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MLB Spring Training Has New Rules

Usually, this time of year is exciting just because the weather is lousy and the thought of a few innings in the sun of Prescott Arizona watching the Guardians is really dreamy. This year I am really energized by changes to the rules which are intended to increase fan enjoyment, foremost of which is putting a pitch count on starting pitchers, batters and possibly managers. Here is an explanation of some of the new rules from The Sporting News:

MLB is always looking to find ways to improve pace of play, and the pitch clock is certainly aimed toward changing exactly that.

Pitchers will now have 20 seconds to pitch with runners on base and only 15 with the bases empty, with the timer starting as soon as the pitcher has the ball in hand. Catchers must be behind the plate ready for a pitch with at least nine seconds left on the timer.

The clock will have 30 seconds during batting changes and two minutes and 15 seconds when an inning breaks or pitching change is made. Violations of the clock will result in an automatic ball if the violation is on the pitcher.

But that isn’t all that comes with this rule change. Pickoff attempts are going to be closely monitored moving forward. No longer will pitchers be able to throw over to first on five straight attempts. Now, pitchers can step off twice to attempt a pickoff move, which would then reset the clock to 20 seconds. On a third attempt, however, an out has to be recorded in some fashion, or the pitcher will be called for a ball. The only exception to this will be if the runner still advances on the third pickoff try. This resets to two pickoff attempts, if the runner advances during a plate appearance.

That rule won’t just apply to pickoff attempts, either. Pitchers stepping off the rubber to re-adjust or take a breather will also be limited to just twice per plate appearance. Pitchers asking for a new baseball should do so before the clock reaches the nine-second mark, or they will be charged for disengaging from the mound.

MLB had already instituted a rule that limited teams to just one mound visit per pitcher per inning unless the second is to remove a pitcher from the game. Now, those visits will be timed for 30 seconds, starting from when a coach, catcher or either position player leaves their spot to reach the pitcher. Umpires can provide extensions on the team if the pitcher is dealing with an injury, and if the trainer comes out, there is an unlimited timer. The clock can reset to 20 seconds if, for example, a catcher goes out to visit with the pitcher, and then a coach decides to head out after the clock had already begun to run down. Additional mound visits will now be permitted in the ninth inning.

This isn’t all about the pitcher, however. Batters have to be standing in the box and ready for a pitch with at least eight seconds left on the clock, and they can only ask for time once during a plate appearance. Batters who aren’t ready for a pitch within eight seconds or who ask for time to step out a second time will receive automatic strikes. Batter walk-up music also will only be able to last 10 seconds, at the most.”

Larger bases

 

Perhaps a more minor change, but bases will now be 18 square inches rather than 15 square inches as they have been in recent years.

Why bigger bases? The goal is to both promote player safety and help create more offense. With the bigger base, runners and fielders have more room to share the base without as much risk of players stepping on one another or colliding while trying to make a play or reach base safely.

In addition, the larger bases should, in theory, encourage more base stealing in the majors. While there was not much of a change at Triple-A in 2021, when the bases were installed, the larger base gives the baserunner technically a slightly shorter path to the base and gives them more space to reach the base when sliding.”

In addition there are also restrictions on defensive shifts and a requirement that the ninth inning starter must face 3 batters. There is also a 10 second limit on walk up music which may imperil Guardian slugger Oscar Gonzalez’s Sponge Bob/Square Pants rally starter.

All of this sounds wonderful before you think about elite athletes and their mental advantage of repetition. When you remove habit and routine there could be many melt downs. Most of the baseball players I watch do the same on deck and plate routines every time. Many pitchers have hypnotic pre delivery routines that include shaking off signs and going to the resin bag. Most troubling however is the new limitation of pick off attempts.

My Top Problems Players

 

Just imagine a 20 second pitch clock on Trevor Bauer as he returns from a MLB suspension. In my fantasy he is brought in as a reliever with Mookie Betts on first and Josh Donaldson at the plate. Donaldson’s pre swing routine is to have one foot in the box and one foot out as he stretches and spits. Has the 15 second clock started for both Trevor and Josh?

I think it has if Trevor has the ball in his hand and he is on the mound, but Trevor likes to throw from center field sometimes and this is one of those occasions and he is just rolling the ball along the outfield like an NBA point guard milking the play clock.

When he gets to the mound the 15 second clock starts but Donaldson asks for a time out and he gets it. Meanwhile with time restored Trevor Bauer decides to make a pick off move on Mookie Betts. Mookie breaks for second base as Trevor’s throw is in the dirt.

The first baseman snags the throw over and fires a bullet to second, but the larger base is causing a problem and the second baseman trips and misses the sure put out. Betts gets to third and stops. The manager emerges from the dugout and requests a pitch clock review on Josh Donaldson whom he claims was out of the box 7 seconds before the pitch clock expired and before Trevor threw to first.

The Most Athletic Move May Be In Jeopardy

 

How about one of the best pick off moves in 2023 baseball owned by Clayton Kershaw? He has a better chance of picking a batter off on first base than striking him out at the plate. The limitation on throw overs helps offense but removes one of the most athletic moves in sport.

Pitchers with pitch clock problems in 2022 like Yu Darvish, Shoheo Ohtani, Corbin Burnes, Max Scherzer and Zack Greinke may struggle to keep their composure after a violation costing them a ball? Buster Olney reporting for ESPN says there are only 74 players in the MLB who have been exposed to a pitch clock. Relievers like Ryan Pressly, Liam Hendriks and Josh Hader may also be disrupted. They are notorious stallers, and the new rules may erase one of the their best moves – taking their foot off the rubber.

Managers who decide late inning substitutions based on pitcher/ batter match ups will be frustrated by a new rule that says relievers must face a minimum of 3 batters in the 9th inning.

While this overhaul is intended to speed up play, it certainly is going to cause disruption in April and May as players, umps and managers adjust to the new regimes.  The impact of the time clock on the speed of play in 2023 will likely depend on a variety of factors, including how strictly the rule is enforced, how quickly pitchers adapt to the new requirement, and other factors that can affect game time, such as the number of pitching changes, video reviews, and other delays.

Spring Training Reports Are Positive

 

Early information from friends attending spring training games in Florida suggests the pace changes were noticeable and welcome. Beer consumption may decline and sun burns may diminish, but speeding up the game will be universally welcomed unless video replays negate the gains.

The above commentary is for informational purposes only. Not intended as legal or investment advice or a recommendation of any particular security or strategy. Information prepared from third-party sources is believed to be reliable though its accuracy is not guaranteed. Opinions expressed in this commentary reflect subjective judgments based on conditions at the time of writing and are subject to change without notice.

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Rob McCreary

Rob McCreary has more than 40 years of transactional experience as an attorney, investment banker and private equity fund manager, and has spent his career in building entrepreneurial organizations with successful track records. Founder and chairman of CW Industrial Partners (originally CapitalWorks, LLC), he is responsible for developing and maintaining senior relationships with investors and portfolio governance.

This blog represents the views of Rob McCreary and do not reflect those of CW Industrial Partners or its employees. This blog is not intended as investment advice. Any discussion of a specific security is for illustrative purposes only and should not be relied upon as indicative of such security’s current or future value. Readers should consult with their own financial advisors before making an investment decision.