Aroldis Chapman, closing for the Cincinnati Reds, used to be known for throwing some of the hottest fastballs in the league, but has recently fallen into mediocrity due to the normalization of faster pitching.
As we steamroll into the 2023 season, baseball in the MLB has received some major updates in rules and on the field that could be game-changing. Ever since 2019, pitchers have been throwing harder than ever before. An 100mph fastball used to be something that would awe fans and players alike, but now even the average starter can easily reach that three-digit mark. As technology advances, pitching techniques also continue to advance, and in the modern day, a pitcher’s velocity depends solely on mechanics. Due to the sudden increase in the speed of pitches, hitters have been hitting bombs far more often, smashing the record of total number of home runs in a season that was set back in 2019. Long-time baseball fans and enthusiasts would all agree that a game is much more enjoyable when the ball stays in the park. The San Francisco Giants are infamous for their “small-ball”, an old-school technique that consisted of getting small, sneaky hits, stealing a base, and then hitting a sac-fly to score a run. Baseball is most entertaining when tension exists on the field between the teams, not when a pitcher strikes most batters out, walks a few, and then lets up a home run. Although home runs are an iconic aspect of the sport, they simply can’t beat the feeling of teetering on the edge of your seat as the bases are loaded by your favorite ballclub. The league wants to bring back that feeling, so that is why they have decided to make changes, some major and others minor, that will affect the upcoming season and the overall entertainment of the game.
One of the most significant changes on the field regards the distances between the bases on the diamond. First and third base will be moved three inches closer to home plate, while second base will be moved 4.5 inches closer to both first and third bases. Each of the bases, not including home plate, will also be increased in size by 3 square inches, pushing them from 15 to 18 inches. In 2022, before MLB widely implemented these adjustments, they tested them on the minor leagues, analyzing how closer bases could affect the game. After implementing the larger bases, injuries that occurred on the base paths and around bases decreased by roughly 13%. The closer bases will also instigate more action on the base paths, as they encourage stealing and more aggressive base running.
The other influential change was very much expected, and has been talked about frequently on sports analysis shows like Pardon the Interruption on ESPN. The MLB has decided to drop the hammer on shifts. In past years, many outs that could have been base hits were the result of infield shifts. Infield shifts deeply reduced the number of base hits per game. The league, as well as many fans, have deemed that letting infielders drop deep into the outfield or roam over to one side of second base to create an almost impenetrable wall of three defenders is unfair. For the 2023 season, two infielders must always be on each side of second base, and all four infielders must be completely inside of the infield when the pitcher has his foot on the rubber. These changes motivate infielders to rely more on raw skill and ability to make a play instead of moving to a position that requires minimal effort. In the minors, batting averages increased and strikeouts decreased with these changes.
Some small tweaks were also made to the pitch clock to shorten games slightly and reduce time between pitches. Pitchers now get 15 seconds between pitches with empty bases, and 20 seconds when there is at least one runner on base. On the hitter’s side of things, the number of timeouts has been set to one per at-bat, and they must be inside of the batter’s box before the pitch clock goes below eight seconds. Pitchers can now only disengage from the batter twice per at bat. A disengagement consists of either a pick-off to a base with a runner on it or just a step-off. Stolen-base attempts were increased by 26% in the minor leagues.
The essence of the sport of baseball isn’t about power-hitting and strikeouts. Classic baseball consisted of small-ball and strategy: Skilled fielding, risky base running, and consistent hitting were all key elements of the game. These aspects have ever so slightly faded in the past 4 years, but MLB’s new changes promise to bring back the old baseball better and more exciting than ever before.