Major League Baseball’s spring training games in the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues begin this week with a host of new rules impacting how the games will be played in 2023. How they will be broadcast is going to take some sorting out too.
The pending bankruptcy and possible collapse of the Diamond Sports Group may cause 14 teams to reimagine the regional sports network approach and how those teams will distribute their televised games.
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“[The pending Diamond bankruptcy is] certainly a situation [the owners are] all concerned about,” Arizona Diamondbacks managing general partner Ken Kendrick said Monday during a media conference at Salt River Fields. “As of the moment, we don’t know how it’s going to play out, and nobody can predict how it will play out.”
If the Bally Sports Networks cease to exist, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said last week there is a contingency plan in place—one that could cost upwards of $50 million.
That contingency, Kendrick said, is MLB Network producing the home games for all 14 teams—a cost of $50,000 a game. That figure doesn’t include where and how those games will be carried.
“[The only thing] fans need to be concerned about is that they’re going to be able to see all of our games regardless of what the outcome is,” Kendrick, whose club is one of the teams carried by Diamond, said.
Diamond’s missed payment kicked off a 30-day grace period, through March 17, which is expected to culminate in a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing. However, there are clear indications the company is heading for a restructuring, rather than a tear-down.
Last week, Diamond negotiated an extension of its local streaming rights with the NBA, and while the renewal is said to be weighted with contingencies, it’s also a sign that the Bally Sports networks are looking to tough out the impending financial crisis.
Manfred’s view of the RSNs remains pessimistic, although during last week’s news conference, the commissioner shaded his remarks by characterizing himself as “a contingency planner, by nature.” Still, he’s not been shy about MLB’s willingness to step in should Diamond go under; on Wednesday, Manfred reiterated that a failure to pay its 14 franchise partners would result in the termination of Bally Sports Nets’ rights deals.
The better part of those rights payments are due on or before April 1. Manfred said that Diamond has indicated it “intend[s] to pay the clubs.”
However the games are distributed, the on-field product will be inherently different, thanks to a number of significant rule changes, including a tight pitch clock for pitchers and batters, and the elimination of the infield shift.
The new rules mark the first grand in-game change since the mound was lowered after the 1968 season and the advent of the designated hitter, now universal, in the American League in 1973.
“It’ll be a little chaotic to start,” Padres second-year manager Bob Melvin said this past weekend about what the spring games will be like in the early going. “What we don’t know is whether it might be tougher on the hitters than the pitchers.”
“It will be crazy for the players and the umpires,” D-backs manager Torrey Lovullo said. “I’m pretty nervous about it.”
Pitchers will be dealing with a 15-second clock from the time the ball touches their glove to the moment they release the pitch with no runners on base, 20 seconds if there’s a base runner. Hitters must set in the box within eight seconds of when the pitcher receives the ball.
That’s not a whole lot of time for scrambling around or a pitcher shaking off a sign from a catcher to choose a pitch. The penalty for a delayed pitch is a ball. The penalty for a hitter not being ready is a strike.
“If you’re given a new baseball you don’t even have the time to get some resin and rub it up a bit,” Padres pitcher Joe Musgrove said. “I’m hoping that the umpires will work with us and give us some time to get used to it.”
A handful of other rules are poised to impact the game. The shift is dead; two infielders each must be positioned in the dirt areas on both sides of second base. Infield bases are three inches larger all the way around. A pitcher can only throw over twice per batter to hold a runner on base or attempt to pick him off. The third throw constitutes a balk, moving all runners along.
“It might be boring, but a big part of our game is holding runners,” Musgrove said. “We’ve already been cutdown on time and throws. Maybe the catcher will call more pitchouts this year when they think the runner’s going. I don’t know how it will be played.”
Additionally, balk rules are supposed to be strictly enforced. Any pitcher must come to a full stop at chest level or below prior to releasing the pitch.
“I’m going to have to check that. It might affect me a little bit,” Giants pitcher Logan Webb said. “It’s all going to be an adjustment.”
The play of the games will certainly be different. Teams have already begun the progression of working with pitchers during bullpen sessions using the clock.
“We’re trying to simulate some of the things that may happen in games,” Giants manager Gabe Kapler said. “Have we had an epiphanies? Probably not. But are we running through all the scenarios trying to see what the right moves are? Yes.”
And for 14 teams, the pending bankruptcy of Diamond Sports may ultimately disrupt the way fans at home watch their respective teams on TV.
If Diamond continues operating the RSNs throughout the bankruptcy process, which could be resolved by the All-Star break, MLB may enjoy its first taste of relative normalcy since the pandemic.
After the 2020 spring training season was ended early by COVID, the 2021 spring was disrupted by health and safety issues limiting fans at the games, and last spring was delayed by the lockout, a return to the usual routine, even with rule changes, may just be MLB’s elixir.
“This is the first time since 2019 that we’re going into a season where the focus is on the field and the play of the game, which is always where we do our best,” Manfred said.
Let those games begin.