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Power ranking MLB rule changes for 2023: Will pitch timer, shift limitations or new schedule be most noticeable?

In baseball, the times really are a-changing after many years of … talking about maybe changing. The collective bargaining agreement that ended MLB’s 2022 lockout installed some changes itself — such as the expanded playoff system and the universal designated hitter — and cleared a more expedient path for commissioner Rob Manfred and the league to implement future fundamental rule changes.

The first wave will take effect on Opening Day 2023 and will likely dominate conversation and preparation around spring training. In September 2022, MLB announced several on-field rule changes, including the long-awaited pitch clock (or pitch timer, as MLB is officially calling it). Two other significant changes were agreed upon as part of the CBA negotiations but are going into effect for the first time in 2023.

For fans, there are six changes to watch for, some of which will leap off the screen and some that might take a minute to notice. To prepare for a new season, let’s rank MLB’s new changes by just how noticeable they'll be in 2023 and take some guesses at how they might affect the viewing experience.

1. Pitch timer

The game is getting a clock. That might feel like a jarring addition, but it’s meant to bring the sport back into line with the experience most fans grew up with. The average nine-inning game took 3 hours, 3 minutes in 2022. All eight seasons on record in which nine-inning games averaged at least three hours have come since 2014. In the minor leagues, the pitch timer cut the average game by 25 minutes. If that effect were replicated in the majors, it would speed games up to a pace last seen in 2006.

As a refresher, here’s how the timer will count down in each situation:

  • 30 seconds between batters

  • 15 seconds between pitches when the bases are empty

  • 20 seconds between pitches with runner(s) on base

Pitchers must begin their motions by the time the timer expires or be charged with an automatic ball. Batters will also be governed by the timer. They must be “in the box and alert to the pitcher” by the eight-second mark, or they'll be charged with an automatic strike.

This is unquestionably the most seismic change coming in 2023 — though it could be dwarfed by an automated ball-strike system that could reach the majors in some form in future seasons. Pitchers — and more hitters than you might realize — will be forced to adjust career-spanning habits and rituals. Even your favorite broadcasters might have to alter their routines with less dead air to fill.

Still, the goal is an admirable one. And if the outcome matches the minor-league experiments, it would be a boon for baseball to pack the same amount of action into a more easily consumed package.

2. Infield shift restrictions

In a move to tamp down some of the creative defensive positioning that has taken away more and more hits in recent seasons, MLB is implementing limitations on infield defense. This season, fielding teams must have four infielders on the dirt at the start of each pitch, with at least two defenders entirely on each side of second base. If the defense violates the rule, the hitting team can choose an automatic ball or accept the result of the play (such as if the pitch resulted in a double despite the positioning infraction).

Teams will undoubtedly draw up some new forms of defensive wizardry within these new boundaries, but the basic shape of infields will look like the stereotypical position graphics more often than they have in recent years.

Left-handed power hitters, in particular, will provide a stress test for the restrictions, as they were the recipients of the most extreme defensive maneuvering. Maybe Corey Seager, Kyle Schwarber & Co. will suddenly bat .280 and .250 instead of .245 and .218.

But those same sluggers might also be worth watching for the adaptations. Could an outfielder stand in short right field like the second baseman used to? Some team is going to try it.

Braves ace Max Fried, a lithe left-hander, routinely ranks among MLB's leaders in successful pickoffs. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Braves ace Max Fried, a lithe left-hander, routinely ranks among MLB's leaders in successful pickoffs. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

3. Pickoff rules

This is technically entering the rulebook as part of the pitch timer, but the new law of the running game is worth examining on its own. Pitchers are no longer allowed unlimited throws to a base, at least not without the threat of a penalty. There are two “disengagements” allowed per plate appearance — with a disengagement being a pickoff attempt or a step off the mound that isn’t an injury or a mound visit. A pitcher can attempt a third pickoff, but the runner automatically advances if the pickoff isn’t successful. Also of note: The counter resets if a runner advances.

At least at first, this will be another huge change for veteran pitchers and for the strategy of the game as a whole. New York Mets manager Buck Showalter, in classic Buck style, is reportedly planning to give his players a quiz upon arrival at spring training to see how much of the new rules they have internalized and how much they need drilled into them before real games begin.

If the traditional ballpark reaction to multiple pickoff attempts — a flood of boos — is any indication, this rule might be most noticeable for the moments it eliminates. What remains to be seen is whether the limits create a more brazen base-stealing environment or hurlers simply adapt and maintain the league’s relatively conservative running status quo.

4. Balanced schedule

If you’re a season ticket-holder or devotee of your team’s local broadcast, perhaps this change will prove underrated. In the new version of MLB’s schedule, every team will play every other team every season.

Here’s how it will work for any given team:

  • 14 games per season against each division rival, down from 19 in the previous schedule format

  • Six games per season against the 10 other teams in the same league — one home series, one away series each

  • Four games per season against a “geographic” interleague rival, pairings that sometimes make sense (Yankees-Mets, Cubs-White Sox) and sometimes pit the Houston Astros against the Colorado Rockies

  • Three games per season against every other interleague team — one annual series that will alternate locations each year

In total, each club will play 46 interleague matchups, up from 16. Along with the 12-team playoff format and the universal DH adopted in 2022, this is a move toward an NFL- or NBA-style view of league competition. And as MLB points out, it will create a more level playing field in crucial wild-card races, as “teams in the same league will feature 76% of common opponents, up from 52% in an unbalanced schedule.” That stands as a stark contrast to the old system, in which one NL contender could theoretically play its interleague slate against the weak AL Central while another racing for the same playoff spot was forced to play the daunting AL East.

For fans, there’s also a more basic entertainment aspect: Everyone will get to see their team face Shohei Ohtani or Aaron Judge or whichever far-flung star might have otherwise been difficult to watch.

5. Ads on uniforms

Yes, the uniforms will have advertising patches in 2023. A staple of European soccer kits, corporate sponsorship unsurprisingly leapt into American athletic attire with MLS in 2007. It began its creep into the country’s more mainstream sports with the NBA in 2017, then continued onto NHL helmets and sweaters. MLB negotiated the right for owners to sell jersey patches as part of the new CBA, with commissioner Rob Manfred calling them “a reality of life in professional sports.”

The San Diego Padres, the first team to strike a deal for their patch, will charge Motorola $9 million per year. Other teams will undoubtedly rake in even more for uniform real estate.

Baseball fans are not known for seamless reactions to change. Previous additions of the New Era logo to on-field caps and the Nike logo to on-field uniforms both caused uproars among traditionalists and cranky Twitter users. Unsurprisingly, those moments of outrage proved to be, well, momentary.

The introduction of outside sponsorship could be tougher to get used to, and it certainly creates more opportunities for teams or brands to stumble into controversy — or at least awkward situations. The Washington Nationals, for instance, signed a lucrative sponsorship deal with the cryptocurrency company Terra mere months before it collapsed.

6. Bigger bases

Finally, the bases. They are going to be bigger. Specifically, they will be 18 inches square instead of 15 inches square. While there’s some hope that this game of inches might encourage more stolen bases, the stated reason behind the change is player safety. A bigger bag allows runners and fielders more room to avoid dangerous collisions and entanglements, especially at first.

Fans who find that this change jumps off the screen at them are encouraged to pursue careers as fighter pilots. For everyone else, sit back and enjoy the show as a constantly evolving sport gets some new guardrails.