Baseball rule changes: It's a whole new ballgame!
Commissioner Rob Manfred and the 30 MLB franchise owners are keenly aware that the popularity of baseball continues to erode, and part of the problem is the s-l-o-w pace of the game. Accordingly, they introduced new penalties for dawdlers and lolligaggers, among other changes in the rules. Here they are, in a nutshell:
- Introduction of a clock to prevent players from stalling:
No more than 30 seconds between batters, or 15 seconds between pitches (20 if there's a runner on base), or else an automatic ball is called;
Batters must be in the box and ready with at least 8 seconds left on the clock, or else an automatic strike is called. Only one timeout per plate appearance.
- First, second, and third bases have been enlarged in size from 15 inches on each side to 18 inches. (Home plate remains the same.)
- To prevent the increasing use of defensive "shifts" aimed at thwarting batters (usually, left-handed pull-hitters), infielders can no longer cross an imaginary line extending from home plate through second base.
The verdict seems to be very favorable, for the most part. The average length of a baseball game has dropped by over 20 minutes compared to last year: from 3 hours and 3 minutes to about 2 hours and 40 minutes. In the Washington Post's annual baseball preview section, retired sports writer Thomas Boswell opined that spring training games this year had a much livelier pace, just like the "good old days." I tend to agree, but I would have implemented the clock rule somewhat differently, without a visible clock but an automatic ball or strike being called only when a batter or pitcher had exceeded the cumulative elapsed time of the opponents by 30 seconds.
The larger bases seem to have resulted in an increase in stolen bases, presumably to add excitement to the game. I'll reserve my judgment on that one.
Regarding the anti-shift provision, finally, I see no reason for such an arbitrary rule. Batters should learn to "hit 'em where they ain't," as Wee Willie Keeler used to say.
Some surprises in the first month
Perhaps the biggest surprise is the historically-great performance by the Tampa Bay Rays, who ended the month of April with a 23-6 record (.793). They won their first 13 games of the season, tying the modern-era record opening-season streak of the Milwaukee Brewers in 1982. Their streak came to an end when they fell to the Blue Jays in Toronto on Friday April 14. The Rays are dominant in terms of hitting as well as pitching: as a team they lead the major leagues in batting average, home runs, and RBIs, and in all three departments, the second-place teams are a ways back. Randy Arozarena and Yandy Diaz are their top hitters; their respective .327 and .319 averages are second and third place in the American League, behind the Blue Jays' phenomenal Matt Chapman (.384). The Rays also lead all major league teams in terms of ERA and wins (by definition), while they rank tenth in strikeouts. Shane McClanahan ranks fifth in ERA, just behind the Angels' Shohei Ohtani.
It is worthwhile to note that one team came very close to cutting short the Rays' winning streak early in the season: the Washington Nationals! On Tuesday, April 4, the Nats were leading the Rays 6-5 going into the 9th inning, whereupon the visiting team scored 5 runs to win the game 10-6. D'oh!!! The Nats' chosen closer for this year, Kyle Finnegan, seemed to lose his composure in that game, raising doubts about his suitability for the closer role. Nevertheless, he has done pretty well since then, with 5 saves for the season. That puts him tied for tenth place in the majors so far. The Rays completed a sweep of the Nationals the next day, but no other team has done so this year.
The Nationals' season had gotten off to a lousy start against the visiting Atlanta Braves on March 30, as Patrick Corbin barely lasted three innings on the mound before being relieved. The Nats' young shortstop C.J. Abrams, who was featured in a team mini-poster that came with the Washington Post just before Opening Day, committed three errors in that game!!
The Braves easily won the first two games of that series, to no one's surprise, but the Nats averted a sweep in the Sunday finale as they scored four runs in the first inning. (I happened to be in D.C. for a sporting event that day, seeing the Washington Capitals play for only the second time ever. Suffice it to say that they didn't do so well.) Mackenzie Gore only allowed one run during 5 1/3 innings, the first of several superlative pitching performances this past month. He currently has a 3.00 ERA, with a 3-1 win-loss record. Josiah Gray has an even better ERA (2.67), but he has not gotten as much run support and therefore has a 2-4 record. The Nats' #4 starting pitcher Trevor Williams is doing alright (1-1 record), while Chad Kuhl (who was called upon to replace Cade Cavalli after the latter underwent Tommy John surgery) seems to be pitching at about the same level as Corbin -- not up to snuff.
Offensively, the Nationals have shown signs of great promise, but they are not consistent enough. Keibert Ruiz, who signed an 8-year, $50 million contract in March, has been the team's best hitter overall, but Joey Meneses pulled ahead of him in the batting average department (.286 vs. .281) over the weekend. Amazingly, lowly Victor Robles began the season on a hot streak, and was in the top ten in terms of batting average until the middle of April. Since then he has returned to his usual mediocre ways, though he still gets occasional clutch hits. New third baseman Jeimer Candelario and outfielders Alex Call and Lane Thomas are also doing pretty well at the plate.
The Nats split the series two games apiece with the Rockies in Denver, where the cold air seemed to invigorate the Nats' batters. Against the Angels in Anaheim, Patrick Corbin pitched much better, getting his first (and thus far only) win of the season, but then the Angels won the next two games. Returning to Washington, the Nats managed to avert a sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Guardians, thanks to a late-game rally. Jeimer Candelario and Luis Garcia both homered, and Joey Meneses batted in what turned out to be the game-winning run. The next two games against the Baltimore Orioles were pretty awful, as the Nats were shut out twice: 1-0 (ouch) and 4-0. After a day of rest and travel, the Nats arrived in Minneapolis on Friday, April 21 to face the first-place Twins. Once again, frigid air seemed to work in the Nats' favor, and Joey Meneses finally got his first home run of the year, helping the Nats win 3-2. The next day he got four hits in six at-bats, and the Nats won again, to the amazement of all! They couldn't complete the sweep, but they at least regained enough confidence to likewise pull off a surprising series win against the Mets in New York. They won the first two games by comfortable margins (5-0 and 4-1), and in the game on Sunday they pulled ahead in the 8th inning thanks to a grand slam by C.J. Abrams -- the first grand slam by a Nationals player since June 2021! But Nats' relief pitcher Mason Thompson gave up two runs in the bottom of the 8th, and the Mets avoided being swept at home, just barely.
Back home in Washington this weekend, the Nats faced yet another red-hot team with postseason aspirations: the Pittsburgh Pirates!? Friday's game was rained out, so they played a double-header on Saturday. The Nats were fairly close (4-3) until late in the game, when the Pirates added two insurance runs in the 8th inning. The evening game was an utter disaster, as Chad Kuhl gave up runs in all four innings in which he pitched: 8 earned runs altogether. It just got worse after that, and in order to save his worn-out bullpen Dave Martinez sent outfielder Lane Thomas to pitch in the 9th inning, when the Pirates scored 3 more runs. The Nats had been shut out until Dominic Smith (the new first baseman) hit a solo homer in the 9th inning. It was more than just a symbolic feat: that homer narrowed the victory margin to 15 runs, thus tying the worst-ever defeat suffered by the Nationals. On April 5, 2013, the Reds beat the Nats 15-0, and thanks to Dominic Smith, a new record was not set. On the heels of that ignominious debacle, it was surprising that the Nationals gathered themselves and scored multiple runs in the first three innings today. Josiah Gray pitched six innings only giving up 3 hits and one run, as the Nats won it, 7-2. The Washington Nationals page has been updated accordingly.
Catching up with stadium news
While I was attending to other things in recent months, three teams made significant changes to the outfield dimensions in their stadiums. (Why do such things always seem to happen when I am least ready to respond to them?) The urgency of updating my diagrams to account for those changes forced me to an expedient half-way measure: for the time being the basic (current) diagram versions reflect the new changes, but the other diagram versions are being left as is. That leads to some awkward inconsistencies, which I will resolve in coming weeks when I make the full-fledged diagram updates. Anyway, belated thanks as always to Mike Zurawski, Terry Wallace, Angel Amezquita, and others for alerting me with news updates regarding these things, which are summarized on the Stadium chronology (annual) page.
In Detroit, the Tigers have built a new fence the reduces the center field distance at Comerica Park from 420 to 412 feet, with a consistent height (7 feet) from foul pole to foul pole. That's too bad, in my view. Also, the Tigers determined that the true distance to the left field foul pole has always been 342 feet rather than 345 feet, as indicated by the marker. This necessitated a slight shift in the position of the scoreboard, etc. in my diagrams.
In Queens, New York, the right-field wall at Citi Field has been straightened out, removing the "indentation" beneath the second deck. A new (or expanded) table-top seating area now occupies that space, with a glass roof to prevent home run balls from landing in somebody's guacamole. Also, the Mets installed a new scoreboard, which seems bigger at first glance, but I need to confirm that.
In Toronto, Ontario, the entire outfield seating areas and fences at Rogers Centre have been totally revamped, with much shorter power alleys than before. I have been watching videos to get a better sense of the correct angles, and I am not yet done with that.
And finally, the Phillies installed a new scoreboard at Citizens Bank Park, but it seems to be the same physical size as the old one, so it will probably not affect my diagrams. (Hat tip to Bruce Orser.)
Doomsday in Oakland is nigh
After losing the NBA Golden State Warriors and NFL Oakland Raiders in recent years, all that sports fans in Oakland had left to root for was the Athletics. Now even that team is all but committed to relocate elsewhere in the next few years. Last week we learned that the owners of Athletics have bought land on the south side of downtown Las Vegas for new stadium. It is about a mile north of Allegiant Stadium, the new home of the Raiders, and just west of the home of the semi-new NHL Golden Knights. Aging, run-down Oakland Coliseum (technically known as "Ring Center Coliseum") may only house the Athletics for another year or so, as some speculate that a relocated Athletics team might play for a couple years in Las Vegas Ballpark (home of the Aviators) pending construction of a new stadium. It's a dirty, rotten shame, but perhaps it was inevitable, given contemporary trends in politics and sports finance. I'll have much more to say about that soon.