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Pace of play is an aspect of modern day baseball that has been heavily criticized. Major League Baseball (MLB) created a joint competition committee consisting of six players, six team executives and one umpire in late June to attack this issue and grow the entertainment value of the sport. Recently, the committee announced three rule changes for the 2023 season: a pitch clock, limits on defensive shifts and bigger bases. All of these changes are designed to speed up the pace of play and create more action within the game, but these rule changes will have off-field implications as well.
With the emerging sports gambling landscape, Rob Manfred was quoted saying “sports gambling is a massive opportunity for fan engagement,” and that baseball is the perfect sport because of the ability to wager between pitches and innings. The 2023 rule changes may create hurdles for sportsbooks in making lines for certain bets and bettors in trusting data they had relied on in the past. Below I breakdown each rule change and its implication for sportsbooks.
The ultimate goal with the implementation of the pitch clock is to increase pace of play. The pitch clock will be a 30-second timer between batters, 15-second timer between pitches with the bases empty and a 20-second timer with runners on base. If the rule is successful and the pace of play does increase, this will create substantial limitations on sportsbooks offering wagers in between pitches. Entertainment value may increase from this rule change, but for fans watching the game specifically for sports gambling purposes, this could deter the “entertainment” for them.
The defensive shift limitation has the goal of increasing hitters’ batting average on balls in play and driving more offense within the game. This rule implementation requires the four infielders to have their feet on the dirt and prohibits them from switching sides of the infield (cross over second base). In recent years, these major shifts have incentivized hitters to focus their approach on launch angle, which has led to record high strikeout rates. In turn, this has taken away from the defenders’ ability to showcase their athleticism. The implication this rule change may have on sports betting is that sportsbooks and bettors may have trouble determining totals for the games (if offense is successfully increased) and individual player totals because hitters may change their approach (specifically putting an emphasis on putting the ball in play with two strikes).
Sam Garriock, the trading manager at PointsBet stated, “as someone who is constantly looking to the data, it’s going to have to be an educated guess first off. The shift itself not used in all situations and doesn’t have a massive effect in the population of MLB players it’s deployed against, but some players really struggle with it.” According to Johnny Avello, the sportsbook manager at DraftKings, the lack of shift will increase scoring slightly, but he also thinks the bigger bags will have an equal, if not bigger effect. These may not be major line changes that sportsbooks will have to make, but there could be lines that spectators paying attention to spring training games could have an edge on entering the season.
Finally, the bases being enlarged from 15 inches to 18 inches have two primary objectives: creating more room to avoid collisions and to incentivize more stolen bases. The art of stealing bases has been lost in modern day baseball, and this implementation could reintroduce that back into the game. Avello was quoted saying, “bigger bases mean more runs,. A 4.5-inch bigger bag, and between first and second and second and third, that’s less distance for a runner to be safe. I think it will create more runs overall, and that’s an adjustment we’ll have to make.” Sportsbooks will be challenged with setting adequate totals for a player’s stolen bases, but this rule change may also be a factor in overall game totals if more stolen bases lead to more general offense, and it is clear this is already something that is on the major sportsbook’s radar.
Overall, the primary purpose of these rule changes is to quicken the game’s pace of play and create more offense. If these rules are successful, this could skew the way sportsbooks create their totals and what wagers they offer in-game. Sports bettors may have an edge early in the season betting game totals and player totals when it comes to offensive stats (specifically stolen bases), but sportsbooks are likely to adjust fairly quickly. Matt Lindeman, a senior trader at WynnBET stated, “every year there’s an adjustment. I’m sure totals will go up a little as a result of the rules changes, but I think everyone will sit on their hands a bit at the beginning.” The 2023 spring training season will be a pivotal time to watch baseball and see how these implementations affect the game, and for bettors who want to take advantage of the lines offered before sportsbooks begin making their adjustments.