As the Toronto Blue Jays Take Flight for a New Season, Will Rule Changes Inject Life Into the Old Ball Game?
Alek Manoah of the Toronto Blue Jays pitches in the first inning of a game against the Los Angeles Angels at the Rogers Centre in Toronto on August 27, 2022. Photo: Cole Burston/Getty Images
When the Toronto Blue Jays open their 2023 baseball season Thursday against the St. Louis Cardinals, it will give fans their first look at the new rule changes that will hopefully inject some life into a stagnant game.
Rule changes in baseball come about as frequently as Stanley Cup parades in Toronto. No sport celebrates its heritage as much as baseball does, which is why many purists express alarm over tinkering with the rules.
But even older or reactionary fans will grudgingly admit that changes had to be made. The sport had become mired in a wearying number of pitching changes and offence-stifling defensive tactics, turning the once brisk nine-inning game into a lethargic three-hour slog, filled with low-drama walks and strikeouts punctuated by the occasional solo home run.
The Old Ball Game
In the 1950s and ’60s — the glory days of baseball — games clocked in at an average of slightly more than two hours. Last year, the average game took a staggering three hours and 11 minutes to play. Only the most dedicated fans were staying up to watch these snoozers. And younger fans weren’t thrilled by the spectacle of pitchers walking around the mound or hitters endlessly adjusting their batting gloves.
Major League Baseball had little choice but to inject some excitement back into the game without tampering too much with its hallowed traditions.
So, last September, MLB’s competition committee came up with rules to end overly conservative offensive and smothering defensive strategies that improve a team’s chances of winning but also remove the spontaneity, drama and unpredictability that makes a game intriguing.
“Fans want to see base runners, they want to see first-to-third, they want to see triples, they want to see home runs,” Kansas City Royals infielder Matt Duffy told the New York Times. “They don’t want to see strikeouts and nobody on base and 350 pitches thrown in a game.”
Start the Pitch Clock
That’s why MLB took the drastic step of introducing a pitching clock. Under the new rule, pitchers will have 15 seconds to throw a pitch — or 20 seconds if there is a runner on base. If they don’t throw it in the allotted time, the umpire will call a ball. Hitters, for their part, will need to be in the batter’s box with eight seconds on the pitch clock. If not, the umpire will call a strike.
Other sports have adopted similar strategies to speed up their games — the NBA introduced a 24-second shot clock in 1954 and football, a 40-second play clock in 1976. But unlike most sports, baseball has never been governed by a clock counting to down to zero.
While many older fans worry that the sport’s timeless appeal will be lost to the ruthless nature of a digital counter behind home plate, they realize it’s the only way to inject some life into the games.
No More Shifts
The other major rule will see the end of a defensive tactic that clogged up one side of the infield to take away a batter’s hitting lane. (A similar tactic in hockey would see all five forwards pack into the net with the goalie.)
The change will prohibit teams stacking up infielders on one side of the diamond. This year, two infielders on either side of second base, leaving more room for hits to get through. MLB hopes the change will create more offence and prevent ridiculous tactics like the L.A. Dodgers used in a recent game.
Some of the lesser publicized changes: limiting the number of pick-off attempts a pitcher can use (from unlimited down to two) and larger bases (from 15-18 square inches) to encourage more base stealing.
It remains to be seen whether the new rules will enliven a dull game and how fans will respond. Reaction from spring training has been mostly positive. Sportswriters seem to love the pace-of-game rules. The sport’s most respected scribe, Washington Post columnist Thomas Bowsell, gushed: “Baseball has been saved. By the pitch clock.”
The players have no problem with the rule changes. “I love it,” says Blue Jays shortstop Bo Bichette. And the team’s superstar pitcher Alek Manoah agrees, saying he’s “using the pitch clock to my advantage by putting pressure on the hitter real fast.”
Perhaps the only people who aren’t embracing it are the managers, whose stalling tactics are largely responsible for making the pitch clock necessary: “New is different and it’s going to take a little bit of time,” grumbled Blue Jays manager John Schneider.
No surprise that Schneider is sceptical about the new measures. Because no matter how often the look of the game changes, the grumpy manager will always be an indelible part of baseball.