On the clock: a new age of the MLB begins


By Charlie Bluestein

Graphic by Lynn Kim

Sports are changing. In a world where athletics are rapidly evolving and embracing modernization, the realm of professional sports has become a breeding ground of innovation and change. From new cutting-edge technology to increased social media presence, sports around the globe are finding new ways to captivate fans and stay relevant in the ever-changing landscape of sports media.

 Sport associations like the National Football League (NFL) and National Basketball Association (NBA) have embraced the modernization of sports, thereby setting record breaking viewership numbers. Yet in baseball, statistics show that attendance is decreasing by an average of 2% each season. So why is Major League Baseball (MLB) falling behind? 

Baseball is one of the oldest sports in the country, and it shows. “America’s Pastime” can be a complicated, nuanced sport; it is much less intuitive than other popular sports like soccer or basketball. 

Baseball also holds the reputation as one of the longest sports due to its variability in game length. These three, four, even five-hour marathons make it difficult to peak and retain fan engagement. Fans want fast-paced, action-packed games, especially in a modern era where a barrage of sources constantly compete for attention. 

But baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has identified this problem and has begun to implement game-altering changes. These new rules change not only how the game is played, but also how it’s watched and experienced by fans across the world.

The most controversial and influential change the MLB decided to make was creating an all-new method to speed up the game: the pitch clock. Much like the shot clock in basketball, the pitch clock allots a set amount of time pitchers are allowed to take between pitchers. 

When there are no players on base, the pitcher and batter get a mere 15 seconds to reset between pitches. If a runner is on base, this time is increased to 20 seconds. Players will no longer be able to take strolls around the mound, adjust their batting gloves, or take a few practice swings. Instead, players need to be quick, or risk the penalty of an automatic strike.

This change, though seemingly minor, has a colossal impact on the length of games. The average baseball game in the pre-pitch clock era lasted three hours and three minutes. In 2023, with the newly-enforced clock, that time has been cut down to two hours and 38 minutes. 

This 25-minute difference solely represents the inactivity of the game, without any active game-play being affected. The decreased average time of games means there is less time between important and interesting plays in the game, making the game more accessible and intriguing.

Another new rule implemented this year was banning a shift, which is when defensive players move out of their traditional position to cover a spot where the batter is more likely to hit. By using advanced data, teams are able to put their players in crazy formations to help shave the percentage points of a player getting a hit. You could often find all four infielders on one-half of the field to try and predict where a player is most likely to hit the ball. 

This year, the shift was removed. Two players must be on each half of the field, discontinuing shift-defense as a strategy in an effort to allow an increased number of hits per game and to keep the game fast and interesting. Teams no longer can utilize the data to increase outs, and balls will have a much easier time finding the outfield grass for a base hit. 

However, from staunch baseball traditionalists sitting on their couch to the actual players themselves, many have expressed criticism regarding these changes. The MLB Players Association, a union of current baseball players, voted unanimously to reject the new rules, arguing that it changes the traditional way the game is played and fundamentally changes the sport; however, the MLB decided to implement the rules anyway, trumping the criticism and enforcing the changes. 

MLB’s new set of rules were created to help a new generation of baseball fans connect with the game and make the game more watchable. “America’s Pastime” has been slow to modernize — this, however, could be the start of a new baseball. 

So far, it’s too early to tell how the rule changes will affect the popularity of the sport in the long run — only time will tell if it will lead to a widespread baseball resurgence.

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