A timeless sport is no longer timeless

One of baseball’s charms has been that the game is timeless. It was one of the few sports not governed by a clock, which for many, made it a beautiful game.

One Major League baseball scout said: “Watched correctly, each pitch of an at bat is supposed to have a purpose, is designed to set up the next pitch, the next out, the next inning. It is chess played out on grass and clay.”

But baseball games were getting longer, and the masses were growing restless.

One reason games were taking longer is that as Major League Baseball expanded, there wasn’t enough quality pitching to go around. Too many games were taking as long as three-and-a-half hours to play.

The breaks between innings also lengthened because of TV. Most commercial breaks last two minutes or longer. In a 9-inning game, that translates to an additional 30 minutes. So much for “hustle in and hustle out,” that you may hear coaches yell in Little League.

Writing on ESPN.com, Anthony Castrovince looked at the most significant rules changes in MLB this year.

After experimenting with a clock in minor league baseball, the clock will finally be used in MLB this season in an effort to create a crisper pace of play. There will be a 30-second timer between batters, and then a 15-second timer between each pitch with the bases empty, and a 20-second timer between each pitch with runners on base.

A pitcher must go into his motion prior to the expiration of the timer or else be charged with an automatic ball. The pitcher can step off the pitching rubber or make a pick-off attempt twice without penalty. A third “disengagement” will be ruled a balk, unless an out is recorded on the bases (i.e., a successful pick-off attempt).

The batter must be in the batter’s box and alert to the pitcher by the 8-second mark on the timer, or else be charged with an automatic strike. That means a game could end with strike three being called on the batter for not being ready to hit in time.

The batter does have one timeout per plate appearance. It may be called prior to the first pitch or between pitches. The timer will stop and restart once the batter begins to return to the box or play is otherwise ready to resume.

The use of a pitch timer reduced the length of games in the Minor Leagues last season by about 25 minutes, so yes, the game doesn’t drag as much.

For what it’s worth, the limit on pick-off attempts led to a 26 percent increase in stolen-base attempts in the Minor Leagues.

Another change in MLB this year is a rule that puts restrictions on infield shifts. The defensive team must have a minimum of four players within the outer boundary of the infield, with at least two infielders completely on either side of second base, or else the penalty will be an automatic ball. The rule is aimed at showcasing the athleticism of middle infielders and restoring more traditional outcomes on balls in play.

If you’re wondering what happens if a pitch and play go off even though a violation of the shift rule has been called by the umpire, the answer is that as in football when teams can decline a penalty, the offensive team can advise the home-plate umpire to decline the penalty and accept the result of the play. If a home run is hit on that pitch, the shift infraction is simply waved off.

Another change is the size of the bases. The bases are now 18 inches on each side instead of the traditional 15 inches on each side. This allows players more room to operate around the bases to reduce the risk of injury (there was a 13 percent decline in injuries near the bases in the Minor Leagues last year) and could also encourage runners to be more aggressive on stolen-base attempts. Inches matter.

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out, but I suspect baseball players will learn to adapt. After all, what choice do they have? They’re now on the clock.

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