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Mudville: June 12, 2024 11:47 pm PDT

Life in the Fast Lane

BY DEB SEYMOUR

It’s a new year, and that means a new baseball season is almost upon us. With football soon in the rearview mirror, for a lot of fans baseball season can’t come fast enough – and here at BallNine, we couldn’t agree more.

While many baseball writers have been completing their Hall of Fame ballots and have been busily submitting them on time, most of the rest of the baseball world is still focused on who will sign next in free agency or become part of a trade to upgrade a team’s roster. And the truth is, once you hit the new year, spring training isn’t too far around the corner and lots of teams still have significant roster decisions to make prior to March.

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But while Major League Baseball is made up of all those individual teams, MLB as an organization is occupied with many issues beyond what each team is doing roster-wise for next season.

And, as we’ve come to expect from the current MLB organization, not unsurprisingly, rule changes are among those issues (apart from the competitive balance tax, which teams might move, when expansion might occur, television and streaming deals, and a few other issues presently occupying MLB leadership independently of the activities of each team).

In the rule changes category, we collectively experienced the impacts of the pitch clock and larger bases last season. Moreover, the reduced numbers of mound visits and the extra inning phantom runner rule keep being tinkered with.

And now, it was widely publicized that pitch clock limits will be strengthened even more this coming season. But there’s another rule change coming…this time, it’s to the runner’s lane between home plate and first base, and what “running out of the baseline” has come to mean.

The joint competition committee voted in the second half of December to approve a widening of the runner’s lane to include the dirt between the foul line and the infield grass.

Previously, MLB Rule 5.09 (a)(11) required a batter to run the last half of the distance between home plate and first base between the foul line and a three-foot line drawn on the right-hand side of the dirt. Was this always enforced? Not really. Was it always clear when an umpire called a runner out of the baseline that he’d actually been out of the baseline? You certainly would need instant replay to determine that, in most cases.

Yet the runner’s lane is a rule that has existed since the National League mandated in 1882 that runners must be within the 3-foot box on the foul side of the baseline during the final 45 feet between home and first. Violators were subject to being called out for interfering with fielders taking a throw. The rule was designed to prevent collisions, because foul lines intersected the middle of bases until the bags were moved entirely into fair territory in 1887.

But now all of that is about to be transformed, with the runner’s lane rule change.

Right-handed hitters should benefit the most from the change, because they will now have a more direct path to first base. It’s been claimed for years that lefty batters have an advantage or head start – because when they start to run down to first, they’re already on the correct side of the batter’s box, and that saves them time. Now, that advantage will allegedly go away.

Under the new rule, the runner’s lane will still be chalked in order to keep runners from drifting too far into foul territory on plays in which the ball is in foul territory, such as on dropped third strikes. But instead of forcing the runner to be in foul territory (to the right of the foul line), the runner will now be in compliance with the rule as long as both feet remain on the dirt path between home and first.

Hence, now all that umpires will have to look for is whether the runner remained on the dirt, and didn’t wander over too far onto the grass.

The thinking is that the reduced distance for right-handed hitters could cause a mild improvement in batting average on infield ground balls. But, of course, there is also a time savings involved – as minor as it is. And that, naturally, is part of MLB’s greater strategy.

Which brings us to the joint competition committee’s approval of a reduction of the pitch clock from 20 seconds to 18 seconds with runners on base. The clock will remain 15 seconds with no runners aboard; and pitchers will retain the ability to step off and reset the clock up to two times per plate appearance without penalty.

Here are some additional changes to note:

The pitch clock operator, known as the Field Timing Coordinator, will now restart the clock after a dead ball (such as a foul ball) when the pitcher has the ball and play is ready to resume. There will no longer be a requirement for the pitcher to be on the mound, removing the pitcher’s ability to delay the start of the clock by walking around the edge of the mound.

And another change, brought about by a surprisingly small sample size of instances observed by MLB during the 2023 season: A pitcher called upon to come to the mound and warm up for an inning must face at least one batter (in addition to any requirements under the three-batter minimum rule). MLB found 24 instances in 2023 of a pitcher warming up on the game mound between innings and getting replaced before throwing a pitch, adding approximately three minutes of dead time per event. There were also two such instances during the World Series.

Twenty-four instances, the entire regular season – each causing three minutes of dead time – have now prompted a rule change.

Teams will have to be super careful about whom they ask to warm up on the mound for an inning, because that pitcher will have to be used for at least one batter. (Note: this doesn’t apply to bullpen warm-ups.) One positive to this could be less wear and tear on pitchers who don’t ultimately get in the inning or in the game; but the three-minute motivation seems just a tad arcane.

We are living in the era of tinkering with and the transformation of the rules of baseball. Once the door was opened to multiple rule modifications during the pandemic season(s), it’s unsurprising that MLB decided to keep playing with the rules to make the game “more appealing to the younger fans of today.”

It may take some time to determine if all the pitch clock innovations are causing enough harm to pitchers’ arms that some of them need to be rolled back. In general, fans seemed receptive to the pitch clock last season and the response was overwhelmingly positive, according to MLB.

But even if we assume today’s fans want a sped up game, with more action on the bases than we’ve seen since the “home run or strike out” era began, forcing the issue with new rule changes every season is a slippery slope. Once you begin, where does it end? What are the basic, intrinsic features of the game of baseball that once you start changing them, it’s actually no longer the same game anymore?

Tinkering around the edges has always occurred. Once those edges start to move inward, and all of a sudden you’re modifying fundamental practices that have been in place for over a century, however, is MLB playing baseball anymore – or some other game?

BallNine's fearless editor. Sports addict who's lived on both coasts (though loyal to her hometown New York City teams). Writer of many articles on education. Speaker of little bits of many languages.

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