MLB seeks ‘best form of baseball’ by picking up the pace | Baseball News

For years, baseball has faced some nagging complaints.

With games regularly stretching past the three-hour mark and drawn-out showdowns between pitchers and batters becoming the norm, many began to wonder: Was “America’s Pastime” becoming too slow, too boring, and too far removed from the desires of modern fans ?

When Major League Baseball (MLB) announced it would make changes that Commissioner Robert Manfred had promised would help “bring back baseball’s best form this year,” US esports pundit Randy Roberts said he wasn’t surprised.

“Baseball has changed its rules in the past. The rules have never been set in stone. They didn’t come from Mount Sinai,” said Roberts, a distinguished history professor at Purdue University.

“There will always be so-called baseball purists who think the game should never change,” he told Al Jazeera. “But the game is changing and evolving.

“Overall, I think it’s good to speed up the game and create more action.”

The changes

“Creating more action” in a sport whose roots in the United States date back to the 18th century was the impetus for the series of changes MLB introduced for its 2023 season, which officially began in late March.

“It’s our duty to bring the best version of the game to our fans,” Manfred said at the end of last season, adding that the league has “boundless optimism” about the future of baseball.

MLB, made up of 29 teams in the United States and one in Canada, has increased bases and imposed limits on how defensive players can be positioned in the infield (called “shift limits”) to get more balls in play and encourage steals .

The most headline-grabbing difference, however, was the use of what’s known as a “pitch clock” to shorten the time between pitches — a system that one league executive described as “probably the biggest change that’s been made in baseball on the vast majority of ours.” Life”.

MLB pitchers now have 20 seconds to mine their pitches when the offensive team has runners on base and 15 seconds when they don’t. Previously there was no set limit; Pitchers could dismiss their catcher’s pitch calls — or throw the ball to a base to “check” a runner — as many times as they wanted by extending at-bats.

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Now, if a pitch goes over the time allowed, a ball will be awarded to the batter, who will also have to follow new, time-related rules at the plate – including the ability to request only one timeout per at-bat.

Manfred told reporters in September that the changes came after extensive research into what baseball audiences hope to see: “Number one, fans want better paced games. Secondly, the fans want more action, more balls in the game. And thirdly, the fans want to see more of the athleticism of our great players.”

Business with baseball

Tim DeSchriver, associate professor of sports management at the University of Delaware, said the push to make baseball more attractive came because the game was “holding at best.” [its] own but not grow” in the US like other sports like American football, basketball and football.

The goal is to “make it a more marketable product,” especially among younger fans. The league also hoped to encourage more people to watch games on TV, since national and local broadcast deals make up a large portion of MLB revenue.

“I definitely think it wasn’t just about, ‘We need to make it more entertaining for the fans who are in the seats,’ but also for the TV audience,” DeSchriver told Al Jazeera. “There were World Series games that ended at 12:30 p.m., 1 a.m. It’s hard to win over young fans when they’re sleeping.”

Other professional sports leagues have made rule changes in the past to try to attract larger audiences as well.

The National Football League (NFL) has banned defensive players from interfering with wide receivers — a rule that encouraged more exciting throws into the field, DeSchriver said as an example. And National Basketball Association (NBA) umpires call fouls quickly, allowing the league’s stars to move more freely and score goals.

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“Over the past few years, we’ve seen the number of points scored per game in the NBA increase quite a bit,” he said. “Someone would rather watch a 115-110 game than an 80-75 game.”

Houston Astros backup pitcher Ryan Pressly argues pitch clock violation [Matt Blewett/USA TODAY Sports]

“New Normal”

But in a sport so closely tied to American culture, changes to baseball have often met with resistance and even scorn. Still, most fans seemed to have welcomed MLB’s changes this season — despite some initial hiccups.

An unforeseen consequence of faster games has been a drop in stadium beer sales, US media reported, prompting some teams to extend sales beyond their typical seventh-inning limit.

And those most affected by pitch clock – the pitchers themselves – have acknowledged that they are on a learning curve. Some have complained that they were windy and rushed in the early weeks of the season to avoid an infringement, raising concerns about possible injuries.

But most said it was a matter of getting used to the timer.

“I think it’s one of the best things that’s happened to baseball, to streamline it, make it a little bit more exciting, make it a little bit faster,” Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch told the local in early April Sports radio station 97.1 The Ticket the changes.

“We’ll have to get a little more athletic to exploit the base steal component, but I believe it’s good for the game – if we just realize that this is our new normal and not the way it is anymore earlier,” Hinch said.

This isn’t the first time MLB has adapted the game, either.

Last year, National League MLB teams were allowed to use designated hitters (DHs) — players who hit in place of a pitcher but do not take the field to play defense — decades after the American League first used DHs . And as of 2020, teams have started each extra inning with a player (the “automatic runner”) on second base to speed games.

How is the game changing?

According to DeSchriver, it was too early to say how the new rules will affect game attendance and TV ratings. “April is always a tough month for baseball, especially in the more northerly cities just because of the weather. I think we’ll probably know more by the end of May or sometime in June if it’s really having an impact on fan interest,” he told Al Jazeera.

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However, Jeremy Losak, an assistant professor of sports analysis at Syracuse University, said that while data remains limited this early in the new season, the changes already appear to be altering the game itself.

“We’re seeing an almost 20 percent reduction in dead time between pitches,” he told Al Jazeera, with game times falling from an average of more than three hours to “anywhere between two and a half to three hours”.

A referee calls out a pitch clock violation during a game at Yankee Stadium [Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports]

A nine-inning MLB game averaged three hours and four minutes in 2022, and that’s down to two hours and 37 minutes so far this season, according to data released by the league on April 21.

Attempts at stolen bases rose 30 percent, Losak said, while 80 percent of those attempts were successful — a “dramatic” increase from about 40 percent. Walks have also increased, but he said that could likely be partly due to pitchers being more rushed with the pitch clock.

“I think there’s going to be a lot more variety in terms of the type of gameplay that we’re going to see. In the 2010s, we saw this massive shift toward the “three true outcome” players — players hitting strikeouts, walks, or home runs,” Losak said.

“With these rules there should now be an incentive to encourage more singles and just generally just get on base.”

That was echoed by Roberts, who said the changes will increase the prospect of singles and inventive defensive and baseball plays — elements of baseball he said have historically been among the most exciting.

“I can think of field games that were, in some ways, a lot more exciting than home runs,” he said, citing the midfield catch Willie Mays made over his shoulder during the 1954 World Series as the “greatest example” of this.

“It’s just an evolution of the game,” Roberts added of the new rules. “And if it’s popular, if it means more people showing up, if it creates more action, it’s going to stay.”

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