Opening Day 2023 did not just mark the debuts for prominent prospects like Anthony Volpe and Jordan Walker. It also marked the official debut for perhaps the most transformative series of rules changes in modern MLB history. After a Minor League trial and a Spring Training adjustment period, the pitch timer, defensive shift restrictions and bigger bases officially reached the big leagues.
Naturally, then, Thursday was a day of firsts – as in, the first official automatic balls and strikes levied against pitch timer offenders. It was also a day in which baserunners took full advantage of pickoff limits and the shorter distance between bags and when games were played at a pace reminiscent of earlier eras.
It was, in short, the beginning of a new era of MLB.
Here were some of the rules-related results.
Perhaps it’s appropriate that the first pitcher to get called for an automatic ball for letting the pitch timer reach zero was wearing that same number on his back.
Someone was bound to make Major League history as the first violator of the pitch timer rules, and that title went to Cubs right-hander Marcus Stroman. With a runner at second and the count 1-2 against the Brewers’ Christian Yelich in the top of the third inning at Wrigley Field, Stroman did not go into his motion before the 20-second timer ran out. Home-plate umpire Ron Kulpa assessed the automatic ball.
That violation, which brought the count to 2-2, swung the momentum of that particular plate appearance, as Yelich went on to draw a walk.
"I went from a 1-2 count to a 2-2 count, which is actually a pretty big deal," Yelich said. "It’s going to be something that I think becomes rarer and rarer as the season goes on, but we got one in our favor today. I think people will get used to it. But we’ll definitely take it.”
Stroman nevertheless earned the win in the Cubs’ 4-0 victory.
For the historical record, the first batter to violate the timer and the first automatic strikeout due to the timer both occurred in the same game – Red Sox vs. Orioles. The O’s Austin Hays was not attentive to Red Sox pitcher Ryan Brasier when the timer reached the eight-second mark in a plate appearance in the top of the fifth, so he was assessed an automatic strike (and went on to ground into a double play). Later, in the bottom of the eighth with the count 1-2, Boston star Rafael Devers was not attentive to pitcher Bryan Baker in time, so home-plate ump Lance Barksdale called the automatic third strike for the first out of the inning.
Leave it to MLB’s two oldest ballparks to house history.
In total, there were 14 pitch timer violations in the 15 games on Thursday, an average of less than one per game. Eight of the violations were committed by pitchers, five by batters and one by a catcher.
Bye bye, dead time
As we saw from the Blue Jays and Cardinals, who played a wild one in St. Louis in which the Blue Jays outscored the Cards, 10-9, and outhit them, 19-15, we’re still going to have some marathon games, even with the time between pitches cut down.
But generally speaking, the Opening Day action rolled along much quicker than we had become accustomed to in recent years.
Last year, Opening Day games lasted an average of 3:16. Games completed within nine innings averaged 3:12. For the full season, nine-inning games averaged 3:03, and all games averaged 3:06.
What seemed to catch the most attention on social media was the Yankees, of all teams, completing an Opening Day contest in 2:33. Not traditionally prone to such tidy tilts, the Yanks had only six shorter games all of last season. But their manager, Aaron Boone, said this quicker pace, along with the other changes, is MLB’s new reality.
“We’ve been doing it now for 40 days or whatever,” Boone said. “Now you’re just in a big league stadium with a full house and it counts. So I guess you notice it a little bit. But I also feel like, in a lot of ways, I -- we -- are used to it.”
Burning up the basepaths
We’re going to need a much larger sample of games than the 15 played on Opening Day before we can draw any conclusions on the statistics associated with the new rules. But it was impossible not to notice the increased activity on the basepaths, and, considering what we had seen this spring, it didn’t feel like a fluke.
For background, the pickoff limitations placed on pitchers in connection with the pitch timer and the increased size of first base, second base and third base from 15 inches on each side to 18 inches on each side is widely expected to inspire more bravery on the part of baserunners. The running game has fallen by the wayside in the modern MLB, but this is a way to bring it back. During Spring Training 2023, stolen-base attempts per game jumped more than 40% from a year earlier, and the success rate rose by 7%.
On Opening Day 2023, there were as many steals just in the Red Sox-Orioles game (five) as there were in an entire seven-game slate on Opening Day 2022.
Alas, Daniel Vogelbach did not notch his elusive first stolen base, as his hilarious advertisement for the bigger bases might lead you to believe. But we’ve got all season for that.