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How MLB Got Its Groove Back: Examining How The Rule Changes Have Affected MLB

By: Robert Reyes


Source: Miami Herald

Introduction


The MLB has had a problem in recent years, with games dragging on longer and longer and fan attendance decreasing. This offseason, the MLB made several changes to its rules with the goal of making games shorter and more interesting by providing more concentrated action. They added a pitch clock to shorten the amount of time both pitchers and hitters have between pitches. A pitcher must now deliver a pitch within 15 seconds of getting the ball back when the bases are empty or 20 seconds if there are baserunners. A pitcher also can only attempt 2 pickoffs per at-bat, aimed at reducing time by limiting the amount of time a pitch is not being thrown. MLB also banned the shift by requiring that teams keep 2 infielders on each side of second base when the pitch is thrown. This was implemented to boost batting average and make the game more entertaining. Finally, the MLB made the bases bigger to encourage more steals. The hope is that with shorter, more action-filled games, the MLB will have a better product to bring in a younger generation of fans and retain fans that might have stopped watching otherwise. All of these rule changes are based on sound logic, and the attempt to make baseball better is clearly seen. The only question now is how will these changes actually affect the MLB, and will the on-field product actually get better?


Pitch Clock and Pickoff Attempts


The addition of the pitch clock and limiting of pickoff attempts to shorten games is the easiest rule change to analyze. All we have to do is see if games have gotten shorter this year.



As we can see, game times have indeed gotten shorter this year. MLB games in 2023 have been quicker than any year since 2000. In fact, one would have to go all the way back to 1984 to find the last time the average MLB game was shorter than it has been in 2023. It is worth noting that the MLB implemented a rule last year to stop extra inning games from going on too long by adding a runner to second at the start of each extra inning. This would shorten extra inning games, and in turn shorten the average MLB game.



However, as we can tell by the average game time of games lasting 9 innings, the extra-inning rule change cannot be credited for the drastic shortening of games. Similarly, you would have to go back to 1984 to find the last time when 9 inning games were shorter on average than in 2023. Thus, we can say that this rule change has been highly effective, and has been a resounding success toward the goal of shortening games.


Bigger Bases


MLB increased the size of each base to encourage stealing, hoping that an increased number of stolen bases and attempts would add excitement to the game. Along with the increase in base size, the limited pickoff attempts allows runners to worry less about being picked off, and the pitch clock can help runners time their starts when stealing.



As the graph shows, stolen base attempts have been trending down every year since 2011. Teams are now attempting to steal bases at a rate as they did around 2012. In fact, in the 2000s, there are only two years where teams have attempted more steals per game than this year.



Now, a more striking difference is in successful steals per game. Teams are stealing more bases per game than in any year in the 2000s, and you would have to go back to 1997 to find a year where teams averaged more stolen bases per game. Not only are teams attempting to run more per game, but they are also successfully stealing more times per game.



The most striking difference can be seen in the success rate of stolen bases. Similar to steals per game, stolen base success rate is the highest it has been in the 2000s, and is 4.1% higher than the next highest year. What might be the craziest stat here is that stolen base success percentage is on track to be the highest it has ever been since 1871, the first year baseball reference has data for league totals. This was 5 years before the MLB was founded in 1876, which means that this season might finish with the highest percent of successful stolen bases in MLB history. Increasing the size of the bases, as well as the pitch clock and limited number of pickoff attempts, has dramatically increased the success rate of stolen bases, and has increased the number of stolen bases and stolen base attempts per game, which will only go up further once teams realize just how successful stealing has been this year.


Banning the Shift


The shift was brought in with the hopes of adding more hits to the game, and thus making it more exciting. The MLB says that banning the shift “increased batting average and decreased strikeouts” while being tested in the minors.



Despite the MLB saying “shift restrictions decreased strikeouts in the minors”, strikeouts have not gone down. In fact, they are still as high as they have ever been in the 2000s, only exceeded by the 2019-2021 seasons. Banning the shift would not seem to affect strikeouts, as the shift only matters when the ball is put in play. Therefore, it might have been mere coincidence, as opposed to any causal relationship from the shift, that drove strikeouts down. Although strikeouts may not have been affected by the shift ban, batting average should be affected in a positive way.



Again, despite what was promised, it seems as though batting average has not increased by much this year. It is the highest it has been since 2019, but is lower than every other year in the 2000s. Batting average should have increased if the ban of the shift was working as intended. However, perhaps because strikeouts remain high, what should be looked at carefully is batting average on balls in play, which only takes into consideration at-bats where the ball is put into play. Banning the shift should increase batting average on balls in play (BABIP).



Now, while BABIP still is not as high as it would be expected to be, we do see that BABIP in 2023 is higher than 7 other years in the 2000s, and is tied with 2001 and 2018. One could argue that this is a sign that banning the shift has had, at the very least, a small positive effect.


Conclusions


Out of the three major rule changes the MLB made this year, two of them have been resounding successes toward their intended goals. The pitch clock and the limited number of pickoff attempts have driven the average time of an MLB game down significantly to times not seen since 1984. The above changes and bigger bases have led to teams averaging more stolen base attempts than most recent years, and averaging a higher amount of stolen bases per game than any year since 1997. In addition, the MLB is on pace to set an all time record in successful stolen base percentage. The one rule change which does not seem to be working is the banning of the shift. Although the MLB promised less strikeouts and more hits, unless they meant since 2019, we have not gotten what we were promised. However, there are positive signs, such as the league BABIP being higher compared to several years since 2000. It is also early days, so all three of these analyses could change as teams adapt to the new rules. I would argue that these rule changes have indeed brought the MLB a better product. The only question remaining is if the American public agrees with me.



Despite the changes for the better, attendance is the worst it has been with the exception of 2021, the year after the COVID pandemic. However, the worst three years have all come since the pandemic, so it could be lingering effects of COVID. People have also not gotten a chance to see that baseball has turned out an improved product, and so it might need a season or two for these rule changes to bring people back to the ballpark. It is early days, but the rule changes have not increased attendance at major league games. Despite this fact, baseball has gotten better, and there will be hope that these changes, once a little more proven, will lead to more fans for the MLB, the ultimate goal of the changes.


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