MLB widening runner’s lane, cutting down on mound visits among rule changes

Dec 21, 2023, 4:00 PM | Updated: 4:04 pm

Jake McCarthy...

Jake McCarthy #31 of the Arizona Diamondbacks is safe at first base as Luke Voit #45 of the Milwaukee Brewers cannot make a play on the throw from Mike Brosseau #10 during the fifth inning at Chase Field on April 12, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

(Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

NEW YORK (AP) — Major League Baseball is widening the runner’s lane approaching first base to include a portion of fair territory, changing a more than century-old rule that caused World Series controversy over interference calls.

MLB also is shortening the pitch clock with runners on base by two seconds to 18 and further reducing mound visits to four in an effort to speed games.

Another change adopted Thursday by the sport’s 11-man competition committee requires a pitcher who warms up on the mound before a half inning to face at least one batter.

The new runner’s lane overrides a rule that has existed since the National League mandated in 1882 that runners must be within the 3-foot box on the foul side of the base line during the final 45 feet between home and first. Violators were subject to being called out for interfering with fielders taking a throw. The rule was designed to prevent collisions; foul lines intersected the middle of bases until the bags were moved entirely into fair territory in 1887.

“If you’re sitting at home or you’re even us in the game, it just doesn’t make sense,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said of the old rule.

The change widens the lane to include 18-to-24 inches of fair territory until the edge of the grass, though MLB said it will allow a grace period for compliance because of the need to modify artificial turf surfaces.

The old rule has long sparked frustration because right-handed hitters necessarily begin their sprint to first base in fair territory, and the first base bag is fully in fair ground, too.

Umpires’ interpretations of the rule have sparked disputes.

The New York Mets’ J.C. Martin was in fair territory when he was hit on the left wrist by pitcher Pete Richert’s throw following his sacrifice bunt in the 10th inning of World Series Game 4 in 1969. That allowed Rod Gaspar to score the winning run from second against Baltimore as plate umpire Shag Crawford and first base umpire Lou DiMuro failed to call interference.

“Since then I’ve always watched over the years everybody running down the lane,” Richert said Thursday. “I’d say that 30% to 40% of them run inside and it’s never called, and changing it now is not going to make any difference in those calls. It’ll just justify the no-call. Every once in a while I’ll be watching a game and I’ll see it and I’ll go, ‘There they go. They missed another one.’”

The decision went the other way in the seventh inning of World Series Game 6 in 2019, when Washington’s Trea Turner was called out for interference by plate umpire Sam Holbrook when he was hit on the back of the right leg by Houston reliever Brad Peacock’s throw, a decision upheld in a video review.

“It’s just going to make things easier for the ballplayers and the umpires,” Holbrook said of the change. “Players can run straight to the bag, especially the right-handed hitters. It’s been talked about for a while. I think they’re trying to do the right thing.”

The out cost Washington a run when Anthony Rendon homered, and Martinez was ejected for arguing after the half inning, needing to be restrained by bench coach Chip Hale.

“I don’t know how long that rule has been in place, probably a hundred years,” Martinez said the following day.

When Turner was called out for interference on a throw to first by Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras following an errant pitch on a third strike on May 19, 2021, Martinez was ejected by umpire Chris Conroy. The manager picked up the first base bag and slammed it to the ground and then kicked it. After another similar call went against Washington on June 14, 2023, Martinez printed out a photo showing where the baserunner was and held it up during his postgame news conference.

A similar play occurred in Game 2 of the 1998 AL Championship Series, when a throw by Yankees first baseman Tino Martinez after Cleveland’s Travis Fryman’s 12th-inning bunt struck Fryman on the back and rolled on the infield dirt. Second baseman Chuck Knoblauch screamed at plate umpire Ted Hendry for an interference call and pointed toward first rather than chase the ball as Enrique Wilson scored the tiebreaking run from first.

The changes were approved by the committee over objections from all five players who voted.

“Following last season’s profound changes to the fundamental rules of the game, immediate additional changes are unnecessary and offer no meaningful benefits to fans, players or the competition on the field,” the union said in a statement. “This season should be used to gather additional data and fully examine the health, safety, and injury impacts of reduced recovery time.”

Speeding games remained a priority for the committee.

Nine-inning games averaged 2 hours, 40 minutes during the regular season in the first year of the pitch clock, down from 24 minutes from 2022 and the lowest since 1985. That speed-up carried over to the postseason, where nine-inning World Series games averaged 3:01, the fastest since 1996. However, the average increased over the course of the season from 2:37 in April to 2:44 in September.

Mound visits are being cut to four from five, with a defensive team still getting an additional visit in the ninth inning if it has none left after the eighth. A catcher can signal for a mound visit, stopping the clock, without heading to the mound, and the clock will resume after a foul ball when the pitcher has the ball and is ready to resume the game, eliminating the requirement he also be on the mound — MLB hopes that eliminates pitchers walking onto the grass next to the mound.

MLB said the requirement to have a reliever who warms up on the mound face at least one batter was instituted because a pitcher took the mound for an inning and then was replaced without throwing a pitch 24 times last season, plus twice more in the World Series.

MLB withdrew its proposal to have the plate umpire reset the pitch clock immediately after a batter uses a timeout. The committee tabled two proposals: one that would require pitchers to work from the stretch position with runners on base, eliminating hybrid windup/stretch deliveries that were used by 8% of pitchers last season; and another designed to prevent fielders from blocking runners at bases.

Seattle chairman John Stanton heads the committee, which met by Zoom and includes St. Louis CEO Bill DeWitt Jr., San Francisco chairman Greg Johnson, Colorado CEO Dick Monfort, Toronto CEO Mark Shapiro and Boston chairman Tom Werner, along with umpire Bill Miller. Players include Milwaukee’s Corbin Burnes, Arizona’s Zac Gallen, Toronto’s Whit Merrifield and San Francisco’s Austin Slater along with alternates Ian Happ of the Chicago Cubs and Cole Irvin of Baltimore.

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