MLB poised to add pitch clock, ban infield shifts starting next season

A pitch clock, a ban on shifts, and larger bases are about to become permanent parts of Major League Baseball when a joint committee votes Friday to approve the rules for use starting next season, according to a person familiar with the committee’s schedule.

MLB is pushing for the changes, which officials hope will rejuvenate what many believe has become a stodgy sport in the age of data. They hope the pitch clock will bring game times down from record highs. They hope banning the shift will allow more hits and therefore more action. They hope larger bases will induce more stealing and therefore more havoc on the bases. They hope, in other words, that these changes will yank baseball out of its modern-day slog.

And though the competition committee, which was created as part of the new collective bargaining agreement between the owners and players’ union, is meant to ensure player input on any major rule changes, it was not built to give them veto power: Six of the 11 members of the committee are MLB representatives. Four are players. One is an umpire. What MLB wants, MLB probably will get.

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So the sport long treasured as the one without a clock is about to get one. And after seeing the results of a test run in the minor leagues, as well as the noticeable effect it has had on young pitchers just arriving in MLB, everyone from once-skeptical players to old-school executives is growing comfortable with the idea – or so the conversation in clubhouses around the major leagues for the past month would suggest.

The first two changes are somewhat self-explanatory. As tested in the minors this season, the shift rule would require four infielders to have their feet on the dirt, with two fielders on each side of second base, as the pitch is delivered. As tested in the minors – though hardly visible from the stands – bases will grow from 15 inches square to 18 inches square.

As for the pitch clock, the specifics of the rule on which the committee will vote Friday were not immediately available. But in Class AAA this season, pitchers were allotted 19 seconds to deliver a pitch with a runner on base, 15 seconds without. If they failed to deliver the ball in that time, the umpire called a ball. Pitchers could step off the rubber (or, as the new baseball jargon goes, “disengage from the rubber”) no more than twice per at-bat. If they stepped off a third time, they were called for a balk – unless they recorded an out by doing so. In other words, a third pickoff attempt is permitted as long as it works.

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In Class AAA, hitters could call a timeout just once per at-bat. If they were not in the box with nine seconds to go, the umpire penalizes him with a strike. By the end of the minor league season, teams were rarely combining for more than one violation per game.

But MLB does anticipate players needing time to adjust to the rule. Formalizing the rules in time for a full offseason and spring training of awareness probably will provide that adjustment period. As of midway through the 2022 minor league season, game times had dropped from 3:04 to 2:36, according to MLB data.

The three rules on the ballot Friday may just be the first of other significant changes to come. The league has tested everything from automatic umpires to moving the mound back to pre-tacked baseballs in the minor leagues in recent years. The broad goal of the changes is to make baseball appealing to the shorter attention spans of the age. In a sport that treasures its tradition, that will be no small feat.

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