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The Clock is Ticking

America’s Pastime in Less Time: What to Expect as MLB Season Begins

The Major League Baseball (MLB) season opens this week with major changes in store. A pitch clock, new pickoff limits, bigger bases and rules on shifting infielders are all aimed at helping America’s pastime take up less time. Three Syracuse University faculty members with connections to the game and the numbers behind it offer thoughts on what fans can expect on opening day and beyond.

Brad Horn Portrait
Brad Horn

Brad Horn, professor of public relations in the Newhouse School and former VP of communications for the Baseball Hall of Fame

“The reality is that for the game to navigate a 162-game regular season, change is essential to the sport’s relevancy. Change is overdue, and change is good.

“Ironically, baseball was never meant to be played over a span of more than three hours. Efficiency has been the ultimate reward: the shortest effort between 27 outs typically signals victory.

“But somewhere along the way, the game itself slowed to a crawl while the rest of the world ran out of patience. As sports fans, we crave efficiency: the two-minute drill, the last-second possession, the power play. Yet baseball has continued to rely on the timeless nature of the game. While redeeming, good only for the few who can afford to wait.

“The reality is that the game can no longer stand on history and tradition alone to be relevant. The raw numbers just don’t matter as much as they once did. But the excitement of baseball—a thrilling postseason, a dramatic walk-off, an incredible World Baseball Classic—are the moments that matter more today. Creating more shareable moments is central to the game’s growth and future.”

Jason Maddox Portrait
Jason Maddox

Jason Maddox, assistant professor of sport management in the Falk College with a teaching specialty in analytics

“I do not believe the new rules will have a very large effect on the way the game is played. There may be some minor growing pains for pitchers with the pitch clock early on in the season, but many players have already played with a pitch clock instituted in the minor leagues since the 2015 season. As with any rule change or emphasis, I envision the umpires will enforce the changes more strictly at the beginning of the season, but I would expect there to be a lot of leeway on the new rules once September and October roll around.

“I think that the biggest change in the game for this season will be a lot more action occurring on the basepaths with stolen base attempts. Limited pitcher disengagements and larger bases will make it much more difficult for pitchers to hold runners, and therefore increase stolen base successes along with attempts.”

Jeremy Losak Portrait
Jeremy Losak

Jeremy Losak, assistant professor of sport management in the Falk College and former baseball analytics consultant

“MLB rule changes will do exactly what the league wants them to do: make the game of baseball more interesting and enjoyable to watch. The new rules also allow for more diversity in play styles.

“Starting with the new pickoff rules and larger bases (and pitch timer, to some extent). Analytical thinking had mostly killed the stolen base because the potential cost of getting an out outweighed the benefit of gaining the extra base. These new rules reduce the likelihood of recording an out when attempting to steal (we do not know by how much just yet, but some expect the effect to be huge), which should lead to significantly more attempts to steal bases.

“This, in turn, impacts the marginal impact of a single and reduces the marginal impact of a walk. Generally, it takes three singles to score a run (if only singles are hit). With increased stealing, it may only take two singles to score a run. This makes singles hitting more valuable than it was previously, and more importantly, it decreases the value of the home run relative to the single. Combine this with the new shift restrictions, increasing the likelihood that a ball hit on the ground results in a hit, hitting for contact in general, as opposed to hitting for power, should become much more prevalent. Now combine this with less dead time, and there should be much more in-game action this season.

“I also anticipate lineup management, and specifically the role analytics plays in lineup management, to be even more crucial this year. With multiple home run jacking individuals in the lineup, the key objective in past years would typically be to get people on base so home runs do more damage, leading to fairly simple lineup strategies (and incentivizing walks, i.e., not swinging). With more diverse outcomes, and more hits in play as opposed to home runs, player sequencing will be especially critical to get right. I expect there will be a general reversion toward more traditional lineup setups (speed hitter no. 1, best contact hitter no. 2, best overall hitter no. 3, best power hitter no. 4) as opposed to what we have seen more recently (best OBP player no. 1, best overall hitter no. 2).

“Of course, there will be bugs to work out, especially as teams find loopholes in the pitch clock and shift rules. Teams will spend the early part of the season trying to identify the optimal aggressiveness on the basepaths, and pitchers will continue getting accustomed to working under time duress. The pickoff rule is wonky, which is part of the reason stolen base rates should go up significantly. At this point, it is not clear if everyone will run more, if just the top players will run more or if everyone will see some sort of proportional increase in their baserunning aggressiveness. Again, part of that will work itself out during the early part of the season. Teams will surely review early season data very closely. Although I do expect catchers who can throw out runners will be more greatly compensated and sought after.

“I expect more runs to be scored despite a slight decrease in home runs (unless MLB messes with the aerodynamics of the baseball again). And the pitch clock has already shown evidence (in the minors and spring training) of being successful in its endeavor: to cut down on dead time in baseball games. Games will go much quicker but will also see more action. I am concerned about how the pace-of-play rules will impact pitcher durability, health and player safety. These rules may continue to push us away from the traditional starting pitcher. In fact, I wonder if this will be the next area of the game that is targeted for rule changes: the number of pitchers allowed to be brought in during a game.”

~ An SU News story by Keith Kobland originally published on Thursday, March 30, 2023.