Baseball will look different in 2023 when a set of sweeping rules changes appear in Major League Baseball. How will the changes impact baseball betting, if at all?
Luckily, the three major rules changes for 2023 have been tested in professional baseball at the minor league level, giving us data that helps us predict what it might mean for MLB in the future.
What we’re most interested in is whether the rules changes will impact run scoring, help or hinder certain players or teams, or affect the pennant races.
Rules Changes in MLB for 2023
These new rules will be in place at the start of the 2023 MLB season.
Banning of Defensive Shifts
Rule: All four infielders are required to have both feet in the infield (neither can be on the outfield grass). Two infielders are required to be on either side of second base when the pitch is delivered.
This rule is in response to the rapid increase in defensive shifts in the game. Teams are stacking three defenders on one side of the infield often to varying degrees. According to MLB’s Statcast data (available via Baseball Savant), teams shifted 12.1 percent of the time in 2017. In 2020 that figure had risen to 34.1 percent. In 2021, it was 30.9%, and this season it’s been 32.9%. Some teams, like the Dodgers and Mets, have utilized the shift on more than half of all plays in the last two seasons.
Does the shift decrease run scoring?
In 2002 the average MLB team averaged 4.62 runs per game. In 2007 that number had increased to 4.80, the highest mark this century. But since 2017, when we’ve seen shifts increase drastically, run scoring has fallen to 4.30 per game per team this season. However, according Statcast data, launch angle and strikeouts may be the cause of that reduction of about 11%. Strikeouts have increased by 17% since 2012.
Fewer balls are being put in play than ever before in baseball history, and that’s the main reason run scoring is down. Sure, when batters put the ball in play there are singles being taken away by the shift, but the impact on run scoring is likely not significant.
The data reveals that banning shifts has little or no effect on how many balls in play become hits.
Since 2019, MLB has been tinkering with shift bans at various minor league levels.
In 2019 when shifts were allowed, the batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was .305 across Double-A levels. In 2021, with the shift restrictions in place, the batting average on balls in play was .308.
2018-19, at High A and Low A minor league levels, the BABIP was .307, when fielders could shift and play wherever. In 2021 at that level, with shift bans and positioning rules, BABIP was .308, or basically no difference. In 2022, at three levels of the minor leagues that ban shifts the BABIP is only two points higher than in the most recent seasons when the shift was allowed.
Same goes for the Arizona Fall League, where MLB has tried the shift banning. BABIP in the AFL was .328 in 2017 and .327 in 2018, and dropped to .313 in 2019. In those three seasons, teams could use the shift unfettered. In 2021, with shifts prohibited in the AFL, the BABIP was .328—same as in 2017-18 when shifts were allowed.
One caveat: defensive shifts are less common in the minors than in MLB. No extensive data is kept (or at least it’s not available) on shifts in the minors, but managers and scouting departments employ the tactic far more in the majors, where winning games is paramount. Thus, it’s possible that shift banning may increase BABIP in the major leagues, as opposed to how it has little impact in the minors.
How Will It Change Baseball Betting?
Don’t expect radical changes in run scoring. In the minor leagues, essentially we’ve seen some base hits result from the shift, but the realignment of defenders into a more traditional setup also takes away hits that would have gone through against the shift. MLB players are being encouraged to hit the ball in the air, and until that changes and/or strikeouts decrease, BABIP will probably be very similar.
Pitch Clock Pace of Play Rule
Rule: Pitchers will have up to 15 seconds between pitches when the bases are empty, and up to 20 seconds between pitches with at least one runner on base to deliver their pitch. In addition, the batter must be in the batter’s box and alert to the pitcher with at least eight seconds remaining on the pitch clock. Failure to adhere to the rules will result in a ball (for a violation by the pitcher) or a strike (if the batter breaks the rule).
This rule should impact the length of games dramatically. In minor leagues that have been using a pitch clock (going back to 2016) the average nine-inning game time has fallen by 26 minutes. It’s also increased stolen base attempts by about 4%, since pitchers cannot step off the base freely as they once could.
How Will It Change Baseball Betting?
Games will be shorter, which makes no difference at all to bettors. You can expect more stolen base attempts, but it will likely only impact players who are stolen base threats. MLB teams are still drunk on launch angle and swinging for home runs, and are adverse to making outs on the base paths.
Rule: First, second, and third base will increase in size from 15” square to 18” square on all MLB fields.
The only data available on larger bases (used in some minor leagues since 2021), is that it evidently reduces the number of baserunning-related injuries.
How Will It Change MLB?
Bigger bases will reduce the distance between first and second and between second and third base by 4 1/2 inches. It has not been shown to increase stolen base attempts or run scoring, but the larger bases have not been in use long.
Brief History of Significant Baseball Rules Changes
- 1893: Pitcher’s mound set at 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate.
- 1903: Foul strike rule adopted in American League
- 1920: Spitball and other pitches requiring doctoring of the ball are outlawed.
- 1969: Pitching mound lowered from 15 inches to 10 inches.
- 1969: Strike zone reduced to the area from the batters armpits to the top of the batters knees.
- 1973: American League establishes the designated hitter rule.
- 2014: Catchers are prohibited from blocking the plate without the baseball.
- 2016: Baserunners must be within arm’s reach of the base when sliding on a play.
- 2020: Runner placed on second base to start each half-inning in extra innings.
- 2022: National League adopts the designated hitter rule on a permanent basis.
- 2023: Ban of defensive shifts.
- 2023: Pace of play clock of 20 seconds between pitches.
- 2023: Bases made larger by three inches on each side.