Experimental Rule Hope To Speed Up Game

In a rule that is intended to speed up the game, all hitters will have to stay close to home plate during at-bats this season under an experimental rule aimed at speeding play. The rule will start with minor league hitters and will certainly move to the major leagues.

The rule approved by baseball's rules committee requires a batter to keep one foot in the batter's box throughout an at-bat, unless certain exceptions apply. And in cases where the hitter is allowed to leave the box, the player must remain in the dirt area surrounding home plate.

An umpire will be able to award an automatic strike if a batter intentionally leaves the batter's box and delays play.

The rule will be used this year in all minor leagues affiliates with the majors. The rule was used during the 2004 Arizona Fall League and similar rule is used in the NCAA.

Baseball has been trying to pick up the pace of games in recent years by tweaking its rules and better enforcing others already on the books.

The average time of a nine-inning regular-season game has dropped from 2 hours, 58 minutes in 2000 to 2:46 in 2003 before climbing to 2:47 last year.

"The playing rules committee hopes that the adoption of this rule in the minor leagues will encourage players, as they progress toward the majors, to develop and maintain habits that will improve the pace of play," said Sandy Alderson, executive vice president for baseball operations in the commissioner's office.

Under the experimental rule, there will be seven instances when a hitter can remove both feet from the batter's box:
- The batter swings at a pitch;
- The batter is forced out of the batter's box by a pitch;
- A member of either team requests and is granted "time;"
- A defensive player attempts a play on a runner at any base;
- The batter feints a bunt;
- A wild pitch or passed ball occurs;
- The pitcher leaves the dirt area of the pitching mound after receiving the ball; or
- The catcher leaves the catcher's box to give defensive signals.

Batters can leave the dirt area around home plate when a substitution is being made or either team is having a conference on the field.