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The end of the shift, a pitch clock, larger bags... Changes for the better?

With another ‘deadline’ looming, at least the players and owners have agreed on something…

MLB: JUL 19 Nationals at Braves
Washington Nationals manager Davey Martinez won’t be using his shift signals much starting in the 2023 season.
Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

So this time, maybe they really mean it.

Tuesday is supposed to be another big “deadline” for the the Major League baseball collective bargaining negotiations. The Athletic’s Evan Drellich tweeted that without a deal by the end of the day, MLB plans to cancel another week of games.

So this same thing happened last week, and the first week of games games was canceled, only now Commissioner Rob Manfred is apparently ready to reschedule those games instead, if a deal gets done. Another stroke of credibility for the commissioner.

And while the two sides are still far apart on competitive balance tax thresholds and postseason parameters, they have apparently agreed on a few things that are important to us fans. While some of them may change the game as we know it, agreeing to them has brough both sides closer to ending 96-day lockout that has threatened the 2022 season.

The Major League Baseball Players’ Association has agreed to rules changes starting in 2023 that would allow MLB to ban defensive shifts, implement a pitch clock, and enlarge the bases. Like the owners’ approval of a universal designated hitter, the player concessions are contingent on the two sides reaching a larger deal.

And while the economic issues could take years to affect the competitive balance of the game, the rules changes agreed to this week will likely have an instant effect what we see at the ballpark.

The potential end of the shift is getting a lot of attention on Twitter, with former players lining up as both shift opponents and proponents. Former National Matt Adams, who famously broke a finger while trying bunt against the shift, tweeted that he has his own way to beat it.

Teams have been employing defensive shifts with greater frequency in the past five years, moving the shortstop and sometimes even the third baseman to the right side of the infield against left-handed line-drive hitters. Self-proclaimed baseball purists would argue the rules of baseball permit positioning players anywhere on the field, and that banning the shift is akin to banning zone defenses in basketball or outlawing the two-deep zone in football.

The logic of the shift is that it takes away hits on sharp ground balls and line drives, and the logic for banning it is that it would increase balls in play, hits, and baserunners. But even the number crunchers who have taken over the game can’t agree on whether it will significantly increase any of them.

While more balls in play is the desired result, there are arguments that banning the shift would result in strikeouts because pitchers will throw fewer inside breaking pitches and induce less contact than they would with a shift behind them.

And what about the adage that players should just adjust their swings and bunt more, and that will keep defenses honest? These memes often include photos of Ted Williams and mention his .406 batting average in 1941.

Those memes don’t mention that while some teams tried a shift against Williams in his historic season, it wasn’t nearly on the magnitude of the MLB-leading 97.6 percent of plate appearances in which Royals’ DH Carlos Santana faced the shift in 2021. They also don’t mention that teams didn't regularly start shifting against Williams until 1946, when he returned from three years of service World War II. Williams hit .342 and won the AL MVP Award that season, so it’s still unclear whether it was effective.

And while many other Hall of Famers have famously beaten the shift over their careers, the tactic has proved so successful against most hitters in recent years that major league teams employed it on 30.1 percent of plate appearances last season.

The Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter, who once bunted for a double against Miami’s shift, told ESPN in 2018 that going the other way against the shift is not so easy. He argued he’d have more success trying to hit line drives for doubles against the shift than he would trying to single through empty left side.

While there was not much Twitter noise about it, the pitch clock is also intended to improve the pace of play discouraging the pitcher from stepping off the rubber. That might help shorten at-bats, but has anyone thought of limiting the number of times a batter can step out of the box?

Former Washington Senators’ ace and long-time big league pitching coach Dick Bosman told a Washington D.C. Baseball History meeting in 2019 that a pitch clock would not hurt pitchers, and it might speed up the game.

Larger bases are supposed to make base-stealing more attractive. Of course, what has made base stealing so unattractive in the first place is the replay rules. None of top 20 base stealers in baseball history was ever called out for over-sliding a bag by a millimeter based on a committee reading of an X-mo freeze frame. That’s the real reason the steal has gone out of style.

While it remains to be seen whether these new rules will make the game more exciting or compelling, it is certain that baseball with new rules is better than no baseball at all. Many will grumble, but even grumbling in reaction to what’s happening on the field is better than grumbling about nothing.