Monday, February 27, 2023

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, February 27, 2023 -- "The New Rules: Epilogue"

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One of the challenges in looking at the 2023 season is that MLB announced a series of changes at once, which will make it harder to suss out the impact of any one change. As I wrote yesterday, the larger bases and the pickoff restrictions work in tandem to affect basestealing. The restrictions on defensive positioning should add a thousand or more singles, which makes stealing second more valuable. Those same restrictions should make turning double plays a bit easier, again giving teams reason to steal. If the pitch clock hampers the effectiveness of pitchers, that will add baserunners and, presumably, more singles and stolen base opportunities.

I don’t know that any of these changes, by themselves, is major. I can, though, without working too hard, tell a story that is a win for MLB: batting averages up, steals up, movement up, run scoring up. Everyone will fundamentally be the same players they were a year ago, but by hamstringing defenses and pitchers, the outcomes will be different. If MLB rolls the clock back to 2012 -- .255 batting average, more hits than strikeouts, 3200 stolen bases -- they’ll declare victory and get the hell out.

That’s a lot to ask with the same set of players. The hitters are all going to be trying to hit the ball hard and up, because that’s where the runs are. They will still be trading off contact to hit those hard line drives and fly balls. Pitchers, in turn, will still be trying to miss bats and, at least for one more season, exploiting umpires’ reliance on guesswork to get strikes on pitches outside the zone. They’ll be going at maximum effort because that’s how they have been trained. They’ll be returning from Driveline with three extra ticks on their fastball, and using Trackman and Rapsodo to craft ever more evil breaking stuff.

The 2023 changes are baseball trying to do everything in its power to change the game without without addressing the main issue: Pitchers are witches. We’re going to learn this year whether fiddling around the edges of the game is enough to even things out.

Hovering over all of this is the baseball. We had a rabbit ball in 2019, then perhaps a different one that postseason. We had two baseballs with different characteristics in play in 2021. We had at least two, maybe three, in use in 2022. It’s an article of faith to some that MLB will use a livelier ball in 2023 in an effort to juice offense and make it seem as if the changes are having an effect. The league has lost all credibility on the matter, so in addition to watching how gameplay changes in 2023, we’ll need to see how the performance of the baseball interacts with the rules changes.

Stepping back, there are three things I am going to be focused on once the season begins. Unlike many, I don’t think exhibition games will provide actionable information, so this experiment starts March 30.

1. Will pitchers stay healthy? I don’t care about violations and game times and soul-reading fan engagement from the press box. The pitch clock will live or die on whether MLB pitchers working at max effort to get MLB batters out and win MLB games can pitch at the required pace and stay upright. What happens when relievers start going three days out of four, or starters begin throwing 30-pitch innings? I won’t pretend to know the answer to that, beyond a general, “When pitchers pitch tired, they are more likely to get hurt.” It’s the single biggest factor in the future of the pitch clock.

That, by the way, is the last thing I’ll say about the pitch clock for a while. It’s clearly a fetish for some. Me, I don’t think anything matters until the games do.

2. How many hits are coming back? There were just shy of 28,000 singles in 2012, and 25,877 last year. (That was up from 2021’s floor of 25,006.) The rules restricting defensive positioning create an entitlement zone in short right field that should give back maybe half of those to left-handed batters. Singles are still going to be rare relative to the game’s history, but rolling their rate back to that of 2017-18 -- mid-26,000s -- could push the league batting average back over .250. Where the total number of singles fall in that range -- 25,000 to 28,000 -- will determine the success of the shift ban.

3. Can MLB thread the needle on stolen bases? The bases are less than five inches closer to each other, and pitchers can still make two pickoff throws per plate appearance, and pitcher/catcher combinations are still faster than ever at moving the ball from the mound to second base. Still, the combination of bigger bases and pickoff limits in the minors had a large effect. From Anthony Castrovince of

In 2022, with the mound disengagement limits, pitch timer and bigger bases imposed across the full-season Minor Leagues, the uptick in action on the basepaths continued:

Year SBA/G SB%

2022 2.81 78.0
2021 2.52 75.7
2019 2.23 68.2

MLB would like to generate more stolen bases, as they see that as something the fans want. Stolen bases are exciting when there’s drama as to whether the baserunner will beat the throw to the bag. Once we close in on an 80% success rate, that drama diminishes. There is a fine line between adding excitement and creating automatic doubles. The changes to the basestealing dynamic are the most interesting ones, because the range of possible outcomes is wide.

I can’t think of a parallel in the game’s history for what we’re seeing in 2023. There have been changes -- to the baseball, the strike zone, to the balk rule, to which players get to bat -- but never so many, all at once, out in the open. I disagree with some of the moves, not just on their merits but because it’s all a means of avoiding the real problem, the one between the mound and home plate. It’s my hope that whatever happens this year, success or failure, this willingness to change will be put to better use in years to come.