After being tested in the minor leagues and even in spring training, MLB will institute a new rule requiring a pitch to be thrown every 20 seconds with a runner on base and every 15 seconds with the bases empty.getty images
The pitch clock is coming to Major League Baseball next season, and with it a number of byproducts. Game time will decrease. Action on the field will increase. And the sport — so hope the powers that be who announced the move earlier this month, including Commissioner Rob Manfred — will be much healthier.
Testing new rules in what Manfred said were approximately 8,000 minor league games had a significant impact on MLB’s decision. Most notably was that the average game time dropped by 26 minutes. A limit on pickoff attempts helped boost stolen base attempts by 0.6 per game in 2022 compared to 2019. And a ban on defensive shifts should boost offense.
Among the areas of the league’s business strategy that will be affected by this is betting, and more specifically micro-betting. With its traditionally slower pace and frequent breaks in the action, baseball has long been naturally conducive to in-game and even in-at-bat gambling opportunities. In fact, MLB’s in-game betting handle now represents approximately one-third of the market, according to league research. In addition, according to Johnny Avello, the director of sportsbook operations at DraftKings, in-game prop bets are increasing at a faster rate than any other baseball-related betting category.
“Bettors will adjust,” said Avello. “They’ll know they’ll have a shorter amount of time to put the bet in. But that also forces us to make the odds quicker and get them up quicker. That could cause some errors on our part, but we’ll just have to continue to get better at it.”
Improving in that regard is well within DK’s technological grasp, Avello added, and preparing for the 2023 MLB campaign will begin as soon as this season ends.
“Anything that’s new in the business, you make lines and then you make adjustments,” he said. “And eventually, you get pretty good at it. Initially, it’s not that you’re bad at it, it’s just that there might be some holes. So we’ll make those adjustments I think quite quickly.”
In-game prop betting is growing in popularity as users become more familiar with it and sportsbooks continue to roll out new related features. However, Kenny Gersh, MLB’s executive vice president of business development who oversees the league’s sports betting strategy, said that it still represents only a small portion of the overall baseball betting market. Betting on individual pitch results — a feature that is available on DraftKings and a handful of other sportsbooks — is a subset of that category. But it’s the piece that is most affected by putting a clock on the time in between pitches.
MLB’s new rules dictate that pitchers will have 20 seconds in between pitches when there are runners on base, but only 15 seconds when the bases are empty. For pitch-by-pitch betting, Avello admitted 15 seconds is a tight window to adjust automated odds, relay that to the potential bettor, and then have them make a bet. According to Kelly Pracht, co-founder and CEO of predictive analytics platform nVenue, it takes a person at least eight seconds to read, digest, choose and feel good about a bet. “Anything shorter is a jarring experience,” she said.
So DraftKings, an MLB sponsor since 2013 that added sports betting to its partnership status for the first time this year, might have to think outside the box with regard to wagers on individual pitch results in 2023 and beyond.
“Maybe we’ll get a little creative and come up with something else that does fit into that window,” Avello said. “Maybe we’re not able to give you [an opportunity to bet] on every single pitch. We might say, not this pitch, but what’s going to be the result of the next pitch? Maybe you miss a pitch. I don’t know yet. But we’ll certainly make it work.”
MLB, for its part, has not looked to promote pitch-by-pitch betting. The league instead is focused much more on the next closest thing: prop bets placed on the result of an at-bat, which Gersh predicts will increase in volume as action picks up because of the rule changes.
In addition to the pitch clock fueling more balls in play, increasing the size of the bases — from 15 inches to 18 inches, reducing the distance in between bases by 4.5 inches — will increase steals, which dropped 32% from 2011 to 2021, per baseball-reference.com. Restrictions on defensive shifts — with two infielders being required to be positioned on each side of second base when a pitch is released — will increase hits, which dropped nearly 7% from 2011 to 2021, and should lead to more runs.
A shorter game doesn’t necessarily mean there will be fewer opportunities to place wagers on MLB, aside from any fallout with pitch-by-pitch betting. Pracht has said that nVenue, which is powering the predictive analytics for all 50 MLB games streamed on Apple TV+ this season, helps break down a game into thousands of micro-bet moments, with a single baseball game offering 15,000 betting opportunities. The pitch clock won’t affect that, she said.
“The general behavior of the game is unchanged,” said Pracht, whose company opened its predictive feeds to the betting industry for the first time this year and is exploring potential partnerships. “There are still on average 300 pitches per game, 72 at-bats per MLB game, 18 half innings, nine innings. You can expect the same amount of betting opportunities coming from our platform.”
In short, the factors that make MLB’s rule changes so compelling for the game itself are the same ones that have executives so bullish about how it will affect betting around baseball.
“It’s just going to make the game more fun for everybody involved, which is going to have benefits across the entire industry,” Gersh said. “As the product gets better, it should help ratings, and more people will be interested when you see more balls in play.”
Other areas of business around baseball will have varying degrees of impact. The shorter game shouldn’t affect concessions — the hope is that more fans will stay longer instead of having to leave to get home at a reasonable time — but retailers could be hurt by fans spending less time walking around the stadium.