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New Season New Rules

By Trevor McKey –

If you have watched or listened to much baseball lately, chances are you have seen the new rule changes across the board, especially if your favorite team has played in extra innings receiving a baserunner automatically placed at second base. The game of baseball is a team game involving a ball, bases, a field with dimensions, skill and luck, but also rules and tradition. Apart from maybe golf, no other sport talks about preserving the integrity of the game and its rules like baseball. As what was said in Field of Dreams, “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball.” Like in all things, baseball’s success hinges on its ability to adapt to change in an increasingly competitive sports world vying for spectators’ attention…and dollars. In fact, baseball’s success is already in part due to its flexibility and change over the years. In order to avoid falling victim to irrelevancy, Major League Baseball has continued its pursuit of a perfect game (baseball pun intended) with the continuation of 2020’s rules and adoption of new rules in 2021. Is this good for the future of the game? Are critics and baseball purists right to be concerned about preserving baseball’s integrity? Whatever is your position (baseball pun not intended), baseball has a lot of history of fine-tuning the game that everyone loves.

History of Baseball Rules

Most baseball enthusiasts that love the game today or those who are hesitant in making changes to the game, do not realize the extent of baseball’s history in regards to rule changes. In fact, MLB’s history is littered with rule changes dating back to even its founding by fine tuning the elements that made all of us fall in love with the game to begin with.  According to Baseball Almanac the following are some rule change highlights and the year it was adopted:

  • 1857 – The game was won when one side scored 21 aces. Now it is a 9 inning contest and the highest scoring team wins.
  • 1857 – Called strikes are introduced.
  • 1858 – A batter is out on a batted ball, fair or foul, if caught on the fly or after one bounce.
  • 1863 – Pitcher is no longer allowed to take a step during his delivery and he had to pitch with both feet on the ground at the same time
  • 1864 – Each base runner must touch each base in making the circuit.
  • 1872 – Ball size and weight are regulated and remain the same to this date.
  • 1877 – Canvas bases 15 inches square were introduced.
  • 1877 – Home plate was placed in the angle formed by the intersection of the first and third base lines
  • 1879 – Pitcher has to face a batsman before pitching to him
  • 1879 – Staff of umpires first introduced
  • 1880 – Base runner is out if hit by a batted ball.
  • 1880 – Catcher had to catch the pitch on the fly in order to register an out on a third strike.
  • 1887 – Coaches were recognized by the rules for the first time ever.
  • 1888 – Four balls became a base on balls.
  • 1889 – A sacrifice bunt was statistically recognized.
  • 1891 – Pitching distance increased from 50 feet to 60 feet 6 inches.
  • 1893 – The rule allowing a flat side to a bat was rescinded and the requirement that the bat be round and wholly of hard wood was substituted.
  • 1895 – Infield-fly rule was adopted.
  • 1903 – Foul strike rule was adopted by the American League.
  • 1908 –  The sacrifice fly rule was adopted.
  • 1910 – The cork center was added to the official baseball.
  • 1917 – All freak deliveries, including the spitball, were outlawed.
  • 1925 – The minimum home-run distance was set at 250 feet.
  • 1959 – Regulations were set up for minimum boundaries for all new parks, 325-400-325 feet.
  • 1968 – The pitcher’s mound was dropped five inches.
  • 1969 – The strike zone was shrunken to the area from the armpits to the top of the batter’s knee
  • 1971 – All major-league players ordered to wear protective helmets and rule of glove size and color was minutely outlined for standardization.
  • 1973 – The American League began using designated hitter for pitchers on an experimental basis.
  • 1974 – The baseball is permitted to be covered with cowhide because of the shortage of horses.
  • 2008 – MLB adds limited (home run calls, fair or foul) instant replay to be in effect for all games.
  • 2016 – Slides on a potential double plays will require that base runners must make a bona fide attempt to reach and remain on base
  • 2020 – All pitchers — both starters and relievers — now have to face at least three batters (or pitch until the inning is over) before they come out of a game.
  • 2021 – Extra-inning runner placed at second base.

Future MLB Rule Proposals

Rule changes are not just thought about in a cubicle or corner office and implemented the next day. In order to help generate ideas and monitor results, Major League Baseball has implemented its Competition Committee to help. A lot of thought and experimentation goes into whether rules are adopted in the Big Leagues. Since Major League Baseball benefits from having different class baseball in the Minor Leagues, changes can be created and experimented at different levels to see the impact on the game while attempting to uphold its integrity. Here are some of the latest proposed changes currently underway in the Minors: 

  • Triple A – Base Facelift:  Bases are 3 inches wider, ½ lower, softer with textured non-slip grooved surface with “give,” and corners provide solid push-off for both the runner and fielder. The current bases are way too slick and hard, which opens the door to injury or potentially slipping off the bag recording an out. MLB Implementation:  2022
  • Double A – Defensive Shift Restriction:  Once the pitch is thrown, the four infielders must have their feet within the outer boundary of the infield dirt. Furthermore, the MLB reserves the right to outright ban the shift in the second half of the season requiring two infielders on each side of second base. Per the former rule change, this means teams can still technically shift but the “Rover” or short outfielder is limited, making for a great compromise. MLB Implementation: 2022
  • High and Low A – Pitcher Pickoff Attempts:  In High A, pitchers have to step off the rubber to make a pickoff attempt and yes, this includes lefties. In Low A, pitchers are limited to two pickoff attempts per plate appearance or a balk is called. When implemented in 2019, both stolen base attempts and success rate improved, helping to incentivize excitement. MLB Implementation:  Post-2022
  • Low A – Pitcher 15-Second Pitch Clock:  Exactly as it sounds. In contrast, MLB currently gives its fans one pitch every 24.9 seconds. If there are concerns regarding the game’s duration, nothing will fix that more than a pitch clock.  MLB Implementation:  2022 (maybe but with caveats, such as when bases are empty)
  • Low A – Automatic Strike Zone:  The strike zone will be redefined from its three-dimensional “box” shape to a two-dimensional “window” flush with the front edge of home plate. The top line of the strike zone will be set at 56% of the batter’s height and 28% for the bottom strike zone. The technology is there and provides MLB the ability to tweak the zone as it sees fit in order to get the best results. This has the potential to lower the rising and concerning strikeout rate in order to get more balls in play to up the excitement level.   MLB Implementation:  2023 or later


Like all sports, Major League Baseball understands that they have both real and perceived issues. MLB may still be the #1 ranked programming in prime time during the summer months, but their attendance continues to decline since 2003. As what was said in the Field of Dreams, baseball is America’s constant and changing the rules won’t change that, so long that it does not interfere with the essence of the game.

“America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game — it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.”

Change in most things is inevitable and for the purists, it is understandable that change can be scary. With change comes a lot of unknown. If history is any indicator, change is always happening and a fact of life that usually brings better things and development. Major League Baseball is not new to change and has consistently made the necessary changes to breathe life into the game. With modern developments in technology with a focus on preserving the exciting elements of baseball with batted balls in play, it appears Major League Baseball is doing what is necessary to grow the game.  If Major League Baseball continues to stay ahead of the societal, technological and athletic landscape, people will continue to fall in love with the game that is America’s Pastime.

“Ohhhhh, people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.”

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