Monday, July 15, 2024

You know your sport has issues when even its own Hall of Famers say they can barely watch it. But that’s where baseball was — until 2023, when Rule Change Baseball arrived to change everything.

“It was tough watching the game,” Hall of Fame slugger Andre Dawson admitted last July in Cooperstown, surrounded by a significant number of baseball legends who felt just like he did.

But that was in the Before Times. Suddenly, Dawson found himself watching a sport with true rhythm again, where athleticism was valued again, where ground balls were actually hits again, where runners motored from first to third again. So suddenly, Andre Dawson was interested again.

“It makes the game a little bit more exciting,” Dawson said. “And it’s the best way, I think, to get the fan interest back. So that is starting to return. It’s a good sign – and you’re slowly starting to really enjoy the game again.”

Rule Change Baseball. We’ve experienced a full year of it now. So let’s just say this: These were the most important rule changes of modern times, possibly in any sport.

Sure, we still hear the grumbling from the holdouts who think baseball didn’t need fixing. But frankly, what sport were they watching? When the dead time in your sport has begun to overwhelm the action, it’s time to do something already.

Baseball did something. And one year in, it’s astounding to look back at how well it all worked.

The pitch clocks never stop ticking now — and the games no longer drag toward midnight and beyond.

The Shift, which overloaded one side of the infield and swallowed up hundreds of hits, is history now — and nobody misses those fly balls to right field that got caught by the third baseman (seriously).

Those pitchers can’t make 12 pickoff throws to first base anymore — and we just finished a season with more stolen bases per game than any year since 1997.

Rule Change Baseball. It has brought us back much of what we love most about this sport — but without getting gimmicky enough to where it felt, said one club official, like “you were creating a game show.”

“The game is faster now, and more athletic, and it drives forward with a momentum that maintains your attention,” said Morgan Sword, Major League Baseball’s executive vice president of baseball operations, whose department has overseen and driven these changes. “And because of that, I think the best elements of the game really shine.

Here we’ll lay out the dramatic contrast between the home-run-or-bust slog that baseball had become and the streamlined, back-to-the-future rendition these rule changes produced. As you ponder it, maybe you’ll have the same reaction as Theo Epstein, the onetime curse-busting team-builder in Boston and Chicago who is now a special consultant for MLB and working to restore the beauty of the game.

“How, he wondered, had this sport veered so far off-course?”

“I don’t think anybody realized quite how far it had gotten away from us,” Epstein said, “because that’s the nature of creep. When it happens a little bit each year, for 10-plus years, you kind of just get used to it. And then, when it moves back all of a sudden to the way it’s supposed to be, then you realize how abnormal it had gotten. So it was a welcome correction, and certainly, much more fun watching games.”

This was far more than just a TheoWorks production, of course. The commissioner, Rob Manfred, has lobbied for many of these changes for years. Sword’s Baseball Operations Department did the heavy lifting that brought this effort to life.

The umpires had to buy in and take on responsibilities that were never part of any umpire’s job before 2023. And, especially, the players had to take a crash course in New Rules Baseball 101 and then adapt to a whole new, clock-ified game on the fly.

But somehow, all of them figured it out. Somehow, it still looked like baseball, not a rule-adaptation workshop.

“I think the best part,” Epstein said, “was how the rule changes themselves faded into the background so quickly — and what came to the fore was the best part of the game itself, the action and the players showing their athleticism. That all came to the fore, and what disappeared was some dead time.”

So just how much dead time vanished? And what did the game look like on the field?

Like clockwork

Does anyone miss getting home from the ballpark at 12:45 a.m.? Does anyone miss watching those batting gloves get adjusted after all 300 pitches, every night?

If you do, you have way too much time on your hands. If you don’t, you can thank the pitch clock — 15 seconds between pitches with no one on base, 20 seconds with runners on.

After watching the clock tick away for a season, do we even have to ask: Does the pitch clock work? In truth, it’s hard to think of any rule change in recent memory that accomplished exactly what it was designed to accomplish as well as this one did. Average game time: Who knew it would be this easy to chop a half-hour’s worth of dead time off every game? But that’s the exact magic trick the clock has pulled off. Check out the time of the average nine-inning game over the last three seasons: But average game time doesn’t even fully tell this story.

There’s also this … Games of 2 hours, 15 minutes or shorter — In 2022, there were 13 nine-inning games that short all season. In 2023? That number went up slightly … to 170. In other words, there used to be one game that quick every two weeks. This year, there was, essentially, one every night.

Games of 2:30 or shorter — But let’s keep going. In 2022, there were 84 nine-inning games all season that lasted 2 1/2 hours or less. In 2023, there were 678.

Games of 3:30 or longer — How routine did the 3 1/2-hour game used to be? So routine that in 2022, there were 232 nine-inning games that lasted at least 3:30. This year, there were nine — four of them in September, after rosters expanded. And in seven of those nine, at least 16 runs were scored. So at least there was a good excuse. But one more thing … We’ve killed the four-hour game! How many nine-inning games lasted four hours or longer in 2023? That answer is … zero. That’s down from 39 two years ago and 19 in 2022. But even if you include extra-inning games, there were only six four-hour games over this entire season — and every one of them lasted 12 innings or longer. Here’s how dramatic that drop was: So here’s a salute to the pitch clock. “Rule change” doesn’t truly describe it. “Life-changing” is more like it.

“You know one thing I thought we would see more of,” said a baseball executive who requested anonymity in order to speak freely, “was clock violations that impacted the outcome of games — that either ended games or ended innings, particularly in the postseason.”

Hmmm. Excellent point. Think back to spring training. On the very first day of the Grapefruit League in February, the Braves and Red Sox actually had a game end on a “clock-off” — a pitch-clock violation on the last “pitch” (not that the pitch was ever thrown). Who would have envisioned that when the season got rolling we would see none of that? Instead, players did what players do: They adapted, because that beat the alternative. Take a look.

But once again, that doesn’t tell the full story:

• About two of every three games were played without a single violation.

• After July, only two games featured more than two violations, by both teams combined. And how little impact did those violations have on late-game drama? From Opening Day through July 17, there were 14 pitch-clock violations that resulted in either an automatic walk or an automatic strikeout in the ninth inning or later. But after that, there was just one, by all 30 teams combined — an Angel Hernandez ball-four call against Astros reliever Bryan Abreu on Aug. 6.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say that all players grew to love


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