‘A fun challenge’ – Sportsbooks can hit a home run with MLB rule changes

The Nationals Stadium
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With a new season comes new hopes. New expectations. New players. And, perhaps most importantly, new rules. 

Major League Baseball (MLB) 2023 is set to get underway this week with the Houston Astros looking to defend the championship they won in November. But ahead of the big return to baseball action on Friday, the powers that be have introduced three new rules to improve the fan experience and pace of the game. 

“We’ve tried to address the concerns expressed in a thoughtful way, respectful – always – of the history and traditions of the game, and of player concerns,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said. “Our guiding star in thinking about changes to the game has always been our fans. ‘What do our fans want to see on the field?’ 

“We’ve conducted thorough and ongoing research with our fans, and certain things are really clear. Number one, fans want games with better pace. Two, fans want more action, more balls in play. And three, fans want to see more of the athleticism of our great players.”

Firstly, there will now be a 30-second timer between batters, a 15-second timer with empty bases and a 20-second timer with runners on base. 

Secondly, the defensive team must have a minimum of four players on the infield with at least two infielders completely on either side of the second base, aiming to increase the batting average on the ball in play. Finally, the bases will be increased from 15 inches square to 18 inches square. 

MLB rule changes can pose challenges for operators

Pertinently, the first two of these MLB rule changes may have an impact on the betting industry, particularly as micro-betting and in-play markets increase in popularity. 

With a faster pace of game resulting from the pitch clock rule changes, there are fears that in-play betting action could reduce, as latency issues will be more prominent and bettors have less time to place bets before a play begins. 

Rick Wolf, SVP of US B2B Partnerships at Spotlight Sports Group, explained: “With the pitch clock, batters essentially are not allowed to step out of the batter’s box this year and limited pick-off attempts by pitchers with runners on base will affect real-time betting. 

“The time for latency combined with the locking mechanisms for batter-to-batter betting will make it very difficult for both operators and bettors to move fast enough. Half-inning results decisions for bettors will need to be made more quickly so there will be fewer wagers per bettor than last season when the game moved slower.”

Where consumer behavior changes, operators and suppliers must be ready to adapt where possible. Undoubtedly, bookmakers will have taken note of these rule changes to adapt their strategy for the upcoming MLB season. 

But with fewer opportunities for in-play and micro-betting, it has been posited that operators will need to be savvier on the markets that they offer on baseball fixtures post-rule changes. 

“Operators will need to create unique markets that capture and hold the attention of bettors for the perfect amount of time,” outlined Angstrom Sports CEO, Sion Colley. “Quantifying the rule changes will be a fun challenge that requires a high level of baseball expertise and nuance, as minor league and Spring Training data only tell us so much. 

“We’ve built the preliminary framework to monitor key metrics which will tell us how the new rules are affecting results… the only missing pieces of the puzzle are future data. With these tracking tools already built, we are confident we will reach the most accurate prices as quickly as possible.”

Adapting technology and predicting future trends in the MLB

Setting those prices and solving those challenges often falls on the doorstep of data modelers, as the use of algorithms and complex information becomes ever more prevalent.

Those brains in risk management and trading will have to adapt to the rule changes in MLB and predict what the outcomes may be. 

Predicting the outcome of future changes, particularly in a world centered around objectivity and matters of fact like data modeling, is a particularly uncomfortable thought for those involved. 

Matt Smith, Head of Modeling at 10star, told SBC Americas: “Rule changes always present an interesting problem for the teams that develop our sports models, especially when there is minimal precedent for the specific type of change. Whilst in this instance there is some data available from the minor leagues, how that actually translates into the major leagues is a complete unknown.”

Smith explained that 10star’s process is to speak with experts in the field of the sport, in this case, baseball, to try and get ahead of the changing trends to provide the best possible models for its clients. 

He added: “At 10star we always use a combination of data and trading expertise to make logic-based changes, developing them in a way that enables rapid iteration once improved data becomes available.  

“However, the real and unique benefit we have at 10star relative to every other supplier is that we use the risk generated by the wagers themselves as an automated input to how our partners’ prices should change – as opposed to reacting to liabilities as a manual afterthought.” 

MLB rules changes to offer huge opportunity

Having touched on the potential negative impact of these rule changes, particularly when it comes to in-play betting volume, it is important to note the opportunities that these rule changes can offer the betting industry moving forward. 

It has been posited that the decrease in between pitch betting can offer fans a better betting experience elsewhere. 

As Colley theorizes, the increasing speed of the game may not be so detrimental to betting markets: “What you may see is a slight shift from mid-inning volume to between-inning volume. We feel increased engagement by the bettor and viewer will more than makeup for the small decrease in average game duration. 

“In fact, the pitch clock could force some operators to shorten their in-play bet acceptance countdowns, which will ultimately improve the user experience.”

And, as Smith neatly put it, the increased speed of baseball going forward could also improve betting handle, providing that operators adapt appropriately. 

He concluded: “We feel the rule changes should be positive for player engagement. Our platform is structured so that new markets can be released very quickly, and the “bets per customer” metric improves when action increases (rather than when the time of the game does).  

“In this case, shortening the game time won’t lessen wagers and should actually improve operator handle, especially if engaging in-play markets are created as a result.”