The major leagues have instituted a number of rule changes this season with the objectives of speeding up the game and increasing offense. A quarter of the way into the season, it is abundantly evident that those objectives are being met, with games proceeding at a pace not seen since the 1980s, and offensive results providing some of the largest ever year-over-year increases for many metrics. More after the jump.
In a game long touted for not having a clock, there are suddenly a dizzying array of timers in constant motion, measuring time between innings*, between batters and, especially, between pitches. Where a batter could previously ask for and be granted time pretty much as often as he wished, he may now do so only once in a plate appearance. Similarly, where pitchers could previously step off the pitching rubber as often as desired and only deliver a pitch when ready to do so, once a batter is in the batter’s box (there’s a time limit for that too), a pitcher usually has less than 10 seconds to make a pitch or to step off the rubber, and may do the latter only twice in a plate appearance and only with a runner on base. Gone are the days when a pitcher would shake off his catcher several times (sometimes just to get the batter guessing), or a batter would fiddle with his batting gloves after every pitch – there’s just no time for any such unnecessary actions. The PitchCom system introduced a couple of seasons ago has come into almost universal usage this season, as pitchers just don’t have time to ask their catcher to run through the signs again. Indeed, several pitchers are now calling their own games, using PitchCom to send their pitch selection to the catcher, thus eliminating shake-offs entirely.
* One of the lesser known timing rules concerns warm-up pitches between innings, which must be concluded not later than 30 seconds before the end of the 2 minute interval between innings. Transgression awards a one ball count to the first batter of the inning.
The end result of this emphasis on timing has been dramatic, with the average length of a 9-inning game declining by 26 minutes so far this season, compared to 2022. This season’s current 2:37 average time for a 9-inning game is the lowest in almost 40 years, since the 2:35 recorded in 1984. More than one-third of 9-inning games this season have completed in less than 2½ hours, ten times the proportion in 2022, while games lasting more than 3½ hours have virtually disappeared, comprising only 0.3% of 9-inning games this season, compared to a rate last year fully 35 times higher at 10.5%.
On the surface, the game hasn’t changed much, with about one-third of one PA more per team game this year compared to last, and virtually the same number of pitches per PA. Balls in play are down slightly from last year, as are errors committed. But, looking at bit deeper into the numbers reveals that pitchers are probably having a bit harder time than batters adjusting to the changes, with 0.27 more walks allowed per game this season compared to last, 0.21 more hits allowed, 0.08 more HR allowed, 0.19 more stolen bases allowed, and a 78.7% stolen base success rate, the last the highest ever recorded. The end result is an increase of almost one-third of a run more per team game this year compared to last, perhaps not unexpected with pitchers now being compelled to deliver pitches “on demand” and with limits imposed on pitcher disengagements (making it harder for pitchers to keep runners close to their bags). The other rule changes made this season also haven’t helped pitchers: increasing the size of bases (thereby very slightly reducing the distance between them); and eliminating defensive shifts, with positioning of infielders now mandated to two on each side of the diamond, and none on the outfield grass (although I have seen teams permitted to employ a fifth infielder with the infield drawn in to prevent the winning run scoring; perhaps a four man outfield is also allowed if all are positioned at outfield depth).
To see the significance of changes in per game offensive statistics, here is a table of this year’s changes compared to 2022, and how those changes rank among all year-over-year changes since 1901.
The table is showing this year’s changes (through games of May 17th) from 2022 results for the per team game metrics shown. Those year-over-year changes are shown as an absolute number, and as a percentage of the 2022 metric result. Also shown are the rankings of those two quantities among the 123 seasons of the modern era. Thus, as an example, the 0.27 change in walks per team game is the 4th highest year-over-year change since 1901 among seasons with a year-over-year increase, and the corresponding 8.82% change in walks per team game is the 7th highest year-over-year change since 1901 among those same seasons. Similarly, the 0.27 absolute change and 8.82% percentage change both rank 10th among all year-over-year changes (positive or negative) since 1901. Thus, all of the absolute metrics shown rank in the top half of year-over-year changes (positive or negative) since 1901, with many ranking in the top quartile; the same holds for all of the percentage metrics, save for home runs and strikeouts. Stolen bases and walks show the most dramatic year-over-year changes, the former a record year-over-year increase resulting also in a record year-over-year increase in the Bill James Power/Speed number+ when applied to per game totals for home runs and stolen bases. That Power/Speed number stands at 0.870 so far this season, second only to the 0.943 in 1987, when home runs took a sudden and dramatic turn upward in a game then dominated by the stolen base. Here are the top 10 Power/Speed seasons, from which can be seen that HR per game increased by 0.15 from 1986 to 1987 (the next year HR per game declined by 0.3, the largest ever year-over-year change, positive or negative).
+ James’s formula for the Power/Speed number is 2*HR*SB/(HR+SB), also known as the harmonic mean of HR and SB, which ranges higher with high values of a similar magnitude for both quantities.
The underlying reason for all the changes introduced this year, and in the past few seasons, has been to make the game more attractive to fans, who have been staying away from ballparks, with average attendance declining almost 19% from a peak of 32,696 in 2007 to last season’s 26,566, the lowest mark (excepting COVID-impacted seasons in 2020 and 2021) since 1996. Attendance increases as the temperatures rise, so early season attendance results are encouraging, up 6.5% from 2022 totals for the first 40 games of the season.