How MLB’s new rules are shaping the 2022-23 offseason and changing the art of team building
Well, you know who did? Those ever-attentive Pittsburgh Pirates. Obviously.
So the Pirates have already jumped out there this offseason and acquired both of those guys — Santana on a one-year free-agent deal, Choi in a trade with Tampa Bay. And unless you spend a lot of time hanging out at PNC Park, you’re probably not looking at those blockbusters as your two most fascinating moves of November 2022.
But if you’re not, you’re also missing something. So allow us to connect those dots.
Santana and Choi rank way up there on the list of hitters most impacted by the shift in 2022 when batting from the left side. And why is that relevant? Because guess what hit-gobbling defensive alignment is going away in 2023? Right. That would be the shift.
So it was no accident that when the Pirates announced the Santana signing last week, general manager Ben Cherington dropped a quick mention that he was one of the players teams have identified as a candidate to see “some benefit from the shift rules.”
But of course, the shift is only one of the new rules that are about to transform the sport in 2023. And let’s just say that all 30 teams have caught on. So as the Winter Meetings get rocking this week, we’re already beginning to see signs that the potential impact of those rules has affected how organizations will build their teams this offseason.
And what are those signs? What are those impacts? And how might it change roster construction? I’ve spent time looking into that, with fascinating input from front offices, coaching staffs and agents. So here’s a look at how the new rules are shaping the 2022-23 offseason.
The Shift, Part One (offense)
WHAT’S CHANGING: No more infielders roaming around the outfield, doing all their sneaky hit-burgling! … So all four infielders need to be positioned no deeper than the back edge of the infield dirt. … Four-man outfields are now illegal. … Two infielders are required to set up on each side of second base when the pitch is released. … And teams can’t even move their best defenders from one side of the infield to the other in the middle of an inning or game — unless there’s a substitution involving another infielder.
WHAT IT MIGHT MEAN: In retrospect, it’s incredible how much time we’ve all spent debating whether baseball had the right — or the need — to Kill The Shift. That debate has gone on for years, and gotten pretty vociferous at times. But now that it’s actually happening, the consensus among front offices I’ve surveyed is that it’s going to change the game soooo much less than you’d think.
“Relatively speaking, we think the benefit of no shifts will be fairly small,” said an executive of one data-driven team who was among those granted anonymity for this story so they could speak freely. “Even for the hitters it’s likely to help, I don’t think we’re talking 30 extra hits a year.”
“Not all groundballs are the same,” another exec said. “We’ve done the research, like every team has. And the guys who see the biggest benefit are guys like Kyle Schwarber, Anthony Rizzo; in other words, not that guy who hits it on the ground at 91 miles an hour. It’s the guy who hits it on the ground at 106 — hard enough to get it by infielders standing on the dirt.”
In the minor leagues last season, only about one more groundball out of every 20 made it through the right side in leagues that banned the shift. Yep, one out of 20. So why does this new rule even matter? Because everyone agrees it will at least change the landscape for a fairly small group of pull-heavy left-handed mashers, especially in the big leagues.
MOST SHIFTED PLAYERS, 2022 (Pct. of plate appearances facing shift)
Carlos Santana* — 98.3 percent
Niko Goodrum — 97.3 percent
Alex Dickerson — 97.2 percent
(*Does not include the switch-hitting Santana’s PA as a right-handed hitter)
LEFT-HANDED HITTERS WITH LOWEST AVERAGE ON PULLED GROUNDBALLS INTO SHIFT
(min. 50 batted balls versus shift)
Corey Seager — .051
Rougned Odor — .057
Anthony Rizzo — .066
Josh Naylor — .080
Ji-Man Choi — .080
(Source: Statcast / Baseball Savant)
FREE AGENTS IT MIGHT HELP: Well, this has already helped Rizzo, who was quickly re-signed by the Yankees for $40 million over two years. His .066 average, on pulled groundballs into the shift this year, tells only part of the story.
The Statcast data also showed Rizzo ranked fourth among all 2022-23 free agents in most “hard-hit” groundballs by left-handed hitters versus shifts. So he was on everyone’s Most Likely To Write A Thanks-For-The-Shift-Ban card to commissioner Rob Manfred.
But which remaining free agents could get a boost from seeing the shift disappear? Here’s your top three, via Statcast, in most pulled groundballs hit to the right side at 100 mph or harder in 2022, among still-unsigned free agents:
Brandon Nimmo — 22
David Peralta — 19
Josh Bell* — 16
(*as a left-handed hitter only)
(Source: Statcast / Baseball Savant)
The Shift, Part Two (run prevention)
WHAT’S CHANGING: See previous section.
WHAT IT MIGHT MEAN: As front offices constantly remind us, the end of the shift doesn’t merely change the way they evaluate hitters. We’re looking at two potentially significant impacts on the other side of the ball: one on ground-ball pitchers, the other on how it could affect which infielders teams are willing to run out there in the middle infield. Let’s take those one at a time.
You won’t find a slew of ground-ball-heavy starters on this free-agent market. But clubs are still trying to make sense of how killing the shift affects that group. When I asked one exec about how much this could hurt a pitcher who induces a ton of groundballs, he replied: “Maybe a little. I guess you could argue it could. But I’m not sure how much.”
And that, he said, is because he can envision teams being more inclined than ever to make infield lineup decisions based on who’s pitching that day: The best defenders play behind guys who throw the most groundballs. The best hitters play behind guys who throw the fewest.
Oh, I’m sure you’re thinking: Wait, hasn’t that happened forever? And that’s true. But now, when ground-ball pitchers take the mound, “you have to have good athletes on the dirt,” another exec said. “So I think you have to look at (middle infielders’) lateral quickness. The days of Mike Moustakas being able to play second (base), because of the shift — they’re over.
“I know some people in the game are looking at this and saying, ‘Oh my God, we shouldn’t have to do this.’ But I actually think that’s kind of funny. All we’re doing is going back to what we did in the game for like 100 years. But (because of the data), there will be a lot more shading than in the past. We’re not going back to four-dots-on-the-infield kind of baseball.”
FREE AGENTS IT MIGHT HELP: You might think this change is right in the wheelhouse of swing-and-miss pitchers everywhere — except they didn’t need any help! Meanwhile, if teams were so afraid of ground-ball pitchers, explain this:
• Which free-agent starter had the highest ground-ball rate on the market this winter? That would be Texas’ Martín Pérez (51.6 ground-ball percentage).
• And which free-agent starter was the first to get a contract? That very same Martín Pérez — who was tendered (and accepted) the $19.6 million qualifying offer by the Rangers in November.
So that seems to bode well for fellow ground-ball types Chris Bassitt, José Quintana and Jameson Taillon. But stay tuned.
What’s harder to project is which middle infielders this is likely to help (and hurt). Shifts have made metrics like “range factor” highly misleading. So we turned to FanGraphs’ “Speed Factor” ratings to see if that helped us identify the most athletic middle infielders on the market.
Shocker alert! Trea Turner (6.4) was miles ahead of this field. To find the next-best marquee free-agent shortstop in that category, you had to drop the bar all the way to 4.8, for Dansby Swanson. Then came Xander Bogaerts at 3.5 — and Carlos Correa, at a seemingly misleading 1.7.
But on the newest edition of our Starkville podcast, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts told Doug Glanville and me: “Having a guy that has the arm strength to play shortstop — that’s going to really show itself” now that he’ll have to cover so much more ground against right-handed hitters. Important point!
So who ranks at the top of that arm-strength class? That would be Correa (average top velocity: 88.0 mph, per Statcast). I’m guessing that will come up!
The pitch clock
WHAT’S CHANGING: What a world. The tradition-laden sport of baseball — aka, The Game Without A Clock — is about to get a clock! Starting next year, pitchers have just 15 seconds to deliver a pitch with nobody on base and 20 seconds with runners on. … And hitters have to be in the box and “alert to the pitcher” with eight seconds left on the timer. … So if there’s a violation by the pitcher, the umpire can call a ball — even if it’s ball four with the bases loaded. … If there’s a violation by the hitter, the umpire can call a strike — even if it’s strike three, with two outs and the tying run on third base. And won’t that keep the talk-show business alive!
WHAT IT MIGHT MEAN: I know this is a column about the rules and roster construction. But bear with us one second. If we just focus on what the pitch timer might mean for free agents, we’re in danger of missing the whole point of this clock. So let’s start there, OK?
“If we’re talking about the impact on the game as entertainment,” said one exec, “I actually think we’re going to feel the impact of the clock much more than the shift. I’ve watched a lot of games in the minor leagues. And with no shift, I mean, you kind of notice it if you really think about it. But it’s more subtle than you’d expect. But with the pitch clock, it’s a totally different game. And everyone notices that.”
I’m so glad he mentioned that. We all know there will be a day in April when, say, umpire Angel Hernandez calls out Mike Trout for not being “alert to the pitcher” on time. And I’ll predict that nobody will be talking that night about how crisp the rhythm was in that game.
But it’s important we remember why this clock exists. And in the long run, this will be a more watchable sport because of those 20 minutes of dead time the clock cuts out of the average game. Got it? Great. Now back to how this rule could affect team building.
Maybe we should begin by checking the list of the game’s slowest-working pitchers, because every team has dug into it this winter. If you check that list yourself, you may notice something.
“If you look at that leaderboard of most time between pitches,” said one exec, “it’s mostly a lot of old closers.”
Ya think? Here’s a sampling.
MOST SECONDS PER PITCH, BIG-NAME FREE AGENTS
|PITCHER||MEN ON BASE||NONE ON|
(Source: Statcast / Baseball Savant)
Whoa. So clearly, guys like that have some serious adjusting to do. But don’t forget this: So do the hitters! Wish lots of luck to Christian Vázquez (27.0 seconds per pitch with men on base/22.8 seconds per with none on) and J.D. Martinez (25.8/22.0), among many others.
FREE AGENTS IT MIGHT HELP: There is such a long list of pitchers and hitters who won’t have any issues with the pitch clock, we’re not even going to start down that road. What’s more interesting is whether the timer might actually hurt the market for pitchers such as Kenley Jansen and Craig Kimbrel, who have to completely overhaul their leisurely tempo. So I asked that very question to baseball people who view it from three different vantage points.
From Dave Roberts (on Starkville): “I don’t think it’s going to be as difficult as people might think. Kenley and Craig are certainly extreme. But you know, players are adaptable. So once you kind of put it in and play by the rules, they’ll adjust.”
From a National League exec: “I don’t think this has any impact on guys’ markets. Do I think it will impact some guys? Yes. But if you told me Jansen won’t feel any impact, that he’ll just speed up and figure it out, that wouldn’t surprise me. I don’t think you don’t sign Kenley Jansen because you’re worried about the pitch clock.”
From an agent of a free-agent pitcher on the Slowest Workers list: “Do teams bring it up? Sure. It comes up. But no one approaches it as alarming. I’ve heard it enough to know it’s on teams’ minds, but not in a way that seems like it would be any kind of impediment. I think what most people feel is, it might take certain guys two or three weeks to adjust, but they’ll get there, because that’s what players do: They adjust.”
Larger bases and pickoff limits
WHAT’S CHANGING: What? Baseball is changing the size of the bases? Yeah, it is. After decades of bases that were 15 inches square, the 2023 bases will be 18 inches square. Why do we care? Because second base now will be 4 1/2 inches closer to both first and third base than it used to be. You’ll never notice — but the base-stealers of Planet Baseball will. … And that’s not all they’ll be wired into. In a related development, the pitch-clock rule will also help base-stealers. How? Because the pitcher can stop the clock only twice by stepping off or making a pickoff throw. After that, it’s an automatic balk — unless he throws over a third time and the runner is out. … So imagine the size of the leads after that second pickoff attempt. What’s the over/under? Thirty feet?
WHAT IT MIGHT MEAN: Wouldn’t it be awesome if the stolen base became A Thing again? Well, unless everyone is wrong, that’s about to occur. Check out how these rule changes affected base-stealing in the minor leagues in 2022. It’s wild.
STOLEN-BASE ATTEMPTS PER GAME
Minor leagues — 2.83
Major leagues — 1.36
Let’s explain what those numbers really mean: If major-league players start trying to swipe bases at the same clip we saw in the minor leagues in 2022, it would give us a stolen-base attempt rate we haven’t seen in the major leagues in over 100 years.
Now, that’ll never happen. But here’s what is going to happen: If you’re a free agent and you can fly, you’re never going to look more attractive to some teams than you’ll look this winter.
If you don’t think clubs like the Rays, Guardians and Royals are already plotting how they can take advantage of these changes to steal 200 bases and apply relentless pressure on the defense, you’re not paying attention. And what’ll make that possible? Fast guys!
FREE AGENTS IT MIGHT HELP: There’s only one Terrance Gore out there. But face it. Has he ever been more employable? Has anybody who’s even remotely like him?
The ability to use speed hasn’t been this valuable since Whitey Herzog stopped managing. So which prominent free agents show up on the Statcast sprint speed leaderboard? Here are the biggest names:
|PLAYER||AVERAGE SPRINT SPEED|
(Source: Statcast / Baseball Savant)
But it’s not just them. Here are a few of the free-agent role-player types who hang out on that same leaderboard:
|PLAYER||AVERAGE SPRINT SPEED|
(Source: Statcast / Baseball Savant)
Would you believe that exactly five players in the whole sport stole 30 bases or more this season? Or that Jon Berti (Marlins) and Jorge Mateo (Orioles) were your league leaders? Totally true. And “how many bar bets could you win,” mused one exec, “if you asked your friends if they could name those two guys?”
But now it doesn’t take much imagination to see all of that changing dramatically once teams figure out how to take advantage of these rules. And you’d be amazed by how much time clubs are spending this offseason trying to quantify the new value of speed.
“I’m very interested in the base-running impact of the pitch clock and the bigger bases,” one exec said. “You know, historically, the difference between the most valuable base runner in the game and the least valuable base runner has been narrower than that gap in pretty much any other skill. The difference between the best and worst defenders has been way bigger, for example. But I wonder if we’ll see a larger range of base-running variance than we’ve seen in the past. We’re going to find out.”
OTHER FREE AGENTS IT MIGHT HELP (BONUS CATCHER ADDENDUM) — Hey, there’s one more thing we need to mention. When teams aren’t busy studying those sprint-speed spreadsheets, they’re brainstorming one other aspect of these changes:
How the heck can they control the running game under these conditions?
There’s a lot being studied we won’t go into here. But there is one other group of players that figures to be directly affected:
“This makes catcher throwing more important than it’s ever been,” one exec said.
So which available catchers might benefit on that front? Well, it’s a great reason to call the A’s about trading for Sean Murphy, whose 1.89 second pop time on throws to second base ranked second to only J.T. Realmuto this year.
But if that doesn’t work out, here are the free-agent catchers with the best pop times. Don’t you wonder how much arm strength factors into their 2023 employability? We do!
Jorge Alfaro — 1.89 seconds
Gary Sanchez — 1.93
Christian Vázquez — 1.94
Austin Hedges — 1.95
(Source: Statcast / Baseball Savant)
The whole combo rule-change platter
WHAT’S CHANGING: C’mon, pay attention out there. What do you think we’ve been recapping for you in this opus? But let’s recap: The shift is dead! … It’s Pitch Clock Szn! … Bigger bases! … Pickoff limits! … The game hasn’t been hit by a change this dramatic since … well, when? … the DH rule? The dawn of replay? Whatever, it all matters.
WHAT IT MIGHT MEAN: I tried my best in this piece to keep it simple. But in truth, the more teams look at these changes, “simple” is the last word they’d use to describe the challenge of trying to get a read on them before they see them.
“Every team has its own models — and more than one,” one exec said. “But I don’t think any of us truly know, because there are human beings playing. And they change. They adjust. And they’re not the same every year.
“But also,” he went on, “there’s more than one rule coming, and they’ll all interact with each other. So we can’t say the pitch clock and the ban on shifts have nothing to do with each other. Everything has an effect on everything else.”
FREE AGENTS IT MIGHT HELP: So on that note, we began the search for a free agent who was slightly off the radar screen — yet potentially could be helped by every one of these rule changes. There were multiple choices. But here’s my surprise nomination:
Yeah, he’s coming off a tough year. He hit .144/.217/.249 in 225 plate appearances for the Rays and Orioles. He got designated for assignment by Tampa Bay, then was traded to the Orioles for cash, then found himself back in Triple A (where he did have a 1.063 OPS in 25 games for Norfolk). But let’s think about how these changes could affect someone like him.
No more shifts (offense) — His .145 average versus shifts was the lowest of any free-agent hitter this year. So who will miss that third infielder on the right side less than him?
No more shifts (defense) — We’re still talking about an elite defender, whose 11 Outs Above Average were tied for the fifth most of any outfielder in MLB. Statcast also ranked Phillips No. 2 among all outfielders in the majors on its Best Jumps leaderboard. And have we mentioned that up-the-middle athleticism has never had more defensive value than it’ll have in 2023?
Larger bases/pickoff limits — Remember that section on the value of speed? Put another check in Phillips’ column. His average sprint speed was 28.9 feet per second, which is well above the major-league average of 27. And his average home-to-first time was 4.15 seconds, which placed him in a group with guys like Trea Turner (4.14), Bobby Witt Jr. (4.14) and Byron Buxton (4.16), all of whom rank in the top 22 in baseball.
So there you go. Good choice, right? Are these new rules going to help Brett Phillips get paid more than Aaron Judge? Let’s go with no! But are they enough reasons for teams to look beyond his 2022 numbers? Let’s go with yes.
“Now,” said one exec, without talking specifically about Phillips, “you look at guys like this and ask if maybe they could do enough on defense and on the bases to be an everyday player, even without much offensive value at all. You’re thinking, even if he doesn’t hit much, maybe you get half a win or three-quarters of a win (above replacement) just from base running, in addition to the defense, and all of a sudden, you’ve got a pretty valuable player.”
So watch closely as this winter rolls along. I guarantee you’ll see some entries in the transactions column you did not see coming, as a few cutting-edge teams roll out a series of assorted free-agent lab experiments to see if they’ve got these changes figured out.
And then, one exec said with a laugh, “you’ll see a bunch of copy-catting,” just in case those teams are right. But does any team truly think it has the answers here in the first week of December, as it rocks into Winter Meetings action?
“It’s just so hard to predict,” one NL exec said. “But we’re going to find out.”
(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; Photo of Trea Turner: Getty Images; Photo of the shift: Associated Press)
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