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Cubs react to new MLB rule changes

Ryan Herrera Avatar
September 10, 2022

Back when Cubs manager David Ross was in his playing days as a catcher, he could take a hard hit in a collision at home plate and nobody would’ve batted an eye.

Having debuted during the 2002 season, Ross came up years ahead of Major League Baseball adopting rules to limit those collisions in the name of player safety. But when MLB did implement restrictions on how runners could attempt to reach home safely and how and when catchers could block the plate in 2014, players who would’ve been involved in those types of plays had to adapt.

“I think there’s an adjustment period for all of it, but players do a really nice job of adjusting to the new stuff,” Ross said Friday. “There may be some bitching and moaning for a minute, right? It’s what we do. I was the same player. I complained about it, and then I went out and tried to compete underneath the rules.”

Now, today’s players have a whole new adjustment period waiting for them. MLB’s competition committee — which consists of four active players, six members appointed by MLB and one umpire — voted Friday to implement rule changes set to debut next season: a pitch clock, defensive shift restrictions and bigger bases.

Increasing the size of the bags was the only rule change approved unanimously, according to Cubs player representative Ian Happ, who said he was an alternate for the Players Association and thus didn’t have voting privileges but was otherwise involved in the meetings. The pitch clock and shift restrictions were met with resistance, and per a statement by the MLBPA, the four players on the committee voted unanimously against those two rules. But because MLB has the majority among the 11 voters, the changes passed.

So, beginning with the start of the 2023 season, players will be adjusting to the three new rules set to be put in place.

“Players will adapt,” Happ said. “We’ve adapted to rules changes since the start of the game, so we’ll find a way.”

Below is a breakdown of the changes and how some of the Cubs reacted to the news.

Pitch clock

While out on rehab assignments as he recovered from a low back strain and later a left groin strain earlier this season, Nick Madrigal got to see the rule changes being tested in the minor leagues up close.

Among those was the pitch clock. Major leaguer pitchers on rehab assignments aren’t subject to the timer this year, but obviously, minor league pitchers are. So when there was a minor leaguer on the mound, Madrigal witness how quickly a baseball game can be played when a pitch clock is strictly enforced. And to him, the increased was noticeable.

“The games flew by a lot faster,” Madrigal said. “We were out of there in two hours, right around there.”

According to MLB, the pitch clock reduced the average nine-inning minor league game by 26 minutes. As far as pace of play goes, it was clearly making a difference.

There are, however, some alterations in how the pitch clock will be implemented at the major league level. In the minors this season, there’s a 14-second window for pitchers to start their motions with the bases empty and 18 seconds (Double-A and lower) or 19 seconds (Triple-A) with runners on base until they are charged with a ball, and batters are required to be in the box and alert by the 9-second mark or else they’re charged with a strike. In the majors in 2023, those violations will come at 15, 20 and 8 seconds, respectively.

Regardless, if things go how they’ve gone so far in the minors, the uptick in the pace of play should be a positive.

“From everything I’ve heard, there’s been a great increase in how the game is played, the contact, the athleticism, the pace of the game” Ross said. “I haven’t heard one negative thing about it from the things I’ve heard about the pitch clock. Looking forward to that being implemented.”

There was pushback on some of the other details of the rule, though. Pitchers will only be allowed two disengagements (i.e. pickoffs or stepoffs) per plate appearance, and if a pickoff attempt comes as the third disengagement, the runner automatically advances if the attempt is unsuccessful. Happ said the limit on disengagements was where pitchers had voiced concerns during the process.

On the other side of the ball, batters are only allowed one timeout per plate appearance. For a player like Happ, who plays home games in tough conditions early in the season, that could present its own challenges.

“We play at Wrigley Field in April,” Happ said. “It’s brutal. It’s cold. It’s windy. If I can’t see and I call time once, am I not able to call time later in the at-bat when the wind’s blowing 20 miles an hour in my face? Am I not able to call time when I hit a foul ball and my hands feel like they’re gonna fall off?”

End of the shift

Defensive shifts have become more ingrained in the fabric of the game than ever before. There are extreme examples when it comes to the Cubs themselves, as Nico Hoerner is often shifted away from his spot at shortstop and into shallow right to prevent ground balls from getting through for base hits.

Highlight-reel plays have certainly come from Hoerner’s time roaming the outfield grass, and he even said he enjoys that defensive alignment, calling it “a fun and unique place.” But those days are over after this season.

Starting in 2023, teams must position two defenders on either side of second base, and they must be on the infield dirt before the pitch is thrown. If a team violates the rule, the hitting team can accept the penalty and add a ball to the count, or it can decline and let the play stand.

Like the pitch count, eliminating the shift came with questions on the players’ side.

“I played second base once upon a time. My pre-pitch started in the grass, and then I got to the dirt,” Happ said. “So now, if you’re telling me I have to have both feet on the dirt, how does that change my pre-pitch? Do I have to now learn a different way to get ready for ground balls?”

At the same time, the end of extreme shifts can also showcase the athleticism of players around the diamond.

“There’s great athletes in this game, and I like when that’s promoted,” Hoerner said. “The shift, obviously, will change my role a little bit, just staying on one side of the field. But it’s kind of back to baseball as we knew it growing up in a lot of ways, so I’m cool with it.”

And when it comes to left-handed hitters, well, their numbers should rise now that they’re no longer at the mercy of the shift.

“I hit a line drive up the middle [Thursday]; the shortstop was on the right side of the bag and caught it,” Happ said. “Those things going away, I think it’s going to be a more visually appealing game.

“You’re gonna have a guy like [Kyle] Schwarber and [Anthony] Rizzo that smash the ball on the right side 115 miles an hour. Those are going to be hits again. Those should be hits. That’s a more appealing game than a guy smashing a ball and it looks like nothing because the guy in right field eats it up.”

Bigger bases

The least controversial of the rule changes — at least in terms of the voting process — is increasing the size of first, second and third base.

Each bag will go from 15 to 18 inches square, with the hope being that the increase in size will help reduce collisions on the base paths. Madrigal also experienced the bigger bases during his rehab assignments, and like the other rules, he says it’s just an adjustment players will have to make.

“I think the bases were definitely new at first,” he said. “That was something that was kind of a shock. The bases felt a little bit different when you stepped on them. It just took a little bit of getting used to.”

Though the change was made more so in the name of player safety, an added benefit is that it could lead to more aggressiveness on the base paths. The bigger bags will shorten the distance between bases by 4 1/2 inches, and although that may not seem like a whole lot, there are plenty of examples of base stealers being tagged out just short of the base. So, just a few inches may be all it takes to incentivize teams to attempt to swipe more bags.

“The data doesn’t really show that bigger bases impacts base stealing, but I think at this level it will,” Happ said. “You have so many bang-bang plays, and we have replay at this level, so I do think that those inches are going to matter.”

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