Sports

Breaking Down Potential MLB Rule Changes as Lockout Continues

Could proposed rule changes get Astros like Kyle Tucker to steal more bases?
Could proposed rule changes get Astros like Kyle Tucker to steal more bases? Photo by Jack Gorman
There isn't a lot to be happy about or even discuss when it comes to baseball right now. The league is in an owner-initiated lockout with the sides seemingly far apart on the financial issues at the heart of the negotiations. But the weekend did bring an interesting development as players agreed to a handful of proposed rule changes.

Each is meant to increase the speed of play and the potential for offense, something the league has been focused on, testing a variety of methods in the minor leagues. While the players wouldn't agree to robotic umpires, they did give the owners the right to implement three critical changes and with less lead time — previously, the owners could unilaterally make rule changes, but it had to give players a year's notice; that time is now just 45 days. These particular changes, assuming the rules committee approves them, wouldn't be implemented until 2023.

Looking at the rule changes, it's pretty clear they could have exactly the desired impact the league wants. Let's break them down.

Pitch Clock

Very few in baseball think four-plus hour games are a good thing. In the playoffs, they get tedious and cost the sport audience as the clock continues to tick, but during the heart of the regular season, they are an absolute killer of revenues for teams. The owners are proposing a 14-second pitch clock when no one is on base and 19 seconds when runners are on the base paths. This approach has worked in the minor leagues, shaving up to 20 minutes off average game time in Lower A ball.

It will take more than just the pitch clock — length of timeouts, instant replay, mound visits, commercial breaks — and everything will need to be addressed if game times are going to be more reasonable. But it's a conversation worth having. Watching a West Coast game in the central time zone means the game routinely ends after midnight. On a random Tuesday, that is tough to do for most folks, particularly kids. While the Astros "baseball after dark" broadcasts can be fun, they are definitely going to be sparsely watched/listened to. That has to change and this is a start.

Larger Bases

Raise your hands if you never thought of this one before. Also raise your hand if you miss stolen bases in baseball. For owners, there is a distinct intersection between the two. Sure, the instant replay, swinging for the fences and concerns over injuries are part of that equation, but more frequently, it comes down to the analytics-driven nature of baseball. Stolen bases are risky and don't always result in success. Risk averse organizations tend to take a pass on anything that they don't see as a net gain.

But, increasing the size (and, apparently, the profile) of the bases themselves could be one solution. A larger base means shorter distances and less chances of a player sliding past one of them. A lower profile could help eliminate injuries, something the league already took steps toward when they required fielders to get out of base paths. The hope is it won't just increase steals (and, as a result, scoring), but will also decrease injuries and encourage teams and players in trying to extend singles into doubles or doubles into triples.

Eliminating/Limiting the Shift

One of the more controversial moves defensively is the shift. Many purists feel that it distorts the purpose of infielders, particularly when you have all four players on one side. For managers, it can be an effective tool for defending against players who mostly hit to the pull side. This combined with pitches thrown meant to generate a similar result can create some pretty stout defense.

The problem is that baseball attempts to adjust. It's difficult to hit the other way even if you aren't being pitched inside. So, teams have opted to get more lift on the ball, aiming for line drives and home runs over singles. This leads to more strikeouts and ground ball outs, but it also leads to big innings. Major League Baseball clearly wants to re-balance in an effort to reignite station-to-station baseball and the strategy that comes with it. Combined with the continued explosion of extra base hitting, the conclusion is more offense all around assuming it works.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke