Batter Touched by Live Ball



A comprehensive overview of the 2023 rule changes designed to shorten MLB games



In its effort to speed up Major League Baseball (MLB) games, to shorten them and increase the pace of action on the field, the League has introduced a number of rule changes. The ultimate goal, according MLB, is to enhance the popular appeal of big league baseball and increase viewership.

To effect the desired changes in the game, MLB has made a number of rule changes for the 2023 season, some of which are quite significant. The new rules primarily affect six areas of the game:

  • Introduced a pitch clock affecting pitchers, batters, and catchers.
  • Banned “the shift” on the infield.
  • Introduced larger bases at 1st, 2nd, and 3rd bases.
  • Limited the number of pickoff attempts a pitcher can make.
  • Limited the use of position players as pitchers.
  • Modified extra-inning play by introducing the “ghost runner”.

Let’s discuss each one of these in detail and point to the specific rules in the Official Baseball Rules (OBR) that have changed.

First, though, note that the sheer scope and magnitude of these rule changes has introduced unintended side effects. We have seen, for example, both pitchers and batters teasing out ways to use the new pitch clock to gain an advantage. To combat this, MLB is tweaking how they enforce the new rules.


Pitch timer: pitchers, batters, and catchers

The change that clearly has the largest impact on the game, on its pace of play, is the introduction of the pitch clock (officially referred to as the pitch timer, though “pitch clock” has taken over as the term of use). The new rule specifies timing requirements for the pitcher, the batter, and also for the catcher. Let’s summarize:

  • With no runners on base, pitchers have 15 seconds from the time they receive the ball (or the umpire puts the ball in play following a dead ball) to begin their delivery of a pitch. That is, they have 15 seconds to go into their pitching motion by starting their leg kick. The leg kick is the official trigger with respect to the 15-second rule.
  • With runners on base, pitchers have 20 seconds to begin their delivery.
  • Pitchers have 30 seconds between batters to begin their delivery.
  • For batters, they must be in position and “alert” to the pitcher when the clock hits eight seconds. That is, they must be ready to take a pitch when the pitch clock hits eight seconds. Batters are allowed to request (and be granted) one timeout per at-bat.
  • For catchers, they must be in the catcher’s box and ready to receive the pitch when the clock hits nine seconds.
  • Penalty: For a violation by the pitcher (the clock reaches zero before the pitcher starts his leg kick) the batter is awarded a ball. A violation by the batter results in a strike called against the batter (and batter out if strike three). A violation by the catcher results in a ball awarded to the batter.

Umpires are allowed some discretion in enforcing the pitch timer rule. In the case of an injury, for example, the umpire may suspend the clock. Furthermore, when special circumstances are anticipated that may delay an at-bat (for example, a batter or pitcher may be on the cusp of setting a significant MLB record), a team may request a one-time exception to the rule by notifying MLB at least 24 hours prior to the game.


Pickoff attempts and "disengagements"

Another new rule significantly impacting pace of play (and base running as well) limits how many times a pitcher may disengage the rubber and/or attempt a pickoff. The limit, now, is twice per batter. By “disengagement” is meant any time that a pitcher, after having engaged the pitching plate (the “rubber”), legally disengages by stepping back with his pivot foot. Again, the rule applies to either disengagement or pickoff attempt (since a pitcher can attempt a pickoff at first base without disengaging).

If a pitcher violates this rule by disengaging a third time on a given at-bat, it’s treated as a balk: dead ball, all runners advance one base, or if no runners on base a ball to the batter (though three disengagements with no runners on base would be a pretty strange scenario).

Importantly, though, the third pickoff attempt is not a balk if the attempt succeeds – that is, if the pickoff attempt results in a put-out on the bases.

If a base runner successfully steals a base, this resets the disengagement counter. Say, for example, that with a runner on first, the pitcher throws over on a pickoff attempt. The pitcher now has just one disengagement remaining. Shortly thereafter, but during the same at-bat, the base runner successfully steals second. The counter now resets so that the pitcher once again has two disengagements available.

MLB’s rationale for this new disengagement rule is twofold. On the one hand it enhances pace of play. At the same time, however, it encourages base stealing, which MLB reasons will increase action on the bases.


Larger bases

In another change designed to encourage base stealing, as well as to cut down on collisions and injuries at first base, MLB amended Rule 2.03 and Appendix 2 to reflect changes to the dimensions of first, second, and third bases, which have been enlarged from 13 inches square to 18 inches square. The change has the effect of shortening the distance between bases by 4½ inches. That may not seem like much, but safe/out on base steal is frequently measured in microseconds. And when coupled with the disengagement rule, you can see the potential for a base-stealing renaissance.

MLB maintains that in addition to encouraging more aggressive base stealing, the change will also decrease baserunning injuries. Larger bases create a somewhat larger orbit of action on the bases, allowing more room for both fielders and runners, lessening the likelihood of injurious collisions, particularly at first base. It has been reported that the larger bases used last year in the minor leagues decreased base-related injuries by nearly 14%.


Banned the infield shift

The infield shift is a wicked defensive maneuver that exploits analytics to fine-tune defensive alignments on a player-by-player basis. While very effective defensively, the shift has a crushing effect on offense, since the shift largely eliminates holes in the infield.

MLB amended Rule 5.02(c) to effectively ban the shift. The amended rule now requires that two fielders remain on either side of second base, and that they remain within the infield grass line, which is now set (by a further amendment to Rule 2.01) at “… a 95-foot radius from the center of the pitcher’s plate.” (The rule actually gives major league ballparks a range of from 94 to 96 feet for an average measurement of the grass-line radius.)

The specifics of Rule 5.02(c) require infielder alignments as follows:

  • At the time of pitch the defense must have a minimum of four players (not counting pitcher and catcher) with both feet entirely in front of the infield grass line (that is, on the infield dirt).
  • Two fielders must be positioned entirely on either side of second base. That is, two infielders must be entirely on the third base side of second, and two on the first base side of second.
  • When the pitch is released, fielders on either side of second may not rush quickly to a position on the other side of second in order to defeat the intent of the rule. Nor can infielders change from one side of second to the other during an inning (except in the case of injury or substitution). The rationale for this, according to the League, is to prevent switching the team’s best infielder from side to side according to the handedness (leftie or righty) of the batter.
  • Penalty: On a violation of this rule the ball is dead and a ball is awarded to the batter, except in cases where the batter reaches base on the play in any way, and other base runners (if any) advance at least one base.
  • If the play in which a violation occurs results in an out, but then subsequent action takes place that is advantageous to the offense (for example, scoring on a sacrifice fly, suicide squeeze, etc.), the manager on offense can elect to decline the penalty and accept the play.

An interesting side note is that while the rule says that there must be “a minimum of four players on the infield” (not counting pitcher and catcher), the rule does not preclude bringing an outfielder to the edge of the infield grass to play a roving infield position – that is, if the manager wishes to risk scant coverage in the outfield. The rule does not affect positioning of outfields at all, so the extreme shading of outfielders to center, center-right, and right fields for a left-handed batter, for example, remains a legal maneuver.


Using position players as pitchers

When games get out of control, as when a team is down by ten runs in the eighth inning (it happens), a trend has developed where managers on the losing end will effectively give up on the game but try to save bullpen arms to fight another day by using position players to pitch the final innings. This also affects pitching on the winning side of lopsided games.

MLB reports that in the 2022 season there were 132 instances where position players took the mound in Major League games. Well, not any longer. by rule, now, position players are allowed to pitch only in the following situations:

  • Their team is leading by 10 or more runs in the 9th inning.
  • Their team is losing by eight or more runs at any point in the game.
  • The game is in extra innings.


Extra innings rule: The ghost runner

Going forward, extra innings will see the employment of a rule you may remember from amateur baseball: the ghost runner. Rather than suffer interminable extra inning marathons (according to MLB), using a ghost runner in extra innings increases the likelihood of a timely conclusion to games that are tied at the conclusion of nine innings.

Here are the specifics of the new MLB ghost runner rule:

  • At the start of every inning after the ninth, a baserunner will be placed on second base.
  • The ghost runner shall be the player in the lineup who, in the previous inning, made the final out, or was the batter-runner when the final out was made (in the case of a fielder’s choice, for example). In other words, the player in the lineup who precedes the leadoff batter in the extra inning becomes the ghost runner.
  • Importantly, the ghost runner rule is in effect for regular-season games only. The ghost-runner rule is suspended for all post-season games.


Wrapping it up

As mentioned at the outset, the rule changes for 2023 are so extensive that some updates and even some minor tweaks in how the rules are enforces may be seen as the season develops.

In the main, however, while there are some naysayers, most (except perhaps batters and pitchers) are responding favorably to the speed-up rule changes. MLB reports that so far this season MLB games are nearly half an hour shorter than the average game in the 2022 season.

Stay tuned for updates to the rules as they develop.