MLB rule changes, pace of play. To baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred those two items are synonymous with one another.

On February 21st, 2017 Manfred struck fear into the hearts of many MLB fans. That was the day that even casual baseball fans learned that if the commissioner wished to change a rule regarding the game, he did not need the Union’s consent if he simply waited a year. Well folks, that year is almost up!

Major League Baseball intends to give the players’ association the required one-year advance notice that would allow management to unilaterally change the strike zone, install pitch clocks and limit trips to the pitcher’s mound starting in 2018.

The 2017 season saw the first “pace of play” initiative instituted when it abolished the 4-pitch intentional walk in favor of a simple signal from the dugout. While this move was a break from tradition, it did receive the Union’s blessing. One of the few occasions this rule change actually saved time was in the top of the 6th inning in Game 7 of the World Series when Clayton Kershaw intentionally walked back-to-back batters to force the Astros to pinch-hit for their pitcher.

I had the honor of being joined by three other long time baseball fans and writers to react to the probable changes coming to one of our favorite pastimes.

Strike zone change:

Manfred acknowledged the proposed strike-zone change, which would lift the zone from the hollow below the knee to the top of the kneecap

The bane of many, if not all, baseball fans last season (and prior) was the inconsistency of the strike zone. Depending on the umpire, it would change batter-to-batter and some would argue pitch-to-pitch. How do you change rules on on a system that is widely regarded to as not being followed in the first place?

For the love of all things holy, please stop talking about an automated strike zone! Remember before instant replay was not a thing and folks accepted human error? If you are using multiple angles to view a play to judge if it was a home run or an out at first that’s one thing. Those are black-and-white rules you are examining. The strikeout zone by nature is a giant grey zone. It literally changes per batter - obvious example would be Aaron Judge‘s strike zone to compared to Jose Altuve‘s. You constantly hear about the pitcher throwing pitches simply to adjust the batter’s sight lines but it’s not only the batters view that is affected. Now mix in the art of catcher’s “framing” pitches (looking at you Buster Posey) and you are mindfully manipulating the perception of the man in charge of calling the balls and strikes.

Drew Creasman of The electronic strike zone will make the game immeasurably better both in terms of fairness and speeding up pace of play. A lot of traditionalists won’t like it at first but I suspect there will be a ton of converts in a short time. The people who will benefit the most are rookies and small market teams who are more likely to be umpired unfairly, whether that’s on purpose or subconsciously. Pace of play is not the games biggest issue, fixing the umpire problems should be priority one.

Joshua Berube: Raise the strike zone? Assuming the automated strike zone is still years away, raising the strike zone is only a good idea if you want to watch a walk-a-thon every night. This will do the complete opposite of increasing the pace of play by making the game more like a backyard BBQ home run derby than a game of strategy and patience of which it is. And for some players, it will have them swinging at everything, which will be an ugly product. Not to mention on the pitching side of things, what about sinker ball pitchers or the breaking ball in the dirt. With a raised strike zone, all of this will be affected.

Alexandro Zatarain (Owner of The AOSN): I don’t like the idea of a strike zone change. The strike zone is a product of human error. The correction is done if the umpire is consistent on their calls. To change it could change the game entirely.

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Pitch Clocks

“When a pitcher takes his position at the beginning of each inning, or when he relieves another pitcher, he shall be permitted to pitch not to exceed eight preparatory pitches to his catcher during which play shall be suspended. A league by its own action may limit the number of preparatory pitches to less than eight preparatory pitches. Such preparatory pitches shall not consume more than one minute of time. If a sudden emergency causes a pitcher to be summoned into the game without any opportunity to warm up, the umpire-in-chief shall allow him as many pitches as the umpire deems necessary.”8.03 pitcher warm-up“.

Would the pitch clock be instituted during warmup pitches prior to each inning by the starter and on also on the incoming relief pitcher? If this rule gets instituted, and I do believe it should be, it must be instituted in all facets of the game. Earlier this year, Fangraphs charted that the average time between pitches in 2007 was 21.5 seconds, while in 2017 it was 23.8 seconds. 2.3 seconds multiplied by 400 pitches (a low estimate for how many pitches thrown in a game including warmup tosses) is 920 seconds. You have just shaved over 15 minutes off your game time with this one simple rule change. Now, setting the clock at 21.5 seconds would be asking pitchers such as Yu Darvish and Chris Archer to shave five seconds off their delivery.

What would be the penalty for repeat offenders to this rule? Surely the league would not do any sort of in-game punishment like advancing the runner on base via a balk or calling an automatic ball against the pitcher. What fines would the Union allow the league to levy against repeat offenders? Would the Union allow this become a suspendable offense? Fines and suspensions do not affect the pace of play because they are post-game penalties, is Manfred hellbent enough on this issue that he would kick pitchers out the game if they flat out refused to meet the new timing standard?

Joshua: Pitch clocks. Yeah because baseball did great with time clocks for managerial visits to mound. They had the clocks at the stadium this year but everyone and their grandmother ignored them. I understand that some pitchers take longer than others but pitching is about rhythm, and once again, Major League Baseball is screwing with the wrong things. You want to increase the game pace, stop revolving your game around sponsors and commercial breaks. There is a good use for your precious “timer”, time the actual amount of time taken for the teams to switch from being on the field to the batters box, and vice versa, instead of the time to play “x” amount of commercials.

Drew: Pitch clocks will alienate traditionalists but will definitely have the desired impact of speeding up the game. This could, in turn, bring in more casual viewers but potential negative affects remain to be seen. Some players believe this will lead to even more pitcher injuries and even just lower quality pitching.

Alexandro:  I don’t have an issue with the pitch clock. This is likely the best way to speed up the game, especially in an age where attention spans are much shorter than years past.

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Limiting Trips To Pitcher’s Mound

On the outside looking in, this makes complete sense. What effectively is nothing more than a timeout, we live in a world where a fast-paced game like the NBA reduced their timeouts and the methodical game of baseball has a Commissioner hellbent on a faster pace. How would the league set this up to protect the integrity of the game? To even try to fathom placing a number on this topic one must look at the “typical” reasons for the visit to the mound:

  1. Pitcher and catcher miscommunication on the sign
  2. Pitcher, catcher and middle infielder coming together about signs with a runner on second base.
  3. The catcher or umpire getting hit by a foul ball and gentleman’s courtesy has the one who was not hit walk the ball out to the mound.
  4. Catcher or Manager realizes pitcher is rattled and visits to calm him down (this point alone has multiple layers to it ranging from the pitcher did not get a called strike to the pitcher allowed a homer)
  5. Buying time for the pitcher in the bullpen to warmup.
  6. Simply to mess with the batter’s rhythm (Would batter’s get limits for amount of times they can step out of batters box to mess with pitcher’s rhythm?)
  7. With multiple runners on base, a mound meeting could happen to discuss the different defensive scenarios.

Drew: Limiting trips to the mound is a good idea, there needs to be SOME limits. I’m all for taking time to implement the best strategy but that’s what signs are for. At some point the micromanaging has to be reigned in and this will likely have more of an impact on cutting out dead time than any clock.

Joshua: MLB already has a rule limit, which only allows one mound visit per inning from the manager. This could adversely affect teams. Will this include the catcher, the pitching coach, manager and trainer all together? They will just find another way to stall to allow the bullpen more time to warm up. You’ll see players asking for time to tie shoes that are not tight enough, or a phantom equipment malfunction with a glove.

Alexandro: The visits to the pitcher’s mound is touchy. The pitch clock could be deemed irrelevant if a manager times their visits to the mound to slow their pitcher down (give him a moment to breathe). This rule could help with speeding up the game but could be detrimental in games where the visits are used up early and are clearly needed later on.

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The strike zone conversation started with a disagreement about whether the league should go to an automated system or not. The conversation focused primarily on the umpires ability to steadily call a given strike zone with Joshua firmly against raising the bottom of the zone.

Pitch clocks drew three of four positive votes but the lone negative response does have company in his concern with this move. Joshua mentioned the concept of screwing with the rhythm with a man throwing a ball 90+ mph and Drew wondered aloud what the negative ramifications of this would rule change. Joshua and Drew have never met but it is safe to bet they both believe this rule change could lead to more injuries and lower quality baseball.

Limiting trips to the mound was agreed upon by 75% of the writers but with one mutually agreed upon caveat emptor. The belief is strong that managers and players will simply find other ways to delay the game if a limit is installed.

All these changes primarily focus around the pitcher. So to answer the question in the title…yes, you should be scared of the incoming rule changes.

MLB Rule Changes Are Coming, Should We Be Scared?
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