Major League Baseball and its players have a new collective bargaining agreement, ending a 99-day lockout that consumed the offseason and delayed Opening Day. But the sport that will return April 7 will be a little bit different from the one we saw last year, and even more different a few years down the line.
Here’s a look at the biggest rules changes in baseball’s new CBA, some of which will not be taking effect right away.
The designated hitter, a feature of the American League since 1973, will be extended to the National League starting this season. The universal DH was also instituted during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, but now it seems here to stay.
Traditional extra-inning rules return under the new CBA, starting this season. The sport will do away with the “ghost runner” that was first instituted in 2020, a rule that had teams begin each extra inning with a runner on second base the past two seasons.
The new CBA also features the return of nine-inning doubleheaders, after twin-bill games were seven innings each over the past two seasons.
The MLB playoffs will expand from 10 to 12 teams, with three division winners and three wild-card teams in each league. The one-game wild-card playoff round is no more, as are one-game winner-take-all games to break standings ties: Tiebreakers will now be preestablished, as they are in other sports.
The top two division winners in each league will receive first-round playoff byes. The third division winner will be the top seed in the first round and play the wild-card team with the worst record. The wild-card team with the best record will be the No. 2 seed in the first round and play the remaining wild-card team. The top two seeds will host all of the games in the best-of-three first-round series.
After that, the remaining teams will not be reseeded: The No. 1 division winner will play the winner of the series between the top two wild-card teams in the next round, while the No. 2 division winner will play the winner of the series between the No. 3 division winner and the worst wild-card team.
After the first round, the playoff format will resemble what has been used in previous years: The second round will feature best-of-five series, with each team getting a chance to host games, while the championship series and World Series will be best of seven.
Base sizes, defensive shifts, pitch clock
Changes to baseball’s on-field product can now be made with 45 days’ notice after a vote by a committee comprising management officials, players and an umpire. Previously, MLB could unilaterally change its on-field rules by giving players one year’s notice.
This new rule kicks in after the 2022 season, meaning several on-field changes almost certainly will go into effect in 2023:
Larger bases: MLB wants to make the bases bigger — from 15 square inches to 18 — to help runners avoid collisions with fielders, increase the number of stolen bases and help runners avoid over-sliding bases.
Limiting defensive shifts: Over the past few years, defenses have increasingly moved players to one side of the field to take away the side where offensive players most frequently hit the ball. Whether banning this practice would help batters improve their numbers is a matter of ardent debate, but the owners feel that limiting shifts would have a positive aesthetic influence on the sport by increasing in-game action.
Pitch clock: To speed up the game, pitchers would have 14 seconds to send the ball to the plate with no runners on base and 19 seconds to pitch with runners on base.
MLB owners were pushing for all of these rule changes, and because ownership will occupy six of the 10 spots on the rule-change committee, they are almost certain to pass ahead of the 2023 season.
Starting in 2023, teams will play at least one series per season against all other MLB teams, including teams in the opposite league. This will result in fewer intra-division games. As it stands now, teams play 19 games per season against the other teams in their division (76 games), six or seven games against the nondivision teams in their league (66 games) and 20 interleague games.
Players now can be optioned to the minors only five times per season. After that, they must clear waivers before being sent down again. This will probably force managers to rely more upon their starting pitchers, because teams would not be able to call up and send down spot starters as frequently as in the past.
It’s also expected that roster sizes will increase to 28 from 26 to begin the season because of the shortened spring training, with the 13-pitcher limit relaxed if overall roster sizes are temporarily increased.
International amateur draft
Negotiations bogged down this week over the issue of the international amateur draft, which the owners wanted and the players mainly didn’t.
Under the current system, the international free agent market is something of a free-for-all, with teams skirting MLB regulations and young, mostly impoverished Latin American players getting exploited at an early age.
The owners have been pushing for an international amateur draft for years while MLB’s Latin American players have pushed to keep the free-market system, saying its problems are entirely MLB’s creation and that they can be fixed without resorting to a draft.
In the end, the two sides agreed to a compromise: The players union will take until July 25 to determine whether to agree to an international draft, which would start in 2024 at the earliest. If the players agree to the international draft, the owners would lose the draft-pick compensation they get for departing free agents. If they don’t agree by July 25, the current system will remain in place, with no international draft and the owners continuing to receive draft-pick compensation for departing free agents.
The new CBA includes a draft lottery for the top six picks that is designed to prevent teams from tanking. The new system also includes limits on how many consecutive years a team can qualify for a high pick (teams that receive revenue-sharing payouts cannot pick higher than 10th in the draft more than two straight years). If a large-market team gets a lottery pick, it cannot pick higher than 10th in the next draft.
All 18 teams that don’t make the playoffs will be entered into the draft lottery, with the teams with the worst winning percentage getting the best chance of receiving a top-six pick.