Thursday marks six weeks since Opening Day and this has been a transformative season for Major League Baseball. The league implemented several new rules designed to make more stuff happen on the field, basically. More aggressive baserunning, more batted balls landing for hits, more defenders showcasing their athleticism, and all of that happening at a quicker pace.
To date, all the rule changes are working as intended, and the game itself feels refreshed. It had become a real slog at times the last few years. Here are some quick numbers on the new rules:
- The average time of a nine-inning game is down from 3:03 last year to 2:36 this year, and the average time between pitches within an at-bat is down from 23.1 seconds last year to 18.4 seconds this year. That's 4.7 fewer seconds per pitch.
- MLB is on pace for 4,360 stolen-base attempts and 3,427 successful stolen bases this season. That would be the most steal attempts since 2011 (4,539) and the most successful steals since 1987 (3,589).
- The league batting average on balls in play is .297, the highest since 2019 (.298), and teams are averaging 4.58 runs per game, the highest in a 162-game season since 2019 (4.83).
Baseball now features more hits, more stolen bases, and more offense in general than the last several years, and MLB has packed it all into games that take on average 26 fewer minutes to play than last year. There's more stuff happening and it's taking less time to happen. Games are more action-packed. That was the goal with these new rules.
What about some under-the-radar changes or unintended consequences of the new rules? Those exist too. Here are four a bit more subtle changes to the game thanks to the new rules.
1. Fewer pickoff attempts, but more pickoffs
It was no secret there would be fewer pickoff attempts this year -- pitchers are limited to two disengagements (step offs, pickoff throws, etc.) per plate appearance now -- and I underestimated how much I would enjoy this as a spectator. I don't miss endless pickoff attempts even a tiny little bit. I know the limit on disengagements makes it harder for pitchers to hold runners, but who cares? Holding runners is boring.
Here are some numbers on pickoff attempts and successful pickoffs, ignoring the bizarre 60-game pandemic season in 2020:
|Pitcher pickoff attempts per game||Successful pitcher pickoffs||Catcher pickoff attempts per game||Successful catcher pickoffs|
There was some thought catchers would attempt more pickoffs (snap throws behind the runner, etc.) to compensate for the limit on pitcher disengagements, but nope. Catchers are attempting pickoffs at roughly the same rate as the last few years, and while their success rate is way down, that could be small-sample noise (there have been fewer than 70 catcher pickoff attempts this year).
As for pitchers, yep, they are attempting way fewer pickoffs per game, though their success rate is up considerably. I don't think it's a fluke either. Pitchers have multiple pickoff moves and, with the limit on disengagements, I think they use their "A" move more often now, hence the higher success rate. They can't casually lob the ball over to keep the runner honest anymore. Every pickoff throw has to count, and more "A" moves equal more successful pickoffs.
2. The new schedule
This year is Year 1 of MLB's new, more balanced schedule in which every team plays every other team at least once. Personally, I don't love interleague play, but the new schedule is a good thing for baseball overall. Shohei Ohtani visited Milwaukee and played at American Family Field for the first time last month. Brewers fans shouldn't have had to wait so long to see him in their building. No fan should have to wait 3-6 years to see a superstar in the other league in their favorite team's ballpark.
As part of the new schedule, each team plays every other team in its division only 13 times rather than the usual 19. Fewer intradivision games puts more of a premium on those games in postseason races. Take the Yankees and Rays, for example. Here is their season series schedule:
|Dates||Location||Number of games|
July 23 to Aug. 2
After losing two of three last weekend in Tampa, the Yankees were 10 games behind the Rays in the AL East, and by the end of this coming weekend, the two teams will have played seven of their 13 head-to-head games. The season series will be more than halfway over, so if the Yankees have any designs on catching the Rays, they'll need help. The new schedule gives them fewer opportunities to beat the Rays head-to-head and gain ground that way.
Most importantly, the new schedule is fair. Teams do play more games against geographic rivals (Angels vs. Dodgers, Cubs vs. White Sox, etc.) than other interleague teams, otherwise you're playing the same schedule as everyone else in your division, and there is no interleague funny business. Imagine if, say, the NL West got to play the AL Central in interleague play this year while the NL East got stuck with the AL East? That wouldn't be very fair for the wild-card races, would it?
3. Intentional pitch timer violations?
Allow me to put my tinfoil hat on for a second. Within the last week or two, I've seen what appeared to be several intentional pitch timer violations, meaning the pitcher deliberately let the timer expire and took the automatic ball penalty. Specifically, it's happened in 0-2 counts (when the pitcher has the most count leverage) and in higher-leverage situations (when you really want to make your pitch).
Here's one possible example (and to be clear, the intentional violation thing is just me speculating. I can't say for certain pitchers are doing this on purpose, all I can say is I've a few several violations similar to this):
Seventh inning of a one-run game, 0-2 count on a great hitter, and the pitcher takes the violation just to give himself a little more time between pitches. Rather than rush a pitch to comply with the clock, take the automatic ball, reset, and throw the pitch you want to throw with conviction. That's the idea, anyway. (Yency Almonte eventually struck out Fernando Tatis Jr. in that at-bat.)
On the flip side, I haven't seen a single hitter take what appeared to be an intentional pitch timer violation, and that makes sense, right? Getting on base is hard enough as it is. You don't need to spot the pitcher a free strike, even in a 3-0 count. Intentional pitch timer violations seem to be much more helpful to pitchers than hitters.
As soon as it was announced the pitch timer will be implemented, everyone from fans to players to front office people began to think of ways to get around it.. Intentionally taking a violation isn't a way around the pitch timer, necessarily, but it is a way to work within the new restrictions.
4. Broadcasters have to deal with the faster pace too
The players have had to adjust to the pitch timer and so too have the people putting on game broadcasts. The quicker pace could mean a rushed version of a story, or one fewer replay per inning, or no stat chyron. That's not necessarily a bad thing! A lot of filler has taken out of the game, broadcasts included.
Here's what a few prominent television play-by-play broadcasters told The Athletic in spring training about having less air time to fill between pitches:
"All we've done is taken away a lot of the time-consuming garbage that ate up so much time," (Cardinals broadcaster Chip) Caray said.
"You really felt like you were overfilling," said (Yankees broadcaster Michael) Kay.
"As someone who is long-winded and a gasbag — and you can use that — there's nothing bad about less of me," (Cubs broadcaster Jon) Sciambi said.
The good stuff stays in. The funny and heartwarming stories still get told, the important replays are still shown, the most relevant stats are still given to the viewers. What we get now is fewer crowd shots, fewer shots of the hitter adjusting his batting gloves, less banter about the best places to eat in this road city, that kinda stuff. Much like the game on the field, broadcasts are not as bloated as they were just last season.