College baseball rule changes for 2023 will help grow game, but shouldn’t stop here

OMAHA, NEBRASKA - JUNE 30: Members of the ground ready the field before the start of the Vanderbilt Commodores and Mississippi St. Bulldogs game three of the College World Series Championship at TD Ameritrade Park Omaha on June 30, 2021 in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
OMAHA, NEBRASKA - JUNE 30: Members of the ground ready the field before the start of the Vanderbilt Commodores and Mississippi St. Bulldogs game three of the College World Series Championship at TD Ameritrade Park Omaha on June 30, 2021 in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images) /

Ever since the first College World Series in Kalamazoo in 1948, college baseball has mainly stayed the same. In 2023 and beyond, big changes are coming.

If you’ve been keeping up with Major League Baseball this season, you have seen major pace-of-play initiatives to grow younger fan interest.

The biggest of those changes include the pitch clock where the pitcher has to start his wind-up within 14 seconds of receiving the ball with no one on base and 18 seconds with runners on in the minors. Starting in 2023, the clock will see a big change in college baseball.

But that’s not the only rule change coming in the new season, nor should these be the last.

College baseball 2023 rule changes

Pitch Clock will be in full swing

The casual fan who has attended a minor league game this year has been able to tell a noticeable difference in game time, but exactly how much has the clock shaved off games? Since the implementation of the clock, game duration in Minor League Baseball has seen a dramatic 28-minute difference, which will lead to a huge jump in younger fan interest in the majors when implemented.

These statistics are extremely encouraging for the NCAA rules committee because quite honestly, college baseball has a viewership issue. In an article published by The Athletic in June, in 2022, the Women’s College World Series finals outdrew the men by an average of 200,000 viewers which continues a startling trend over the past few years.

A lot of this has to do with pace of play. In 2018, the average D1 game lasted 2:59, which is almost 25 minutes more than the average minor league game time with the pitch clock in effect for 2022. That may not seem like a big deal to most fans, but wanting to draw the younger generation in, every minute matters. Which leads to more revenue for the NCAA.

The clock has been in effect for the college game for the past two years with a 20-second clock, but it was never enforced with an on-field clock and did not seem like it was enforced consistently amongst umpires. In order to reset the clock, college pitchers were able to step off the rubber as many times as they want or throw as many pickoffs as they please. Starting in the 2023 season, pitchers will still be able to pick off as many times as they want, but they are only allowed to step off the mound one time per batter.

This is a really good move on the part of the committee because the step-off rule was heavily exploited last season by pitchers. Now, pitchers will be forced to deliver the ball to home plate with the rule being strictly enforced by umpires. Not only that, all programs will be required to have a visible clock on the field beginning in 2024 as part of the new changes.

How to grow a sport with a shrinking fanbase and get youth invested

College baseball is a sport with a loyal fan base that will never go away; this includes the passionate season ticket holders who have been following the sport their entire lives, and along with them people who just love watching the sport of baseball at all levels. The issue with this is there are very few casual fans, and that also is evident by the viewership trends in past years.

The traditional baseball fans that I mentioned above need to understand the younger generation has a very short attention span and does not want to sit at a ballgame for over three hours. These stretched-out games often include many mound visits, replays,  and pitching changes known as “dead time”.

In order to grow the sport for the younger generation and casual fans, the purists need to let go of some traditions and let the game become quicker and more technologically advanced. In 2023, I am sure a study will be conducted on pace of play being heavily enforced by umpires and if it decreases game time by a half an hour or so, college baseball will see bigger crowds for regular season games and higher tv ratings for the Greatest Show on Dirt.

While I am not proposing changing the way the game is played, which should never happen, this minor tweak in the rule that the NCAA has approved, will dramatically improve the sport for viewing pleasure.

Hawk-Eye’s Technology would change the landscape

College baseball should not stop with just the pitch clock to speed the game up. The minors are also testing technology that allow the pitcher or hitter to challenge a ball or strike call. While I am not in favor of the automated strike zone in the college game, it would be extremely beneficial if hitters were allowed to challenge balls and strikes in critical two-strike counts from the seventh inning onward to start with.

MLB Network had a showcase game a couple of weeks ago where the rule was in place for the Charlotte Knights and Syracuse Mets game in Charlotte. If either the pitcher or batter has an issue with what the umpire called, they can either tap the top of their cap or helmet and challenge the call. This then immediately brings the Hawk-Eye technology in effect, which is also used for in or out calls in tennis. A visual representation is shown almost instantaneously with a pitch box and as a result, shows if the umpire made the correct call.

By looking at their website, Hawk-Eye was founded in 2001 and began popular that same year by tracking the tennis ball’s movements at the 2001 Australian Open. Obviously, they have since dabbled into other sports and along with baseball, it was used for the first time by the NFL. They also use the “best-in-class technology to rights holders, officials, broadcasters, and more across the full video and data value-chain, constantly supporting the growth of the sport through technology — from the field to the fan.”

The technology is really incredible, and an extremely quick turnaround from when the challenge is called for. Not only would it help get balls and strikes correct in critical situations, it would also in return help grow the sport.

This technology now would incentivize hitters to swing at more pitches inside the zone because they know the call could be overturned by a tap of a cap. This, in turn, helps college baseball continue their rapid-fire scoring and home run pace in 2021 and 2022 and bring more fans to the ballpark and television screen. When fans go to a baseball game, they do not want to see a low-scoring game with maybe four or five hits combined, they want action. This rule change would only help fan engagement and have offenses explode.

There is always going to have to be a compromise for the baseball purists who do not like the rule. As I previously stated, the college game should tweak the minor league rule change, so challenges to the strike zone can only occur from the top of the 7th on, so a batter can’t challenge a call that has little impact on the game in the early innings. Each team should also receive three total challenges in a particular game. If the call gets overturned, the team can keep their challenge.

Go back and look at the 2019 Louisville Regional elimination game where Louisville played Indiana. Cardinal’s reliever Michael McAvene got squeezed by the home plate umpire in a two-run game with the season on the line. He then gets ejected for arguing balls and strikes after being on the wrong end of multiple calls in the same at-bat. That could all have been avoided if the new pro ball rules were implemented.

While Louisville ended up winning the game and going to Omaha in 2019,  all he could have had to do was tap his cap and Hawk-Eye would have overturned the call and Louisville would have won on the spot. The reason the ejection was so critical is that, in the college game, if a player gets suspended, it automatically invokes a one-game suspension which made McAvene ineligible for the first game of the regional. This is just one example of many instances that this rule can fix.

Finally, let the host schools have an advantage.

The final rule change that the rules committee needs to adopt, which is a huge topic of conversation amongst coaches is the regional home/away team issue. This is a rule change that is long overdue and one that the NCAA rules committee must change immediately.

To further explain the format of the regionals in college baseball, the NCAA Tournament has 64 total teams and 16 hosts which are the No. 1 overall seeds for that particular regional. While the host school can choose the time slot they would like to play in, they must alternate being the visiting team. This makes it extremely difficult for a host to come out of the loser’s bracket and be forced to be the visiting team.

As coaches across the country argue, there is no advantage to being a host school if they are forced to bat first in a critical game that could decide their season. The NCAA needs to immediately reward their host schools by allowing them to be the home team throughout their regional.

This rule especially applies if both teams are 0-1 to start regional play, it is common sense the higher seed gets to be the home team in that game. Unfortunately, this rule has not been changed yet, but expect to see it continue to be a huge topic of conversation and potentially changed in the coming years.