Faster, exciting, more action: How the new 2023 MLB rule changes will make baseball better

Action shot of baseball player throwing a baseball

Updated: Jan 10, 2023 9:00 pm

Baseball is quintessentially American, as synonymous with America as apple pie, hot dogs or the Star-Spangled Banner. It’s still affectionately regarded as America’s Pastime even if it may not be the most popular of the big four sports anymore. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters playing catch in their back yard; taking your glove to the ballpark hoping to snare a home run ball; catching up with old friends while taking in a night game; some things don’t change and never will. Yet, there will be something decidedly different on Opening Day this Spring.

There have been several rule changes since baseball was first conceived over 100 years ago. Whether good or bad, successful or not, the overall look and feel have always remained pretty much the same. But this year, baseball will look and feel decidedly different. Three big rule changes will come into effect aimed at improving the game, but that will also create controversy and heated debate along the way. 

What are the new changes? 

Pitch Timer 

For the first time, a pitch timer will be used during play. 

  • Inning breaks will be limited to 2 minutes and 15 seconds. Nationally Televised games will be extended to 2 minutes 40 seconds; Postseason games, 3 minutes 10 seconds. 
  • A maximum of 30 seconds between batters will be permitted. If a ball is put in play, the clock will be reset once that phase of play has ended and the ball is returned to the pitcher. If the batter is called out on strikes, the timer is reset once the pitcher receives the ball from the catcher. 
  • The batter must be in the batter’s box and alert to the pitcher with at least 8 seconds remaining. Violation of this rule will result in an automatic strike. 
  • A batter is allowed one timeout per plate appearance to stop the clock. 
  • The pitcher must start his pitching delivery before time elapses. Violation of this rule will result in an automatic ball. 
  • During each plate appearance, the timer will be reset to 15 seconds between pitches (with the bases empty) and 20 seconds between pitches (with at least one runner on base), starting from when the pitcher receives the ball back from the catcher. 
  • The pitcher is only allowed two disengagements (pickoff attempt or stepping off the rubber) per plate appearance. A third disengagement will be called a balk, and the runner(s) will advance one base if the pickoff attempt is unsuccessful. The number of disengagements will be reset during a plate appearance if a runner successfully advances one base. 
  • Mound visits, injury timeouts, and offensive timeouts do not count towards disengagements. An additional mound visit will be given in the ninth inning if a team has used up all of its allotted five mound visits prior to the ninth inning. 
  • Umpires can permit extra time at their discretion for special circumstances, e.g. if a catcher were to be thrown out on the bases to end the previous half-inning and needed additional time to put on his catching gear. 

Base Sizes 

The base sizes will increase from 15 inches square to 18 inches square. The size of home plate will remain unchanged.  

  • The distance between home plate to first base and third base to home plate will be reduced by 3 inches. 
  • The distance between first to second base, and second to third base will be reduced by 4.5 inches. 

Defensive Shift Limits 

Teams will no longer be permitted to shift their infielders over to one side of the diamond or move an infielder to the outfield to create a four-man outfield to defend against specific hitters. 

  • Defensive teams will be required to have at least four players on the infield, with at least two players on either side of second base. 
  • Infielders will not be permitted to switch sides, e.g. putting your best defender on the side you believe the ball will most likely be hit unless there is a substitution. 
  • All infielders must have both feet within the outer boundary of the infield whilst the pitcher is on the pitching rubber. 
  • If the defensive team violates this rule at the time of the pitch, the offensive team can choose an automatic ball or accept the result of the play. 
  • Teams are permitted to position an outfielder in shallow outfield or as a fifth infielder in certain situations. 

Why and how MLB decided to implement the rule changes 

Since 1950, there has been a gradual trend towards the game slowing down and moving closer to the Three True Outcome idiom: a home run, a walk, and a strikeout. There is a cascade of reasons for this trend, not least due to the advancements in modernisation, analytics, tactics and strategy, sports nutrition and therapy, and players’ physical attributes. Ultimately though, Major League Baseball currently has a product that fans today find less exciting and less engaging. 

In a press conference last September, MLB Commissioner Robert D. Manfred Jr., addressed the reasons for the rule changes stating, 

“There was an ongoing conversation, expression of concern, about the way we were playing the game on the field. Our guiding star in thinking about changes to the game has always been our fans. ‘What do our fans want to see on the field?’ Certain things are really clear. Number one, fans want games with better pace. Two, fans want more action, more balls in play. And three, fans want to see more of the athleticism of our great players. 

“With these key fanbase desires in mind, we’ve engaged in a process to develop rules that will bring back the best form of baseball for the benefit of our fans. Each of these rules have been tested in approximately 8000 minor league games dating back to last season, which is the equivalent of 3 1/2 complete Major League seasons”. 

The bigger bases rule was brought in solely to improve player safety and reduce injuries caused by collisions at the base. However, an unintended consequence of this rule is it makes the base paths slightly shorter which contributes to more stolen base attempts and a higher success rate (more on this later). 

Following the extensive consultation period of testing and surveying, the proposals were made to the Joint Competition Committee, (made up of four active players, six members appointed by MLB and one umpire), who voted in favour of implementing the changes. 

The hope is all of these rules combined will result in a faster pace of play, fewer injuries, greater athleticism & excitement, levelling the playing field between offence and defence, and most importantly increasing fan engagement. 

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What we learned during the trials and what can we expect to see in MLB ‘23? 

Following on from Commissioner Manfred, Morgan Sword, MLB Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations, explained the impact the rule changes had on the Minor League games played last season.  

“Games were 26 minutes shorter [in 2022] with a pitch timer but just as interesting is almost nothing else changed in the game with the amount of run scoring, the batting average, home run rates, everything remained very similar and the amount of action in the game was preserved. 

“With the pitch timer in 2022, stolen base attempts activities were up and also runners were more successful when they attempted stolen bases”.  

According to Sword, a survey conducted with Minor League fans showed, “fans overwhelmingly support the use of the pitch timer, but secondly, the more they see it the more they support it” he said. Regarding the bigger bases he went on to say, “injuries at the bases are down about 13% this season which is a very positive development”. 

From 2019 to 2022 in MiLB, average stolen base attempts per game increased from 2.23 to 2.83, with the success rate increasing from 68% to 79%. The bigger bases have a small part to play in this stat. In a game of inches, bang-bang plays are likely to go in favour of the runner more often. However, more significant is the disengagement limit sub-rule that is woven within the pitch timer rule. It has emboldened the more aggressive base runners to attempt more steals and be more successful overall.  

Pitch timer violations decreased as the season progressed and players adjusted from 1.73 in week 2 to 0.45 in week 21, which equates to roughly one violation per team every four games played. It’s highly likely we will see a similar trend in MLB. Spring training won’t be enough time for teams and players to adjust, so expect lots of rule violations, on-field arguments and ejections, and off-field complaints in the first couple of months.   

Banning the shift should result in more batted balls in play, especially from pull hitters. Those hard-hit grounders and line drives will now more likely find a gap than find an infielder standing in the right place at the right time. More batted balls in play mean more action on the base paths, which in turn means more excitement. 

Who stands to benefit most & least? 

Pitch Timer 

Players who naturally work quickly will benefit the most from the pitch timer rule or at the very least, will adjust to it quicker and gain more success. Shane Bieber, Nestor Cortes, Miles Mikolas and Tristan McKenzie all averaged a Pitch Tempo of less than 15.9 seconds with the bases empty in 2022 according to Baseball Savant, which would equate to 9.9 seconds on the Pitch Timer.  

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Meanwhile, pitchers like Kenley Jansen, Devin Williams, Josh Hader and Emmanuel Clase averaged a pitch timer equivalent of between 16.1 and 19.6 seconds with bases empty in 2022 ranking them amongst the slowest in MLB and in violation of this rule. Notably, with runners on base, Shohei Ohtani averaged a pitch timer equivalent of 20.9 seconds in 2022, so it will be interesting to see what adjustments baseball’s unicorn will make next season and how it affects his numbers. 

Defensive Shift Limits 

The biggest benefactors on paper should be those players against whom teams previously shifted the most. Carlos Santana was the number one player most shifted against last year at 98.1% of his plate appearances according to baseball savant. He also ranked first in BA-xBA, with -.051. Despite his low batting average of .202, he had a 45% hard-hit percentage rate with an average exit velocity of 91mph. The Pittsburgh Pirates noted these stats, referencing the shift rules when they signed him last November and will expect to get more production out of the first baseman in the upcoming season.  

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Corey Seager, Kyle Schwarber and Rowdy Tellez are among other top players who were hurt by the shift and from who front offices will be hoping for an uptick in numbers in 2023. 

Player% PA against the shiftHard Hit %Ave. Exit Velo. (mph)Batting AVGxBA
(AVG minus xBA)
Carlos Santana 98.1 44.9 90.7 .202 .253 (-.051) 
Corey Seager 92.8 45.5 91.1 .245 .283 (-.038) 
Kyle Schwarber 90.5 54.4 93.3 .218 .237 (-.019) 
Rowdy Tellez 78.4 46.0 91.1 .219 .252 (-.032) 
Notable players who batted against the shift in 2022. Source:

It stands to reason that if the players who were shifted against the most will benefit the most, then those teams who applied the shift will benefit the least. However, there is some leeway and wriggle room for teams to manoeuvre around this rule, such as playing the shortstop straight up the middle against a left-handed pull hitter with the second baseman covering the gap between first and second.  

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Alternatively, thinking outside the box, you could go uber-aggressive and position your corner outfielder as a third infielder on either the right or left side of the infield, effectively deploying a 5-man infield. It would be a huge gamble to sacrifice such a vast area of the playing field, but we’ve seen other gambles pay off.  

Until we see how teams start reacting to it, we won’t know for certain how this rule will play out, so for now this one is intriguingly unclear. 

Base Sizes (and the disengagement sub-rule) 

The biggest gainers here will be the game’s fastest and most aggressive base runners. The slightly shorter base paths, coupled with the bigger size will mean runners will reach base quicker and are more likely to avoid sliding past and coming off the bag when a tag is applied. Bang-bang plays where the runner is called out could now be called safe. Randy Arozarena, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Cedric Mullins II were all caught stealing more than ten times last season, so expect those numbers to reduce in 2023. 

The biggest impact on stolen base attempts and success rate will be the disengagement rule. With pitchers limited to two pickoffs/step-offs per plate appearance, the cat & mouse game between pitcher and runner will be fun to watch. And with the timer counting down some runners will go for it more often. As well as those players mentioned earlier, expect the likes of Bobby Witt Jr., Julio Rodriguez and Trea Turner to churn out 40 or more swipes next season. 

Historical rule changes 

Of all the rules in MLB history, these might make the biggest immediate impact from a visual perspective, though not necessarily the biggest long-term impact in terms of statistics (that very much remains to be seen). There have been two other rule changes that have drastically impacted baseball for the better. 

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In 1969, the height of the pitching mound was lowered from 15 inches to 10 inches and the strike zone shrunk, as a result of total widespread pitching dominance the previous season. Bob Gibson of the St. Louis Cardinals led MLB with an ERA of 1.12 (the lowest ever recorded), strikeouts (268), shutouts (13), ERA+ (258), WHIP (0.853) and struck out 17 batters in Game 1 of the World Series. Cleveland’s Luis Tiant led the American League with a 1.60 ERA and a record .168 batting average against, and Detroit Tigers’ Denny McLain had 31 wins. Offence across both leagues was woeful: a .237 batting average, a .340 slugging average (still the lowest recorded since 1915), and only 1,995 total home runs (there were 5,225 homers in 2022). 1968 will be remembered as the Year of the Pitcher, but after the mound lowering, mercifully offence flourished, never to return to those dire lows again. 

Arguably the most impactful rule change occurred in 1973, with the adoption of the Designated Hitter in the American League. AL teams instantly had a more potent lineup, bringing in a better bat in the top or middle of the order and having a second leadoff guy in the 9-spot which was usually a guaranteed out from the pitcher. It also meant teams could sign players just on their hitting prowess regardless of their defensive frailties. And for the players, it prolonged their careers and earnings. 

The American league totals and averages across all offensive categories increased significantly compared to ‘72. More hits, runs, RBI, homers, higher batting and slugging averages, and fewer strikeouts. The NL also saw increased offence in ‘73, but it was a marginal difference and much less than the totals for their AL counterparts. 

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The NL voted against the DH in 1977 and for almost 50 years they trailed the AL in almost all offensive categories. In 2022, the DH was universally adopted after it was added to the NL. Teams like the Philadelphia Phillies took full advantage, signing players of the DH ilk such as Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos, both of whom would play pivotal roles in the Phillies’ path to the World Series. 

Final Thought 

No one likes change, even if the change will be beneficial in the long run or if it’s immediately necessary. It’s an upheaval that requires energy, time and effort. Humans are creatures of habit and baseball players are no different. Baseball is deeply rooted in tradition more than most other sports. The purists and traditionalists will oppose it proclaiming, “this isn’t the game we grew up with” – their parents and grandparents probably said the same thing in 1969 and 1973. The reality however is, for anything to survive and thrive it must adapt and evolve. Baseball is no different. Just like the mound height lowering in 1969, to the Designated Hitter rule in 1973 and 2022, there will be resistance to these new changes in the beginning, but eventually, they’ll become the new norm and baseball fans will come to accept and love them. 

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