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Baseball’s new rules: a pre-season study guide

Northeastern Huskies v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

On Friday, the first day of Spring Training games, Manny Machado stepped out of the batters box and was given an automatic strike.

Welcome to 2023 and a host of rule changes.

It will, no doubt, take players a while to adjust, and we fans have some studying to do as well.

Here is a rundown of the on field rule changes and how they might affect Rays baseball. I’m summarizing this ESPN review of rule changes.

Pitch Clock and Pick-offs: Pitchers have 15 seconds to throw a pitch, or 20 seconds with a runner on base. The batter must be ready in the batter’s box. As part of this effort to speed up the game, pitchers are also limited in what are called “disengagements” which can mean a pickoff attempt or simply stepping off the rubber. They get two of these per plate appearance.

The penalty for a hitter failing to be ready in the box is a called strike, for a pitcher who fails to start his delivery on time, a called ball. An illegal pitcher disengagement will be a balk call.

This is probably going to be the rule change that has the largest impact as it is relevant to every pitch thrown. Recently promoted players will have the advantage of familiarity with this rule, and indeed the Rays have promoted a few minor league coaches this year specifically to help more veteran players acclimate.

In the minors, slightly different pitch clock rules shortened games on average 20 minutes.

I know as a diehard baseball fan I’m supposed to be rending my garments over this rule change, but I’m actually excited. I love baseball, but I generally don’t love a four hour 2-1 game. I don’t need to see a batter readjust his batting gloves after every pitch, even a pitch he took (how many hours of my life did I spend watching Drama King David Ortiz at the plate?) Every once in a while I’ll watch a game that ends in under two and a half hours — not many walks, pitchers who work quickly — and I realize how refreshing that was. I watch the 27th out and I still want more! Here’s hoping for more games like that in 2023.

No more infield shifts: Essentially, when the pitch is thrown all infielders have to be on infield dirt or grass, and there must be two on each side of second base. I assume this also eliminates four man outfields. The penalty for an illegal shift is that a ball is added to the count (unless the hitting team declines the penalty, e.g. if the ball has been put in play and they prefer to keep the result).

Rays fans may be thinking “oh, no, this will kill the Rays defense!” After all, Tampa Bay is known for it’s creative defensive positioning. Maybe Joe Maddon didn’t invent the shift but he certainly made it a standard part of the game.

It might surprise you to learn, then, that the Rays are not one of the “shiftier” teams anymore. In 2022 they shifted on 27.3% of all plate appearances, which made them 22nd out of 30 teams. In comparison, in 2019 (which seems to have been Peak Shift year), they used the shift 37.2% of plate appearances, good for fourth in the majors.

Bigger bases: The increase of base sizes to 15 to 18 inches is, along with the limits on pickoffs, intended to increase the running game. Steals are fun; analytically minded teams had pivoted away from them; expect more base running to come.

Please no one tell Randy Arozarena.

There are also some limitations on position players pitching, which I don’t think matters much. Position players pitching aren’t the problem; lopsided games and merciless schedules that leave teams deciding essentially to forfeit the game are the problem.

We’ll all have a month of Spring Training to get used to these new rules. Which do you think will prove most consequential to the Rays in 2023?