For all its hype about heritage and tradition, America’s favorite pastime is changing. New technology, new strategies, new rules—soon baseball could look a lot different. How far will baseball chase next-gen fans?
Change happens, even in sports. Basketball added a three-point line. Soccer redefined offsides. Football created the two-point conversion. And baseball? For decades, it’s been the same battle between pitcher and hitter—with the same fielders in mostly the same positions.
But the winds of change are blowing through the ballparks. In early March, Major League Baseball partnered with the Atlantic League, an independent, professional baseball league that serves cities without major or minor league teams. According to their agreement, the AL will test rules and equipment changes on their smaller scale before MLB rolls them out.
Most changes are meant to speed up the game: Here’s a rundown of rules changes for the AL’s 2019 season:
—New pitchers must face at least three batters or stay in until the end of the half-inning. (No switching pitchers out willy-nilly.)
—The pitching staff may not visit the mound except for pitching changes or medical reasons.
—Two infielders must be on each side of second base when a pitch is released.
—The time between half-innings will go from 2 minutes, 5 seconds to 1 minute, 45 seconds.
—First, second, and third bases will go from 15 inches to 18 inches.
—The pitcher’s plate will move back 24 inches.
—The distance between home and first base loses three inches.
—TrackMan (a radar-aided tracking system) will call balls and strikes.
That last change may be strike three for some baseball fans. For them, hearing an ump roar, “STEEEEEEEEE-rike!” is part of the game’s allure. But never fear, a live human can always override the computer’s call.
Baseball’s decision-makers will continue evaluating how to keep the game entertaining and relevant. Hopefully, they’ll also touch base with fans for solid feedback. Down the road, there may be pitch clocks (forcing the pitcher to release the ball within a set time, usually 20 seconds) and changes to the strike zone or the pitcher’s mound height.
Jim Leyland, special assistant to the Detroit Tigers, is hopeful about how rule changes will affect the future of baseball.
“Young people, today’s world, they want action,” he says. “So you have to make those adjustments, because you need to get those generational fans. You need to keep that coming.”
In other words, the sport needs to stay on the ball.