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MLB's Opening Day brings rule changes meant to enliven the game


It is opening day for Major League Baseball. And for the first time in over 50 years, all teams have their first game today. And they are following loads of new rules that the MLB hopes will lead to action-packed, shorter games. NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman is here to talk about this brave and speedier new baseball world. Hi, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Are you excited?

SUMMERS: You have no idea. All right.

GOLDMAN: (Laughter).

SUMMERS: These new rules - they were used during spring training, but that is a whole different energy than we're feeling right now, so let's just get started with the pitch clock.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, Juana, that's the biggie. The pitcher has 20 seconds to start his delivery when runners are on base, 15 seconds when the bases are empty. Now, if the pitcher doesn't throw in time, the umpire calls a ball. And we have our first-ever violation today. Chicago Cubs pitcher Marcus Stroman took too long - had an automatic ball called on him. The batter has to be in the batter's box, getting ready to hit within a certain time. And if he isn't, umpire calls a strike. Now, this worked in spring training. With the pitch clock, games were, on average, 26 minutes shorter than last season. So the hope is baseball games aren't going to stretch beyond three hours, as they often have in recent years. Jeff Passan of ESPN - a very smart baseball mind - says the pitch clock will be the most significant change to the on-field game since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.

SUMMERS: OK, that is a huge statement. But I understand that a...

GOLDMAN: (Laughter).

SUMMERS: ...Few of the games have finished already today, so how speedy were they?

GOLDMAN: The New York Yankees beat the San Francisco Giants 5-0. Game time was an efficient two hours and 33 minutes. But Atlanta at Washington took three hours and seven minutes due to a lot of pitching changes. It's not going to be perfect. But, in general, game times should be shorter.

SUMMERS: OK, so we've talked about the pitch clock, but remind us if you could, about some of the other new rules we're looking at here.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, the bases now are bigger by several inches, and that does two things. By having a larger surface area, it reduces the risk of injury - a runner stepping on the foot or ankle of a fielder covering the base. And it shortens the distance between the bases, meaning there should be more stolen bases, which are exciting.

Another big change is doing away with defensive shifts, where the infield loads up on one side of the field if it knows a batter likes to hit there. The hope is this is going to lead to more balls in play and, again, more action.

SUMMERS: I mean, it's opening day. Some people - me included - think that this is one of the best days of the year. Tom, if you could, tell us about some of the teams and players that we're going to be hearing about all season long. Maybe start us off in the American League?

GOLDMAN: Sure. Houston is the defending champ. The Astros are still very good. The New York Yankees have their prolific home-run hitter, Aaron Judge, back after his record 62 home runs last season. And Juana, this just in - his first at-bat in that New York win today, a home run.

SUMMERS: Whoo (ph).

GOLDMAN: Another Yankee we'll be watching - 21-year-old shortstop Anthony Volpe - with his hitting and fielding, he could be the next big thing in the Bronx. And then there's always Shohei Ohtani, the sublime hitter/pitcher for the LA Angels, who led Japan to last week's World Baseball Classic title. He and fellow Angels star Mike Trout have a good supporting cast that could help LA finally get to the postseason after getting there only once in the last 13 years.

SUMMERS: And how about the National League?

GOLDMAN: Well, Philadelphia, Atlanta, the New York Mets, St. Louis, the LA Dodgers among the favorites. You're hearing a lot of chatter about the San Diego Padres - loaded with all-stars, including shortstop Xander Bogaerts, who was added in the off-season. They'll be getting back a really good player, Fernando Tatis Jr., from a doping suspension. Maybe, Juana, with all this talent, San Diego can finally win...

SUMMERS: (Laughter).

GOLDMAN: ...Its first World Series title.

SUMMERS: NPR's Tom Goldman, thanks for playing ball.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANK OCEAN SONG, "NIGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on