Round Two: Love it or hate it, it’s time for change in baseball

Head shot of Tom Hardesty, a white man with short hair in a grey golf polo with the caption "Round Two with Tom Hardesty"

Major League Baseball is at a crossroads.

The oldest major professional sports league in the world hates change. It took 71 years before Black people were allowed to play, and some fans in New York City still haven’t recovered from their beloved Giants and Dodgers leaving for California after the 1957 season.

Nor will they forgive it. The 2007 HBO film “Brooklyn Dodgers: The Ghosts of Flatbush,” relates a story about then-Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, who moved the team from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, and how the club’s loyal fans in New York really felt about him. It goes like this: “If you asked a Brooklyn Dodger fan: If you had a gun with only two bullets in it and were in a room with Hitler, Stalin, and O’Malley, who would you shoot? The answer: O’Malley, twice!”

Harsh, yes, but you get the idea. Old habits die hard and grudges live forever when it comes to the national pastime. The gears of progress grind slowly.

Too slowly, as far as MLB is concerned, which is why the league has gone on a rules-changing spree for the 2023 season: To speed the game up, give it some action, breathe a little life into a pastoral sport that has long prided itself on the fact that it isn’t beholden to a clock.

These are big changes, too. Even MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said: “We think the changes are going to produce a crisp, more exciting game with more balls in play.”

Baseball purists who think teams should still travel by train, wear button-down jerseys and never have to play a game west of the Mississippi River will cringe at that remark. The only thing they despise more than the designated hitter, adopted in 1973, is the no-pitch intentional walk, adopted in 2017. And don’t even get them started on instant replay review, which first came about in 2008 and was refined into the current system we all know and love in 2014.

Then there are the modernists, who see baseball as a little too pastoral for its own good: Too much standing around in the field, too much glove-adjusting and helmet-positioning at the plate, too much lollygagging on the mound.

Too much of nothing going on.

Modernists say the game is slow if you’re at the stadium, and it’s way worse on television, where you can see two, maybe three players at any given time. Too many closeups of infielders blowing bubbles, too many closeups of the pensive look on a manager’s face, too many closeups of the pitcher’s eyebrows.

Too many closeups of, again, nothing going on.

Purists say these moments increase tension; they’re part of what makes baseball unique.

Modernists say these moments increase drowsiness; they’re part of what makes baseball boring.

MLB has sided with the modernists and recently announced three paradigm-shifting rules changes for the 2023 season:

– Pitch Timer: Pitchers will have 15 seconds between pitches with the bases empty and 20 seconds with runners on. If pitchers don’t begin their motion in that time, they will be assessed a ball. On the flip side, batters not in the box by the 8-second mark of the pitch clock will receive a strike. “Play ball!” finally has some teeth — and the game needs some, because it has slowed to a crawl over the last few decades. In 1985, the average length of a Major League Baseball game was 2 hours and 44 minutes; in 2021, that ballooned to a record high of 3 hours and 11 minutes.

In addition to the pitch timer, there will be a 30-second clock between batters and a 2 minute, 15 second inning break during regular-season games.

Pitchers will also be limited to two disengagements (pickoff attempts or step-offs) per batter; violations are a balk. The obvious effect of this will be more action on the base paths: Limits on pickoff attempts led to a 26% increase in stolen-base attempts in the minors last season.

The net effect of the new rule will be shorter games: The pitch timer helped reduce game length by 25 minutes in the minors in 2022. So MLB will get its wish.

– Bigger Bases: This one’s mainly about player safety, although it will certainly increase action. The physical dimensions of first, second and third base have been increased from 15 inches square to 18 inches square. This reduces the distance from home plate to first base, and from home plate to third base, by 3 inches; the distance from first base to second base, and from second base to third base, is reduced by 4.5 inches. According to MLB, bigger bases reduced injury events near the bases by more than 13% in the minors in 2022.

– Shift Restrictions: Hitters will love this one. Two infielders must be positioned on either side of second base when the pitch is released, and all four infielders must have both feet within the infield when the pitcher is on the rubber. A violation results in a ball, or the batting team can let the play stand. Not surprisingly, shift restrictions increased batting average and decreased strikeouts in the minors.

MLB has made big rules changes before, notably after the 1968 season when it lowered the mound and altered the strike zone to offset pitchers’ dominance. It’s just that the league doesn’t do this very often — or often enough.

Love the new rules or hate them, MLB had to do something — for the players and the fans. The game has been dragging a hind leg for a while; in 2021, for example, strikeouts were higher than ever while hits per game were near historic lows. The sport was running out of gas.

Shorter games with more action should help. If nothing else, it’s a start — and an honest effort to improve the quality of the product, unlike the steroid-addled, juiced-ball era of the 1990s that led to bogus hitting numbers and shortened pitching careers. These rules changes should kick-start the sport without compromising its integrity.

With the game itself hopefully revived, the next topic on the agenda will be tougher — but far more meaningful — to tackle: African-American involvement. On Opening Day 2022, only about 7.2% of MLB players were Black. Even more startlingly, the 2022 World Series was the first since 1950 that featured no U.S.-born Black players on either roster. None on the Houston Astros, none on the Philadelphia Phillies. Zero.

Four of the top five picks in the 2022 MLB Draft were U.S.-born Black players, so help is on the way. Like everything else with baseball, though, it’s going to take time.

For now, though, an important first step has been taken — and it directly impacts the game’s survival: making it more fun to play and more appealing to watch. Purists have dealt with far worse than these rules changes, and modernists are getting the evolution of the sport that they crave.

The gears of progress, finally, are speeding up.

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Tom Hardesty is a Portager sports columnist. He was formerly assistant sports editor at the Record-Courier and author of the book Glimpses of Heaven.