MLB enters new era as spring training’s start brings pitch clocks, shift limits, bigger bases

AP photo by Tommy Gilligan / From left, Minnesota Twins shortstop Carlos Correa, second baseman Luis Arraez and first baseman Jose Miranda position themselves during a road game against the Baltimore Orioles in May 2022. MLB rules will no longer permit such infield shifts starting this season.

PALM BEACH, Fla. — New York Mets infielder Jeff McNeil thinks he'll adapt quickly to Major League Baseball's big shift — which is really an antishift.

"I'm playing a normal second base now instead of in short right field. I've been playing second base my whole life, so it shouldn't be too hard to adjust to," said the 30-year-old McNeil, who is coming off a 2022 season in which he was an All-Star for the second time and MLB's batting champion for the first time.

Spring training opens Monday in Arizona and Florida for players reporting early ahead of the World Baseball Classic, and all pitchers and catchers are set to start workouts two days later.

After an offseason of record spending in which the Mets approached a $370 million payroll, opening day on March 30 will feature three of the biggest changes for the sport since the pitcher's mound was lowered for the 1969 season:

Two infielders will be required on either side of second base, and all infielders must be within the outer boundary of the infield when the pitcher is on the rubber.

Base size will increase to 18-inch squares from 15 inches, causing a decreased distance of 4 1/2 inches between the bags.

A pitch clock will be used, set at 15 seconds with no runners on base and 20 seconds with runners.

"This has been an eight-year effort for us," said Rob Manfred, with the sport's commissioner referring to when the first experiments were formulated. "I hope we get what our fans want: faster, more action, more athleticism."

Spring training started a month late last year because of the owners' lockout, and many players scrambled for deals as camps opened. This offseason has proceeded more normally, and some of the focus will be on stars with new homes: Xander Bogaerts (San Diego Padres), Jacob deGrom (Texas Rangers), Dansby Swanson (Chicago Cubs), Trea Turner (Philadelphia Phillies) and Justin Verlander (Mets).

Some teams also have new bosses in Bruce Bochy (Rangers), Pedro Grifol (Chicago White Sox), Matt Quatraro (Kansas City Royals) and Skip Schumaker (Miami Marlins). What all 30 managers in MLB face is far different from the challenges thrown at Connie Mack and John McGraw in the first half of the 20th century as the dead-ball era ended, or even those faced by Billy Martin and Earl Weaver after changes were made to counter pitching's dominance.

Baseball's timelessness spanned a century and a half in a sport obsessed with its sepia-toned history of flannel-clad pioneers.

"In baseball, there's no clock," Richard Greenberg wrote in "Take Me Out," his Tony Award-winning play that debuted two decades ago. "What could be more generous than to give everyone all these opportunities and the time to seize them in, as well?"

Turns out, all those dead minutes became an annoyance — at least to some — in an age of increased entertainment competition fighting for decreased attention spans. The average time of a nine-inning game stretched from 2 hours, 30 minutes in the mid-1950s to 2:46 in 1989 and 3:10 in 2021 before dropping to 3:04 last year after the introduction of the PitchCom electronic device to signal pitches.

"Pitch clock, I'm thrilled about," Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "Speed the game up. They get too long. If we're playing the Red Sox or playing the Yankees, they turn into four-hour ballgames."

Use of a slightly stricter clock in the minor leagues (14/19 at Triple-A and 14/18 at lower levels) cut the average game time from 3:03 in 2021 to 2:38 last year.

"My guess is in April you're going to probably see some incidents. It's inevitable," Cleveland Guardians manager Terry Francona said. "Hitters are going to step out or somebody's going to get a ball."

With the rise in shifts and higher velocity pitches, the MLB batting average dropped from .269 in 2006 to .243 last year, its lowest since the record of .239 in 1968. Batting average for left-handed hitters was .236 last year, down from .254 in 2016, when lefties were one point below the overall average.

Defensive shifts on balls in play totaled 70,853 last season, according to revised totals from Sports Info Solutions. That's up from 59,063 in 2021 and 2,349 in 2011.

"I think for left-handed hitters, we're trying to put the game back where it was historically," Manfred said.

McNeil, a left-handed batter who won his first Silver Slugger Award last season, is likely to benefit from infielders repositioned back to where they were before the analytics era.

"When they do shift me, I just hit against the shift. And when they don't shift me, I just hit," he said. "When they do give me a giant hole somewhere, then I'm going to pad to get the ball through there and try to get my single."