with ground balls and 28 more points with lines drawn. Future generations of lefties may never know the anguish of their predecessors.

“It was a nightmare,” said Matt Joyce, a former outfielder who hit .242 in a 14-year career through 2021. “It drove me nuts. The argument for me was, if he hits right-handers equally, OK. But you were basically killing left-handed hitters, which obviously wasn’t right. Now they are definitely being rewarded for a good contact, because there are a lot more holes.”

Joyce is now a broadcast analyst for the Tampa Bay Rays, who have thrived on the bases. Rays have stolen 53 bases through Monday, tied with Pittsburgh Pirates for most in MLB

Tellingly, the five teams with the lowest salaries this season — Oakland, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Cleveland — are also the five teams with the most steals. Cheaper players tend to be younger and younger players tend to be faster. With a higher chance of success in base theft attempts, low-wage teams have another weapon.

“Tarrik Brock looks after our run on base, and he started texting me as soon as we thought these rules would go into effect,” said Pirates manager Derek Shelton, referring to the team’s first base coach. “He was playing for your personal, because we have young, athletic players who have played within these rules a little bit, so they knew what was going on with them. The message from the beginning of spring training was: We will run the bases aggressively.

The Pirates struggled in May but were still tied with Milwaukee atop the National League Central through Monday. The Rays, meanwhile, were the best team in the majors, even though they lost two of their starting pitchers, lefty Jeffrey Springs and righty Drew Rasmussen, to arm injuries.

The question remains whether the faster pace is affecting player health.

Speaking broadly of the camp clock — and prior to Rasmussen’s injury — Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder said the accelerated pace clashed with the modern approach to pitching.

“It’s power-lifting every 15 seconds,” Snyder said. “It’s all they have. No one is out there holding anything back in 2023. There’s a lot more power and less artistry than before, and now they have less time to catch up in between.

Pitchers can reset the clock by disengaging from the rubber twice per plate appearance, even if only with one runner on base. They have a few other tricks to gain a few seconds here and there, but nothing to markedly change their mental or physical pace.

“It’s important to slow down your game when you’re in trouble and you don’t really have that opportunity,” said Boston reliever Richard Bleier. “You can only throw so many balls into the dugout before they just say no.”

Chicago White Sox reliever Joe Kelly, a former starter, predicted in spring training that starters’ injuries would “skyrocket” because their muscles need more time to recover between pitches than the clock does. allow. It hasn’t quite happened, but that could be a matter of perspective.

Since spring training through day 55 of the regular season (Monday), pitchers have been placed on the injured list 232 times, up from 204 last year. Additionally, spring training was shorter in 2022 due to the lockout: From day 2 of this regular season to day 55, IL pitcher placings decreased slightly, to 109 from 111.

“The best predictor of injury is the prior injury, and today we have more pitchers on our rosters who have significant injury histories than we’ve ever had in baseball history, so there’s sort of a snowball effect,” he said. sword.

He added, “But the throwing style that has emerged over the last couple of decades that is maximum effort, high velocity, high spin is also related to injury. And so combine that together, we’re definitely experiencing long-term uptick. I don’t think there is strong evidence to support a material change this year compared to the last two years.”

It will take years to assess the true impact of the new rules. With power pitching becoming more difficult to execute, will finesse pitching become more popular? With less time on the pitch, will positional players feel stronger as the season progresses? With a more attractive product, will participation, up 6% from the same point last year, continue to increase?

We already know this: a lot of downtime has passed and no one wants it back. Remove weeds from the garden and good things will have more room to flourish.

“Aside from the pacing, the product is just cleaner,” said Howie Rose, the Mets’ radio voice. “The boys are still hitting too much, the pitchers are still walking too much, the boys are still trying to get the ball out of the park. But since the ball is always thrown, whether it’s in play or not, it only heightens your senses. And for me, this is a very welcome thing.

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