Editorial: Shifting the rules of the game

Published: 03-27-2023 11:39 AM

What’s old will be new again when the curtain rises on the Major League Baseball season Thursday.

MLB has taken a series of steps this year that promise to return the game to its former glory. Among the most significant are rules changes designed to speed up the pace of play, encourage base stealing and reward hitters for putting the ball in play more frequently. The result may be a reasonable facsimile of the game as played in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, when many current fans first learned to love it. The back-to-the-future approach might even make a modest appeal to the attention-divided mental landscape now inhabited by younger generations. Hope springs eternal, at least.

This season also ushers in a schedule overhaul that reduces the number of divisional games each team plays in favor of having all 30 teams play some games against each other every year. Presiding over it all will be a corps of umpires bolstered by an influx of 10 rookies replacing retired veterans.

But the rules changes take center stage. To wit: Pitchers are now on the clock, having 15 seconds to deliver a pitch to the plate with the bases empty and 20 when there are base runners. At the same time, hitters cannot step out of the batter’s box more than once per plate appearance. The effect of this rule change has been dramatic in spring training, chopping nearly 25 minutes off the average time of a game. Players and umpires are not the only ones who will have to adjust. Fans at home accustomed to leisurely detours to the refrigerator between innings are also going to have to pick up the pace.

MLB has also increased the size of the bases modestly, thus shrinking the distance between them by 4½ inches. At the same time, pitchers are restricted in the number of times they can throw to the bases to hold runners on. The stolen base is one of the most exciting plays in baseball, but it had become nearly extinct in the modern game. We are on the side of attempted thievery in this instance.

And the infield shift, where so many potential base hits have gone to die in recent years, has mercifully been banned. Now two infielders must be stationed on either side of second base, with the prospect that batting will no longer be largely an exercise in futility punctuated by the occasional home run. More bat-to-ball contact equals more hits, more base runners and more athletic plays by fielders. The lowly single still has dignity.

A prime architect of these changes is, ironically, Theo Epstein, who while building World Series champions in long-suffering Boston and Chicago was an earlier adopter of baseball analytics, which revolutionized the game (and have been largely responsible for the 3½ hour borefests inflicted on fans in recent years.)

Epstein, currently a consultant to MLB, has now taken the full measure of metrics and found them wanting. “When you look at what happened to baseball with massive amounts of data, access to that data, a lot of intellect applied to these optimizations ... it was at the expense of something beautiful, something organic,” he told TheAthletic.com.

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Epstein added that the shift, in which three and occasionally even four fielders were placed on one side of the infield based on a detailed analysis of where the batter was likely to hit the ball, was an example of analytics run amok.

“I think it’s a better game when it comes down not to whether your front office has the best algorithm, but whether your second baseman” can make a great diving play on a grounder, he said. Amen, brother Theo, you are preaching to the choir here. In baseball as in life, when the serendipity of skill is required to yield to statistical probability, all too often the result is spiritual impoverishment.

To see what Major League Baseball might become again, one needs to look no further than the recently concluded World Baseball Classic, which was played at a high level with passion, intensity and enthusiasm by players from around the world, to the joyful noise of delighted fans everywhere. The final game ended in high drama with perhaps the two most gifted players on the planet (who also happen to be teammates on the Los Angeles Angels) facing off with the game on the line. Shohei Ohtani, on the mound for Japan, struck out Mike Trout, batting for the USA, on a wicked breaking pitch to end the tournament on a sublime high note.

Let the Show begin anew.