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Saturday, December 9, 2023

Baseball Has Changed

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America’s oldest professional sport looks different this year.

For the first time in M.L.B.’s 148-year history, clocks in stadiums now count down between every pitch, forcing pitchers and batters into action. It’s a radical change for a sport defined by its leisurely pace — but one that league executives believed was necessary to grow baseball’s popularity.

The sport has gradually become less central to American culture over the last 50 years or so, as football’s popularity has skyrocketed and other sources of entertainment — like video games and on-demand television — have become more available. Even dedicated fans have grumbled in recent years about games being longer and less exciting. To an extent, M.L.B. executives say they agree, and they believe that this year’s rule changes will help.

So far, they are right. The changes — including the pitch clock and others meant to increase action — have led to much faster games with more hits, more stolen bases and less down time. Whether the changes will increase interest in baseball is another question.

Today’s newsletter will explore how different this new version of baseball really is, with some charts from my colleague Ashley Wu.

When it comes to game duration — the amount of time between the first pitch and the last — M.L.B.’s new rules have been a smashing success.

For decades, outings at the ballpark had been getting longer and longer. When Babe Ruth played in the 1920s, nine innings of play lasted less than two hours. Over time, as it became more common for at-bats to last longer, the average game time ticked up. It ultimately peaked at 3 hours 11 minutes in 2021.

That trend has sharply reversed this year.

During the first three weeks of this season, games lasted 2 hours 39 minutes on average — 29 fewer minutes than they did during the same time frame last year. That means at a typical game beginning at 7:05 p.m., fans are heading home around 9:45 p.m. instead of 10:15 p.m. It also means that all of the runs, hits, strikeouts and errors occur during a shorter period of time, making the game feel more action-packed.

The time reduction can be mostly credited to the implementation of the pitch clock. Here’s how it works: After a pitcher receives the ball at the mound, a 15-second clock starts to count down (20 if a runner is on base). If the pitcher waits too long, the umpire calls a ball as a penalty; if the batter delays, the umpire calls a strike. The timer means that at-bats now move faster — though fans who are scrolling through social media or are in line for a hot dog are now more likely to miss something.

“I felt like I was at warp speed,” New York Mets pitcher David Robertson said after his first appearance this year.

The second, and more important, goal that baseball is trying to achieve with its new rules is to make the games more entertaining.

The M.L.B. commissioner, Rob Manfred, told my colleague Michael Schmidt that baseball’s problems were at least partly a result of the sport’s recent obsession with analytics. Teams over the past two decades have raced for a statistical edge: They use more pitchers, and those pitchers throw faster, while batters have tuned their swings to hit the long ball — leading to more strikeouts and more home runs, but fewer balls hit in play.

“Baseball changed,” Manfred said. “Fans wanted the game to look like the way it used to look like.”

The sport’s new rules, including requirements about where certain defensive players can stand, were designed to increase the game’s action — and entertainment value — with more hits, more steals and more impressive defensive plays. Through the first three weeks of the year, the M.L.B. has gotten the result it hoped for: Runners are stealing more bases, runs are up and batting average has risen modestly compared with the same period last season.

An increased leaguewide batting average, up to .247 from .231 last year, means that at-bats more often end with a hit now. Statistically, it’s a significant jump from last year’s historic low, though hits are still less common than they were in the mid-2000s.

Though the changes have already had an impact, they still may not be enough to solve baseball’s troubles. Hitting a professionally thrown baseball has always been incredibly hard. In the modern era, when pitchers are stronger and more informed by data, it is only getting harder.

“That’s the one thing that could really derail this,” my colleague Tyler Kepner, who covers baseball, told me. “Pitchers are only getting better, and I don’t know how they’re really going to limit strikeouts.”

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Read the full issue.

  • House Republicans plan to vote this week on their debt ceiling bill, which would raise the cap but cut I.R.S. funding and impose strict food stamp requirements.

  • A civil trial is set to begin on Tuesday for a lawsuit from the writer E. Jean Carroll, who has accused Donald Trump of raping her in the 1990s.

  • President Biden is expected to announce his bid for re-election as soon as Tuesday.

  • The N.F.L. draft begins on Thursday. The Carolina Panthers have the first pick.

  • The annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner will be held on Saturday.

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