What the Data Tells Us About Baseball’s Rule Changes

by | Jun 8, 2023 | General BI

Reading Time: 6 minutes

For baseball fans, spring training is a time for hope. Before any regular season games begin and the standings can put a real-world damper on those hopes and dreams, fans can still believe anything can happen: their team might overachieve and finish at the top of the standings! A player might have a record-setting season! And, this year, fans might have dreamed of games that ended at a reasonable time instead of continuing late into the night.

This past spring training, Major League Baseball implemented some rule changes for the 2023 season meant to speed up the game. Early indications from spring training were that the rules were working – even high-scoring games that used to drag on weren’t lasting as long, thanks to the new pitch clock. Now that the season is two months old, there is a bigger sample size to assess the new rules. Here’s what the data tells us about baseball’s rule changes.

New rules

When making their argument about why baseball was the best sport, baseball purists liked to brag that baseball was the only sport without a clock. As games dragged on for a variety of reasons in recent years, that sounded more like a detriment to the game than a selling point. The length of games was one factor that led to a number of rule changes at the major league level beginning with the 2023 season.

The pitch clock was instituted in the major leagues after a test run in the minors in previous seasons. One of the biggest reasons games took a while was because of the amount of time either the batter or the pitcher would take to get ready in between pitches of an at-bat. The pitch clock requires a pitcher to deliver a pitch within 15 seconds if the bases are empty, and within 20 seconds if there are runners on base. It also requires the batters to be ready and waiting for a pitch within a certain amount of time.

The other rule changes were designed to encourage a more entertaining brand of baseball, banning the infield shift so that defenses couldn’t overload one side of the infield to protect against base hits by pull hitters, and increasing the size of the bases while limiting a pitcher’s pickoff tries in an attempt to increase stolen bases.

The data tells the story

As players adjusted to the new rules during spring training in Florida and Arizona, fans got a taste of what the regular season could look like. Games were quicker in the spring, and there were indications teams would change certain strategies to take advantage of the rule changes. Spring training is hardly ever an indication of regular season play, so the regular season would offer better data about results.

Two months into the season, that data is showing significant change. The New York Times recently put together some visualizations showing just how much change the game has seen in 2023, or perhaps another way of looking at it is how the numbers have helped the game return to the way it was.

The average length of a game, as shown in the graphic above, is 2 hours, 39 minutes, more indicative of a game from the mid-1980s rather than the 3 hour-plus games of the past decade. Part of the reason games are moving along more quickly is because pitchers are delivering the ball more quickly, thanks to the pitch clock. Pitch tempo data, pictured below, is only available from about the 2010 season, but the time between pitches is lower than it has ever been in the time it has been measured.

While the pitch clock almost guaranteed a shorter game length, baseball officials also tweaked the rules in the hopes of making the actual game within that time frame more entertaining. Limiting pickoff throws and forcing pitchers to deliver the ball to the plate more quickly with less attention to the baserunner seemed, in theory, like it would lead to more stolen bases. The numbers so far have shown that to be true. Stolen bases per game are at their highest point in more than 20 years, as shown in the chart below.

While the two months of regular season data includes more games than spring training could offer, it’s still not a very long time. It remains to be seen whether a full season under the new rules will continue to show changes. More data can also be gathered about, for example, whether or not the game is actually more entertaining and whether teams are scoring more often in 2023. There will be more scrutiny come the post-season and whether the rule changes positively or negatively affect the game when the stakes ramp up for the teams vying for a World Series championship.

Visualizing the data

In assessing these rules changes so far, Major League Baseball is not all that different than any other organization trying to track progress. Whether it’s professional sports or a business in an industry that takes place at an office rather than an arena, the right analytics solution can be the difference between the success and failure of an initiative.

For baseball, in this case, it’s identifying the right metrics to follow. That’s a pretty universal truth in any industry. The amount of data can be overwhelming unless you know what you’re looking for. The presentation of the data is pretty important to consider as well. For baseball, a sport that is slow to change and has fans that can be even more resistant, it is important to communicate effectively. Data visualizations are important, because no one will recognize the improvements if they can’t understand what they’re seeing. Analytics solutions that can crunch the numbers can be found easily. What really sets them apart is the ability to express the data in a pleasing way for different audiences, whether that’s a Major League Baseball fan base or a group of executives in a conference room.

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