By David Mullen
On April 6, 1973, New York Yankees utility player Ron Blomberg — batting sixth in the lineup between 3B Craig Nettles and 1B Felipe Alou — made his way to home plate at Boston’s Fenway Park. He walked on four pitches against Red Sox ace Luis Tiant.
Blomberg’s career was rather uneventful. He never lived up to his potential as a No. 1 draft pick in 1967, playing in 461 major league games over eight seasons. But with that single at bat, Blomberg became an answer to a baseball trivia question. Who was the first Designated Hitter in Major League Baseball history?
Fifty years ago, MLB allowed the American League to modify the sacred rules of the game by adding the Designated Hitter (DH). Pitching dominated baseball. It was the time when Bob Gibson posted a 1.12 ERA and Denny McLain won 31 games. in 1971, the Baltimore Orioles pitching staff had four 20-game winners.
Hitting was anemic. In 1968, Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski won the AL batting crown with a .301 average. Many well-known players were aging, and their fielding skills had slowed, but they could still hit. The pitching mound was lowered to help hitters, but that was not enough.
In 1973, the AL owners voted 8-4 to adopt the DH, a batter in the lineup that does not play the field and hits for the pitcher. The minor leagues and college baseball followed with the DH. The National League resisted, but the AL embraced it. Home runs would increase. Older players like Henry Aaron, Orlando Cepeda and Tony Oliva would finish their Hall of Fame careers as a DH while their mitts collected dust in the locker room.
When the regular season interleague schedule was expanded, NL teams could use a DH when they played in the home park of an AL team. In NL parks, AL teams couldn’t use the DH, and pitchers were inserted into the batting order. The rule was awkward. Finally, in 2022, the NL adopted the full-time DH. And one thinks it takes Congress a long time to agree on legislation.
In 2023, MLB institutes a series of rules that will revolutionize the way the game is played. Not since the introduction of the DH has baseball made such dramatic changes, but this time it is based on different challenges, like speeding up pace of play.
Games are too long for today’s hyper, homer-highlight-influenced sports fans. There is not enough action. Dramatic defensive shifts turn base hits into outs. Even baseball loyalists were irked by pitchers fidgeting on the mound or hitters avoiding the batter’s box like it was covered in toxic waste.
The new rules introduced by MLB are being tested in spring training. The results have been positive, generally eliciting the question, “What took so long?”
The rule that most affects the time of a game is the introduction of a pitch clock. Pitchers have 15 seconds to throw a pitch with the bases empty and 20 seconds with a runner on base.
The timer starts when the pitcher has the baseball, and the catcher and hitter are in the dirt near home plate. The hitter will need to be in the batter’s box with eight seconds left on the clock. The catcher must be positioned in the catcher’s box with nine seconds left.
The pitcher must begin his delivery before the timer reaches zero or a ball is added to the count. If the batter is not in the box with eight seconds left on the timer, he is issued a strike.
The hitter is allowed just one time out, previously unlimited. When tested in the minors, the pitch clock was credited with shaving 25 minutes from the average nine-inning game. In 2022, the average MLB game lasted 3 hours, 7 minutes.
New York Mets pitcher Max Scherzer told ESPN the new rule creates a “cat-and-mouse” game and gives the pitcher the upper hand. “Really, [with] the power the pitcher has now, I can totally dictate pace,” Scherzer said. “I love it.”
Miami Marlins speedy centerfielder Jazz Chisholm Jr. has a different outlook. “A lot of pitchers are going to make a lot of mistakes this year because they’re falling behind in counts and not focusing,” Chisholm Jr. told The New York Times. “It [the pitch clock] is going to get in a lot of guys’ heads.”
More responsibility will be put on umpires, now required to wear a device that buzzes when the timer reaches zero. Any umpire can call a violation, not just the home-plate umpire. Usually, the biggest concern a base umpire had during play was deciding on where to grab a steak after the game.
Other new pitching rules involve pick off plays. Pitchers are now allowed to disengage from the pitching rubber just twice per plate appearance. The pitch timer restarts after a disengagement. Pitchers are assessed a balk for excessive disengagements. Hopefully, a better title than “disengagement” will evolve over time.
This rule is expected to provide runners, especially stationed at first base, more opportunities to steal second. Stolen bases have been on the decline. In 2022, teams averaged 0.51 steals per game. Miami 2B Jon Berti led MLB with 41 stolen bases. In 1982, Oakland A’s Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson had 130 steals. Last season, the Texas Rangers led all of baseball with 128 stolen bases … as a team.
In a move designed to improve hitting, the pronounced defensive infield shift is out. When a pitch is thrown, all four infielders must have both feet on the infield dirt. A violation results in a ball for the batter. The mean team batting average in 2022 was .243, the lowest since the pitching-rich 1968 season.
Other changes include an 18-by-18-inch base, wider by three inches. This is designed to give baserunners an advantage and limit collisions on the bases, especially at first. Teams will now play a balanced regular season schedule. The upside is that the Rangers will only face their AL West rival Houston Astros 13 times instead of 19. The downside is that the Rangers will only face the lowly A’s 13 times instead of 19.
Baseball’s rule changes are the biggest transformation in the game since the DH. The Rangers, with solid team speed, a lineup of pull hitters and a strategically savvy manager like Bruce Bochy, should benefit.
MLB instituted their first major rule changes in half a century. It’s about time.