MLB rule changes already showing baseball is improved product

I’ve been hard on the Commish. I have. There have been a lot of things that Rob Manfred has done in the eight years since he assumed stewardship of Major League Baseball from Bud Selig that I’ve taken issue with, found fault with. Those things are all a part of his permanent record. 

But so is this: 

The game is better this year than it was last year. 

OK: This is a ridiculously small sample size upon which to pass judgment, I get that. But it is hard to shake the notion that the 2023 season, even in the wee small hours of early morning, looks different — better — than the one we last saw as midnight struck on the 2022 season. 

And let us count the ways: 

1. Time of game 

I get it: No demographic has both waxed poetic through the years about baseball’s timeless (and clock-less) nature and complained about the fact the games take forever than the men and women who write about baseball. I shall plead nolo contendere on behalf of myself and every one of my colleagues. 

That said: this was not a just a complaint of ink-stained wretches. At least once — usually multiple times — as recent nine-inning baseball games have dragged on past 3 ½ and four hours there will be some voice screeching from the upper deck who has grown weary from inactivity: “JUST THROW THE DAMNED BALL!” is the cleanest version of this complaint. 

Opening Day MLB games were 18 minutes shorter than the average length of last year’s games due to the pitch clock.
Getty Images

They throw the damn ball now. The Yankees-Giants game on Opening Day wrapped in a tidy 2:33, and Mets-Marlins clocked in at 2:42. The average game went 2:45, 18 minutes shorter than last year’s average of 3:03. And the seven games played on Opening Day last year stretched to an average of 3:11. Apologies to Max Scherzer, shorter games are better games for everybody, and the pitch clock is the engine for that. And the quirks — like whatever it was that cost Jeff McNeil a strike in Miami — will work themselves out. 

Full disclosure: My argument against pitch clocks was always this: I remember as a kid, when I’d get to go to one or two games a year, I’d root for extra innings because I wanted to stay at the ballpark forever. Three things: a) I was a super-nerdy kid; b) it was 1976 and our entertainment options were limited; c) baseball remains the grandest of all games when baseball is actually being played — inactivity appeals to nobody. 

2. Limiting pick-off plays/oversized bags 

Teams will figure out the first part. And the second … well, to the naked eye the bases look the same, but the new 18-inch bags mean the bases are 4 ½ inches closer to each other than they used to be. And so it was unsurprising that there were 21 steals among the 15 games (in 23 tries). That’s the most for an Opening Day since … 1907! 

Full disclosure: The worst casualty of the launch-angle era was that not just the stolen base, but smart aggressive baserunning in general became marginalized. I will admit: I prefer triples to home runs, and I prefer seeing a guy go first-to-third (even Daniel Vogelbach did that Thursday!) to upper-tank home runs. I’m still pretty nerdy. 

Anthony Volpe steals second base during the Yankees' win over the Giants on March 30
Anthony Volpe steals second base during the Yankees’ win over the Giants on March 30, one of 21 stolen bases across the 15 Opening Day games.

3. No more shifts 

Yep, for years I was among the brigade who screamed: big-league hitters should figure out how to beat the shift. I was flipped by two realities: a) the original shift was created for Ted Williams, and Teddy Ballgame figured out how to hit .344 in his career hitting through, over and under the shift; it’s not just modern players who are stubborn; b) the only people who like the idea of a short right fielder scooping up ball after ball that was a base hit for 125 years were pitchers. And nobody ever cares what pitchers feel when it affects offense. 

There were more hits-per-hour-of-baseball on Opening Day (just over 6) than on any in 20 years; in 2022 HPHOB was just over 5. That makes a huge difference. 

Ron Manfred
Rob Manfred deserves credit for helping usher in MLB’s rule changes this season.

Full disclosure: Though I did love a) that the Royals loopholed the rule by moving right fielder MJ Melendez to short right against old friend Joey Gallo, shifting the other outfielders way toward right to cover for him; b) that Gallo hit a textbook double-play ground ball right at Melendez; c) that Melendez then bobbled the ball and booted the play. The game is still played by human beings, after all. 

4. Extra-inning games 

There were none on Opening Day, so we were ghosted by the ghost runner, and this isn’t a new rule so much as a newish one that still draws debate. So I will go straight to … 

Full disclosure: Here’s another rule I was dead-set against when it was invented in COVID Summer, and it is good that it disappears in October. But much as the appeal of a five-hour Yankees-Red Sox game has all but evaporated, so, too, has the appetite for 17-inning games in May and August. Here’s what I would do: play the 10th inning straight. Play the 11th with the ghost man on first. And from there on out, play with the man on second. 

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