In roster building, teams are going to have to consider more than ever pitchers who work slow and players who run fast.
The seismic new rules that were officially codified this week to begin use during the 2023 MLB season are going to dramatically change the on-field product. Naturally, teams are going to retreat to their labs (they probably already had begun somewhat in anticipation) to determine what kind of players most benefit and are most hurt by the rulebook changes.
The Competition Committee voted Friday that, starting in 2023, MLB will install a pitch clock, eliminate dramatic shifting, reduce pickoff throws and enlarge the bases. Each move would range between significant and substantial on its own. In combination, it is monumental squared.
That is the long-awaited counterpunch to the analytical revolution. Those in charge of metric-centric baseball operations departments behaved exactly as they should have. Their jobs were on the line, and if games took four-plus hours because every strategy designed to maximize winning slowed pace, so be it. They were being judged on victories, not entertainment value.
So velocity and movement for pitchers were emphasized to miss bats. Shuffling in lots of high-octane relievers who drain batting average and accentuate strikeouts spread to all 30 teams. Computer programs showed where each batter hit the ball most frequently, and teams positioned their defenses accordingly. All of that made it so hard to get a hit — much less a bunch in one inning to score runs — that the offensive counter was to prioritize the surest way to get a run: launch for homers.
All of that led to less on-field action and longer games. That coincided with MLB — fighting for a younger fan demographic, in particular, and larger audiences, generally — trying to satiate a society with a shorter attention span.
Thus, MLB finally — after years of experimenting in the minors and trying to cajole the players to jointly agree to alterations in the majors — decided to make changes they believe will speed up the pace of games while simultaneously increasing on-field action. All four players on the Competition Committee voted against the pitch clock and the shift bans. But those were not enough votes to win the day.
So next year, a pitch must be delivered within 15 seconds with no one base and 20 seconds with bases occupied. Defenses must have two infielders on each side of second base, and the infielders must be on the infield dirt until a pitch is released. A pitcher may disengage from the rubber twice for a step-off or pickoff attempt, and if a third attempt fails, the runner will automatically be given the next base. Bases will increase in size from 15 to 18 square inches, which — among other things — will move the distance between bases 4 ¹/₂ inches closer.
There are codicils on each, but that is the crux of the impactful rule changes coming. So, let’s take them one at a time to surmise what they could mean as far as roster building:
1. The Pitch Clock
I asked eight executives if that would make them hesitant to acquire a traditionally slow worker (a ball issued any time the pitch clock is violated). Four said not at all, that stuff — pitch characteristics, command and pitching IQ — essentially would still be the key. The other four said it has to be part of a consideration, but mostly thought the large majority of pitchers would adapt over time to work quicker.
Keep in mind this is much more about relievers. Among the 50 slowest workers (minimum 250 pitches thrown with no one on base), just three (Jose Suarez, Tylor Megill and Shohei Ohtani) were starters. The question will become whether, if teams ask relievers to work more quickly, that will lead to an inability to recover and throw maximum effort on each pitch, forcing either greater command with less velocity or greater reliance on secondary pitches.
The slowest workers are mostly veterans, and some — such as Aroldis Chapman, Brad Hand, Kenley Jansen and Craig Kimbrel — will be free agents. Will interested teams believe grizzled relievers can learn new (quicker) tricks?
And let’s not pooh-pooh whether this change does result in lost velocity. This season, players were hitting .261 and swinging and missing on 11.6 percent of pitches thrown 94-96 mph. At 97-99 mph, it was .242 and 18.5. That also is the most dramatic part of the game, and rather than what has become the accustomed slog as relievers take long times to pitch, the game should move quicker at its most tense points.
In addition, hitters need to get in the box quicker (ready to hit with no fewer than 8 seconds left on the pitch clock) or else be charged a strike. The question is how that will impact hitters who like to take their time, especially with runners on base — such as Mets teammates Pete Alonso, Mark Canha and Brandon Nimmo, who will be a free agent, as will other slow-playing hitters, such as Matt Carpenter and JD Martinez.
There is concern that removing shifts will have the unintended consequence of encouraging teams to employ the one-dimensional lefty slugger, the type of hitter who had become harder to pay and play as the shift curtailed batting averages. The theory is that now they could still go for homers and also be rewarded with pull-side hits more often.
I’m not sure that the one-dimensional player will be more attractive considering all the changes. The shift is going to emphasize the need for rangier, better athletes in the field, particularly at short and second, but even at the traditional slugger position at first, since there can no longer be two other infielders joining the first baseman’s side of the field in certain situations. Most teams would rather not lock into a singular DH any longer, preferring that the DH is open, at least, to 50-ish games a year to spread around regulars whose bats stay in the lineup, but who rest otherwise from playing the field.
Even if you have one non-mobile masher, however, would you want more considering that playing defense will be harder next year and base stealing will almost certainly be up (more on that in a moment)?
Plus, as one NL executive said: “The game is distorted when you hit a 100-mph one-hopper to right field and the second baseman is standing there to turn it into an out. That should be a hit.”
Who is the player who has lost the most hits to the shift this year? Ohtani, with 24. He gained 14, however, from the shift. Still that is minus-10 overall and the difference between a .267 and a .287 average, something to think about if you are thinking about trading for Ohtani in the offseason. As one AL official said, “The shift analysis [of what guys would have hit without the shift] will be easy with models.”
And who is the player who has lost the most hits in total from the shift compared to what was gained? Free agent first baseman Josh Bell, at minus-13.
3. Limited pickoffs/bigger bases
Those changes are partially about safety (bigger bags, for example, lead to fewer collisions). But the combination of reducing pickoff throws with the shorter distances between the bags is to encourage the stolen base. The bigger bags should also lead to more infield hits.
Trea Turner was already an appealing free agent. Would he get more because he was already an historically elite base stealer (84.3 percent success rate) and annually is among the leaders in infield hits? The game is moving further in his direction in 2023.
Will teams think more about keeping a speed player such as Terrance Gore or Billy Hamilton, not just when rosters expand in September, but all year? Will teams try to emphasize speed more than ever?
Consider that even if the Yankees retain Aaron Judge, they might think of being burners as much as bombers in 2023. Harrison Bader, Isaiah Kiner-Falefa, Oswald Peraza and Anthony Volpe have shown themselves to be high-percentage base stealers. With the larger bases and pickoff rules in effect in the minors this year, Peraza and Volpe combined for 77 steals in 88 tries (87.5 percent). In the majors, Judge has 16 steals in 18 tries this year before bigger bases and fewer pickoff potentials.