Is the most controversial rule in baseball about to die?
Around this time last year, I wrote how the MLB Joint Competition Committee was exploring ways to simplify or eliminate the running lane to first base. Now, the committee has made a formal proposal that has entered the required 45-day review period. By Christmas, we may have seen the last of the running lane rule as we know it—but not the lane itself.
Confused? That’s the nature of the running lane, a century-long source of controversy and confusion among umpires, managers and players. It was a veteran umpire on the committee, Bill Miller, who suggested an end to keeping runners in that 45-foot lane on the foul side of the first base line. The proposal: Allow the runner the entire width of the dirt path between home and first base.
As one veteran manager put it: “I’m glad there is no more interpretation. Dirt is good. Grass is bad.”
The running lane would still be chalked before games. An MLB source said the lane would be needed for “the right boundary of the line to keep runners from running too far in foul territory on plays where the ball is in foul territory,” such as dropped third strikes.
The amended running lane is one of several rule changes—most dealing with pace of play—proposed by the 11-member Competition Committee, which includes six MLB representatives, four players and one umpire. No proposal can go to a vote until after the 45-day consultation period. That window can be extended by mutual agreement of the MLBPA and MLB.
The running lane rule, officially Rule 5.09(a)(1), states that a runner is out when he runs outside of the 45-foot lane and in the umpire’s judgment interferes with the fielder’s ability to catch a throw. The runner is permitted outside of that three-foot-wide lane for his last step to the base.
Game 4 of the 1969 World Series ended when Mets pinch hitter J.C. Martin was hit by a throw from Orioles pitcher Pete Richert while outside the lane and more than one step from the base. No call was made by the umpires. Reports at the time mentioned the rule had been in place for “50 years” but rarely called.
Recent running lane controversies involved Cody Bellinger in Game 4 of the 2018 World Series (not called), Trea Turner in Game 6 of the ’19 World Series (called out) and Jake Myers last June 14 (not called on a game-ending play). The Turner and Myers calls both went against Washington manager Dave Martinez, who lashed out after the Myers noncall by saying, “They need to fix the rule. … I’m tired of it. Fix it!”
The Competition Committee was formed out of the most recent CBA negotiations. Any member of the committee or the commissioner’s office may formally propose a rule change for consideration. Following the 45-day review period, a final vote is taken, requiring majority support to pass. Any rule change approved by the committee must be announced before the mandatory spring training reporting date for players.
The three major rule changes adopted for last season were proposed by the commissioner’s office: the pitch timer, the ban on defensive shifts and bigger bases. The proposals passed by votes of 7–4, 7–4 and 11–0, respectively. The votes against came from the four player representatives on the committee.
Here are other key rules proposals for 2024 and my takes on them:
Reduce the pitch timer with bases occupied from 20 seconds to 18 seconds.
Fine with it. Not as big of a deal as it seems. Pitchers delivered the ball last season with an average of 7.3 seconds left on the 20-second timer, so there is room to trim. (For the 15-second clock with the bases empty, an average of 6.5 seconds remained.)
As big of a hit as the pitch timer was last season, games slowed as the season played out. Average time of game increased from 2:37 in April to 2:44 in September. Players learned to adjust under the new rules (more batter timeouts, more pitcher step-offs, more balls tossed out of play, etc.). MLB wants to get closer to, not further from, the 2:30 preferred time of game from its fan polling.
One significant caveat: the MLBPA has concerns about pitcher injury rates under the pitch timer. Those concerns must be met with comprehensive data.
One eventual solution might be a one-size-fits-all clock (regardless of runners). In the last month of last season, MLB experimented with a universal 17-second clock in Triple A. It found no significant increase in violations in that small sample. In MLB, 67% of games last season did not have a violation.
Reduce mound visits from five to four in a nine-inning game.
Fine. I’m on board with anything that puts the game more in the hands of players and keeps managers and coaches off the field. While we’re at it, please get rid of the rule that allows an uncharged mound visit every time a pinch hitter is announced. Teams generally have only four hitters on the bench. The time to review how to pitch those four guys is in pregame meetings, not by bringing an automatic and unnecessary stop to the game. Again: Let the players figure it out.
Infielders cannot block bases.
Thanks to Whit Merrifield for this common-sense proposal. This is a player safety issue. Why should infielders be allowed to block a base with their leg when catchers can’t?
It’s especially dangerous now because most runners slide headfirst due to an unintended consequence of replay (runners who arrive safe but are ruled out when their toes get one millimeter off the bag on a feet-first slide). In 2022, White Sox star center fielder Luis Robert Jr. sprained his wrist on a headfirst slide in which Jonathan Schoop dropped his knee to put his entire left leg in front of the bag.
One offshoot of the swipe tag-only proposal is a proposal to eliminate replay challenges of catchers blocking the plate. In some cases, umpires in the replay center were interpreting plays differently than umpires on the field.
“That makes sense,” says one veteran manager. “[I] just don’t want the rule to be abused by catchers. The only reason I liked [a challenge option] is because it changes the scoreboard.”
Pitchers must work out of the stretch with runners on.
Not a fan. The proposal stems from confusion with a runner at third base and pitchers who use a “hybrid” delivery, which borrows elements from the stretch and windup positions.
Many pitchers prefer the windup with two outs and a runner on third, in part because they are more comfortable and/or more effective. MLB shouldn’t legislate that choice of how a pitcher competes, especially when it’s not a big enough problem that needs a solution.