What to Watch For as Baseball’s Pitch Clock Era Begins

After months of speculation about how new rules will change the game and a spring training filled with fast games and plenty of flubs, opening day of the 2023 Major League Baseball season is finally here. And for the first time since 1968, every M.L.B. team is starting its season on the same day.

The story lines are plentiful, even beyond the new rules. And with more than 12 hours of live baseball expected, there should be something for everyone.

Some things to keep your eye on as the day unfolds:

  • The New Rules
  • Anthony Volpe’s Debut
  • Top Pitching Matchups Galore
  • Day 1 of Shohei Ohtani’s Contract Year
  • A Rain Delay in San Diego?
Pitchers have 15 seconds to deliver a pitch with the bases empty and 20 seconds with a runner on base.Credit…Tim Heitman/Getty Images

The New Rules

It sounds like hyperbole, but M.L.B.’s three major rule changes for this season — a pitch clock, a ban on shifts and some tweaks to encourage more stolen bases — are perhaps the most sweeping single-season changes in modern baseball history. (Switching to overhand pitching in the late 19th century was probably more extreme, but let’s put that aside.)

While a ban on defensive shifts will undoubtedly raise some batting averages — Anthony Rizzo of the Yankees has to be happy — and everyone seems to agree that an increase in stolen bases would be good, the big thing is definitely the pitch clock. In spring training, it reduced the average game time by 25 minutes and got mostly positive feedback, even if there were more than a few awkward moments when an automatic strike reared its ugly head. There was also a 20-second strikeout, so stay alert!

Anthony Volpe made the Yankees’ opening day roster after a terrific spring training.Credit…Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

Anthony Volpe’s Debut

Anthony Volpe may have entered spring training as something of a long shot to make the Yankees, but he’s leaving it as the team’s starting shortstop, and he got a major endorsement when the club assigned him No. 11. For those unfamiliar with Yankees traditions, that is the lowest jersey number the team has not retired. So it’s safe to say the team thinks Volpe, 21, has a bright future.

What to Know About M.L.B.’s New Rules

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All about action. Major League Baseball is implementing some of the biggest changes in the sport’s history in an effort to speed up the game and inject more activity. Here’s a look at some of the new rules taking effect this season:

Pitch clock. The biggest change is the creation of a pitch clock. Pitchers will have 15 seconds to begin their motion with the bases empty and 20 seconds with a runner on. If they don’t, they will be assessed a ball. Batters not in the box by the eight-second mark will receive a strike.

More pace-of-play changes. A pitcher is limited to two disengagements, such as a pickoff attempt or step-off, per plate appearance. A third will result in a balk. There will be a 30-second clock between batters and a 2-minute-15-second inning break during regular-season games.

Defensive shift ban. All four infielders must have both feet on the infield dirt or grass when the pitcher begins his motion, and each team must have two infielders on each side of second base. A violation results in a ball, or the batting team can let the play stand.

Bigger bases. With the goal of decreasing collisions at first base and stimulating more infield hits and stolen bases, all three bases were increased to 18 inches square from 15. That will reduce the distance between first and second base, and second and third, by 4.5 inches.

Why make these changes? Baseball has been criticized for having long games without enough action. In 2021, an average game set a record at 3 hours 11 minutes — the average was 2 hours 44 minutes in 1985. Hits per game were near historic lows while strikeouts were higher than ever.

Will the new rules work? M.L.B. found that the use of a pitch clock in the minors shortened the average game by 25 minutes. Overall, the league saw a slight increase in batting average, a larger one in stolen base attempts, a notable decrease in injuries and a smaller decrease in strikeouts.

What can you expect from him? In Keith Law’s annual Top 100 M.L.B. Prospects list for The Athletic, he ranked Volpe as the eighth-best prospect in baseball and described a player who sounds a whole lot like Derek Jeter — the shortstop Volpe grew up rooting for in New Jersey.

The Mets have a tough assignment on opening day against Sandy Alcantara of the Miami Marlins, who was last year’s unanimous winner of the National League’s Cy Young Award.Credit…Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Top Pitching Matchups Galore

The new rules are designed to speed up the game and increase the action. But those changes might be hard to spot on opening day since there are so many games featuring ace-level starters.

The Mets will have Max Scherzer going against Sandy Alcantara of the Miami Marlins. So that’s three Cy Young Awards (Scherzer) going up against last year’s unanimous winner of the award in the N.L. (Alcantara). The Yankees have Gerrit Cole facing a major breakout candidate in Logan Webb of the San Francisco Giants. The reworked Texas Rangers have their new ace, Jacob deGrom, battling with Aaron Nola of the Philadelphia Phillies. And there are several more matchups along those lines.

So it might be wise to reserve your judgment of the new rules until these teams turn to their bullpens.

Shohei Ohtani will be busy on opening day, serving as the ace of the Los Angeles Angels and also the team’s designated hitter. He will be a free agent after this season.Credit…Kiyoshi Mio/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Day 1 of Shohei Ohtani’s Contract Year

After a season in which he became the first player in M.L.B. history to qualify for both the batting title and the E.R.A. title — take that, Babe Ruth — Shohei Ohtani and the Los Angeles Angels came to an agreement on a one-year, $30 million contract that avoided Ohtani, baseball’s only two-way star, going to arbitration. But with no long-term agreement in place, Ohtani is officially in a contract year, and the Angels have to be hoping their various roster changes will make the team more competitive. He has made it clear he will walk away to find a chance to win.

Last year, it was Aaron Judge who stepped up and delivered a season for the ages before his free-agent negotiations. He was rewarded with a nine-year, $360 million contract. If Ohtani plays the way he did in the last two seasons, he might make that Judge contract look tiny by comparison.

A Rain Delay in San Diego?

It will be chilly in Chicago when the Cubs host the Milwaukee Brewers today, and it won’t be much more pleasant in the Bronx (Yankees-Giants) or Boston (Red Sox-Orioles), but the only place affected by rain, so far, is … San Diego?

The Padres were scheduled to start their opener against the Colorado Rockies at 1:10 p.m. Pacific, but a rainstorm — the latest in a series of them in the last few months — has pushed their start to 6:40 local time.

It is truly a new era in San Diego. The team is so popular that it put a cap on season ticket sales.

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