One Week In, How are the New Rules Going?

Seven days' results under the new MLB rules

The goals have been pretty clear: a faster-paced, shortened game that relies more heavily on balls in play and baserunning. Have the new MLB rules introduced for 2023 accomplished this?

For each rule change, I’ve identified a couple of statistical markers that might indicate a difference between the first week of 2023 compared to the first week of 2022. Overall, the rule changes seem to accomplish what they set out to; however, it’s still just one week. Teams and players will continue to adjust and counter-adjust as the season goes on.


Pitch Clock

Perhaps the most controversial of the new rules when it was first announced, the pitch clock has seemingly accomplished what it set out to do. Through the first seven days of the season, average game length has been a paltry 2:38. That’s down more than 30 minutes from 2022’s opening week (3:11).

Aesthetically, this is also the most noticeable of the rule changes. Games sure do seem to be flying by, both in total length and in overall pace between pitches and innings. A small part of me remains conflicted about the rule change. Attending a game last week, it was definitely noticeable that we were out of the park in two hours and 20 minutes or so. On one hand, it’s nice to finish up before 10:00; on the other I could’ve tolerated a few more minutes at the park. Ultimately, and again this is anecdotal, I feel I’ve been able to watch more baseball overall due to the shorter game times on regular game days via MLB.tv. I’m curious if other watchers have the same experience.

A valid concern around the pitch clock would be that it could lead to more injury from pitchers, who were taking additional time not to ponder “Succession,” but to recover from pitch to pitch. At least in the early going, it doesn’t seem as though pitchers are wearing out faster:

First Week Pitch Stats

Surprisingly, starters are throwing more pitches per start, and fewer pitchers overall are being used in games. This isn’t exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, though, as pitchers were still building up stamina in 2022 due to the lockout-shortened spring training.

These measures will be something to watch as the season goes on, though. If pitchers tire more quickly as the schedule advances, some of the gains from the pitch clock in terms of game length could be given back by more frequent pitching changes.


Shift Restrictions

The idea behind two players starting on either side of second base was to incentivize more balls being put in play and fewer gobbled up by “the shift.”

Speaking for myself, this was the rule change I was most wary of. Players have been shifted basically since baseball began (even if not so dramatically), and the strategy should be part of the defensive cat-and-mouse game of baseball. If hitters were having hits taken away, shouldn’t they…hit them somewhere else?

This rule change probably couldn’t have gone any better for MLB.

First Week League Hitting

The defensive rules really do seem to have made an impact on hitting. Batting average on balls in play is up 16 points, nearly identical to the increase in batting average (17 points). Balls are finding more holes. It’s worth noting that the league-wide average wouldn’t necessarily be a major break from previous years’– as recently as 2019, the league-wide batting average for the entire year was above .250.

There are a few conflating factors here that will determine whether players will continue to out-average and out-BABIP previous years throughout the whole season. Again, this is comparing a shortened spring training year in 2022, in which pitchers could have been ahead of hitters in the early going, moreso than usual. Perhaps that gap will narrow as the season goes on.

Additionally, it’s possible that hitters are a bit ahead of pitchers at this point when it comes to the pitch clock rules. Pitcher rhythm or stamina could be taking a hit, and therefore hitters are just getting more hits. That could even back out, or maybe it’s just more of a hitters’ game than in the recent past. League-wide BABIP and batting average remain worth keeping an eye on to determine how well the “anti-shift” works on putting the ball in play.


Bigger Bases / Pickoff Limits

These rules are grouped together because their intent and effect are the same: to increase baserunning, and specifically, stolen bases.

The new rules have done that and then some:

First Week League Baserunning

Baserunners are attempting 73% more stolen bases than this time a year ago, and for good reason – the success rates have jumped through the roof. For context, Rickey Henderson’s career stolen base rate is 80.7%. Basically, the league as a whole is swiping at the same rate as Rickey’s career.

This may be a rule MLB will look to tweak based on those numbers, but in the early going if you didn’t tell anyone about the rule changes and didn’t look it up, would they really notice just from watching the games? The extra attempts amount to less than half a stolen base per game over the same time period in 2022.

One wonders if stolen base attempts will continue to increase as the season goes on, however. After the first week, the top two teams in attempts account for 16% of all attempts in the league! Over the same time period in 2022, the top two teams accounted for just 10% of attempts. The Orioles and Guardians certainly are on to something. Additonally, Brewers manager Craig Counsell noted recently that stolen base attempts would go up once baserunners got a better sense of timing with the pitch clock and pickoff limits.

If other teams begin to prioritize steals (seven teams have fewer than three attempts through the first week), this is the rule that has the most potential to drastically change the game this season.

The difficulty in assessing the rule changes is that they haven’t happened in a vacuum– the pitch clock affects what the baserunners do, who are now a few inches closer to their next base, on and on. To gain a full picture of the success of MLB’s intent will take beyond a week, month, or likely even a season to determine long-term effects alongside the natural evolution of the game.

Overall, the numbers paint the picture that MLB’s rule changes have largely worked through one week– it’s a quicker, more-balls-in-play, baserunning game than last year’s. Teams and players will continue to adjust and refine on the margins of runs and wins, however– and those adjustments could see unforeseen consequences, for better or worse.

Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)

Sean Roberts

Sean Roberts is a baseball columnist for Pitcher List. His work has been featured on Baseball Prospectus, the Hardball Times, and October. He's still getting used to the DH in the national league. @seanroberts.bsky.social

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