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New baseball rule hopes to reverse decades of fan loss

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Baseball has been losing fans for decades. Fewer people have been filling the stands at the old ballgame since even before the pandemic. And last year's World Series viewership was only about a quarter of what it was in 1978. But Major League Baseball, the MLB, is working to turn those trends around. They're experimenting with new rules to bring back a little more excitement to the game, like the pie-slice rule being rolled out in the minor leagues today. Joining us to explain how it works is LA Times baseball reporter Bill Shaikin. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

BILL SHAIKIN: Great to be here.

SHAPIRO: It seems like the only thing more American than baseball is a slice of pie. So how does the pie-slice rule actually work?

SHAIKIN: Well, to step back just a little bit, we mentioned that the audience has dropped off for baseball, both in person and on television. And one of the working theories in Major League Baseball offices about that is that there's less action to the game. The game right now is a bunch of guys trying to hit home runs. And if they do, the ball goes over the fence, and a guy takes a slow jog around the bases. If they don't, they swing and miss, which is what happens more often than not, nothing happens either.

So how do we get more action? In the time when people were attending more games and watching more games, balls were put in the field of play. Guys stole bases. How do we get back to that? So the pie-slice rule is one example of how they're trying to consider ways to do that.

SHAPIRO: And it's basically carving out a wedge of the field where infielders are not allowed to stand until the pitch is thrown. Is that it?

SHAIKIN: Yeah. The idea is if you get more singles and not so many home runs and maybe you get more stolen bases, there's, again, more action that people like to see. So in the '70s and '80s, for example, there were pretty much defined positions. In other words, you're the second baseman. This is where the second baseman stands. What we know from statistical study now is if we can figure out where the guy is more likely to hit the ball, let's just move the second baseman right there. And what's happened is a lot more outs. So maybe baseball is going to turn the pendulum back and say, you know what? Even if a guy is more likely to hit the ball in the pie-slice area, you can't stand there.

SHAPIRO: So the pie slice is the section of the field where the ball is most likely to go. And now the league is saying you can't stand there, so we're less likely to catch the pop fly and more likely to get base hits. Is that right?

SHAIKIN: Yeah. And not even so much the pop fly, but, like, anybody who's played Little League is probably heard a coach say, hey; just try to hit it right back up the middle, right? The ball comes to you, hit it right back the same way. And if you do that, that should be a base hit. But now, if you do that too much, somebody will know that and be standing right there. So what baseball is saying now is let's consider a rule that says, no, no, you can't stand there.

SHAPIRO: The minor leagues are also testing out some other innovations - larger bases, pitch clocks, robo umpires. I mean, what's the bigger strategy here?

SHAIKIN: It's, again, just to try to get more action into the game. There's been a lot of evolution of the game, some of it analytically based. And while it's turned into a very good way to build a winning team, it's not necessarily the best way to build an audience. So for example, with a pitch clock, how long should it take you to catch the ball and make your next pitch? And if it's taking too long, let's put a clock on it. And where this has been tried in the minor leagues, they've been able to cut the time of game down by half hour. So you can get home a half hour earlier.

SHAPIRO: Do you think these innovations are likely to make their way to the major leagues?

SHAIKIN: There is a committee meeting right now - players are on the committee, owners are on the committee, representatives from the umpires are on the committee - to try to figure out which one should be adopted for next year. I would be shocked if the pitch clock wasn't one of them.

SHAPIRO: That's LA Times baseball reporter Bill Shaikin. Thanks a lot.

SHAIKIN: All right. Take care now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Enrique Rivera