MLB adding new rules for 2023, including pitch clock and limits on the infield shift

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MLB is adding a pitch clock and limits on the infield shift for the 2023 season. (Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images)
MLB is adding a pitch clock and limits on the infield shift for the 2023 season. (Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images)

Major League Baseball’s competition committee reportedly approved a series of rule changes for 2023 in a vote Friday, including a pitch clock and limits on defensive positioning. The new rules were passed in spite of the four player representatives voting unanimously against two of the proposals.

ESPN's Jeff Passan first reported the results of the vote.

As laid out in the new collective bargaining agreement, negotiated this offseason, a committee of 11 members — six from the commissioner’s office, four players and one umpire — can discuss and approve rule changes in a shorter period of time than had previously been permitted. In essence, new rules can be implemented for an upcoming season.

Over the past few years, MLB has experimented with a variety of rules and versions of those rules at different minor league and independent league levels with the intention of speeding up the game and injecting more offense via action on the basepaths. This year, games at the major league level are more than half an hour longer than they were in 1976, and the league-wide batting average is down to .243, the lowest since 1968, while over 34% of at-bats are against a defensive shift. Data from the minors this season shows that pitch clocks, for instance, shave an average of 26 minutes off the total game time.

Here are the details on the rules, as originally reported by The Athletic on Thursday.

Pitch clock

The pitch clock will be set for 15 seconds when the bases are empty and 20 seconds when runners are on. Pitchers must start their motion by the time it runs out. The clock also sets limits on other players. Catchers must be in their box with nine seconds left. The batter must be in the box and “alert to the pitcher” with eight seconds left.

If pitchers or catchers violate the clock, they will be charged with an automatic ball. If a batter runs afoul of it, they will be hit with an automatic strike.

The clock is supposed to start when the pitcher has the ball and both catcher and batter are in the dirt near home plate, which allows some room for interpretation (and possibly confusion).

Between batters, there will be a 30-second clock, and inning breaks will be 2 minutes, 15 seconds. Mound visits will also now come with a 30-second clock.

Crucially, pitchers will be allowed to step off the mound only twice per plate appearance — for pickoffs or anything else. MLB is calling these “disengagements.” If a pitcher steps off a third time, a balk is assessed unless he gets an out (such as on a pickoff) or runners advance on the play.

Batters, meanwhile, will be limited to one timeout per plate appearance.

Pitch clock issues cannot be reviewed on replay.

Limits on the infield shift

Defenses will be required to have four players standing completely inside the boundary of the infield dirt. Two of those four must be on either side of second base.

Teams have to designate the infielders who will stand on each side, and they can’t switch sides unless there’s a substitution.

Violating the rule results in a ball and a dead ball unless the hitter reaches on the play. The hitting team can also choose to accept other plays, like a sacrifice fly.

Bigger bases

The bases will be 18-inch squares instead of 15-inch squares, which is designed to encourage stolen bases and prevent injuries.

The vote was largely a formality given that the commissioner’s office has the majority of votes on the committee. Players provided feedback on the initial proposals and were able to secure an extra second on the pitch clock, but ultimately felt that their concerns were not meaningfully addressed. Among their suggestions that failed to gain traction was a transition period in which enforcement would only be through warnings and not awarding balls and strikes. The players on the committee — pitchers Tyler Glasnow and Jack Flaherty, and position players Whit Merrifield and Austin Slater — voted unanimously against the pitch clock and the limits on shifts. They voted in favor of the bigger bases.

In a statement Friday, the union said:

Players live the game — day in and day out. On-field rules and regulations impact their preparation, performant, and ultimately the integrity of the game itself. Players from across the league were engaged in on-field rule negations through the Competition Committee, and they provided specific and actionable feedback on the changes proposed by the Commissioner’s Office. Major League Baseball was unwilling to meaningfully address the areas of concern that Players raised, and as a result, Players on the Competition Committee voted unanimously against the implementation of the rules covering defensive shifts and the use of a pitch timer.

Who will be affected by the shift limits?

Left-handed pull hitters are the most commonly shifted players. Joey Gallo, Corey Seager and Anthony Rizzo have faced infields playing either a shift or “strategic” alignment on more than 97% of the pitches they’ve seen in 2022. The strategic alignment, as described by Statcast, includes a variety of positioning patterns where there are still two infielders on each side of second, but some versions of them include things that will be banned in 2023, such as a second baseman playing in shallow right field.

Unsurprisingly, contact-heavy line-drive hitters face the fewest shifts. Whit Merrifield, Tim Anderson, Amed Rosario and Jean Segura are among the batters who see the fewest shifts in 2022.

The infield shift doesn’t necessarily work exactly as you’d think. While we think about it affecting balls in play, data shows shifts also influence the likelihood of a strikeout or walk, often in opposing directions depending on the batter’s handedness.

Banning it, in other words, won’t be a silver bullet to stoke offense, and the ultimate outcomes may not be straightforward. For one cherry-picked example, left-handed Los Angeles Dodgers star Freddie Freeman has faced a shift about 57% of the time in 2022, and fared better in those plate appearances than when he isn’t facing a shift.

It’s also worth noting that the new rules only restrict infield shifts. It could very well help hitters, especially pull hitters, scrounge out a few more hits on the ground, but advancements in outfield positioning are also a huge factor contributing to stronger defense across baseball.

Who will be affected by the pitch clock?

A vast swath of pitchers and batters will have to adjust their habits when the pitch clock takes effect next season. While pitchers are often under the microscope, batters who linger outside the box or conduct elaborate routines — think Nomar Garciaparra — between pitches can also slow down the game.

The slowest workers on the mound in 2022, per Statcast’s Pitch Tempo metrics, include Shohei Ohtani, Corbin Burnes, Michael Kopech and Luis Garcia.

Pitchers who may not need to adjust very much? It unsurprisingly skews toward younger hurlers, many of whom played with a pitch clock in the minors. Oakland’s Cole Irvin, Milwaukee’s Aaron Ashby and San Francisco ace Logan Webb have been the fastest with the bases empty. Guardians ace and former Cy Young winner Shane Bieber also works quickly, one of the few pitchers whose average delivery time would meet the approval of the impending pitch timer.

The sluggish batters in 2022, again via Statcast, include a litany of Red Sox, Astros and Mets. Christian Vazquez, J.D. Martinez and Mark Canha stand out as particularly methodical hitters, to put it kindly. Pete Alonso, Brandon Nimmo and Trevor Story also slow things down, especially with men on base.