With Spring Training underway, Major League Baseball is, for the first time, putting their new rules for the 2023 season into game action. There has been plenty of pushback early on from fans – and already some controversial moments – but for now, these rules are here to stay.
In case you aren’t familiar, Major League Baseball announced three new rule changes for the upcoming season: a pitch clock, shift restrictions, and bigger bases. Here’s more from MLB.com’s Anthony Castrovince:
1. Pitch timer: The length of games will still be determined by innings, not minutes. But to create a crisper pace, there will be a 30-second timer between batters and then a shorter time limit between pitches. Pitchers will be required to begin their motion 15 seconds after receiving the ball with the bases empty or 20 seconds after receiving the ball with runners on base. If they don’t, they will be charged with an automatic ball. Pitchers will also be limited to two disengagements from the mound (i.e. pickoff attempts or step-offs) per plate appearance with a runner on first. Batters, meanwhile, must be in the batter’s box and alert the pitcher by the 8-second mark on the clock or else be charged with an automatic strike.
2. Shift restrictions: The defensive team must have a minimum of four players on the infield, with at least two infielders completely on either side of second base. These restrictions are intended to increase the batting average on balls in play, and allow infielders to better showcase their athleticism with great defensive plays.
3. Bigger bases: First, second, and third have been expanded from 15 inches on each side to 18 inches on each side, while home plate remains unchanged. The primary reason why the bases are bigger is safety, giving fielders and runners more room to operate without colliding. But the slightly decreased distance between bases could help runners on stolen-base attempts and bang-bang plays.
With Spring Training games sitting around 2:30 to complete, it’s clear that at least one of the rules is making an impact. We’ve also seen all three rules both work in favor of and against the White Sox.
While it will likely take most of the season to get the full answer, how could these rules affect the White Sox in the long term throughout 2023?
Let’s break it down by each of the rules.
This rule’s impact will be all far more about how well pitchers adapt versus how well hitters adapt. We’ve already seen scenarios in which this plays to the benefit of the White Sox…
But also goes against them…
Early on, we’ve seen plenty of players across the league on both sides of the ball getting called for pitch clock violations – some in more important and game-changing situations than others. For MLB, it will be important that the pitch clock is not the decider of crucial moments in important games – that’s probably the easiest way for this rule to lose support.
That being said, with this rule already showing success both in Spring Training games as well as in MiLB games in terms of pace and time of the game, this rule is far more about how well pitchers and hitters are going to adjust to the rules than how effective the rules actually are. How will pitchers recover on a pitch-by-pitch basis when they have less time in between pitches? Will they tire more quickly, or will their stuff suffer later in games as a result of this rule? These are things that will be interesting to see at the major league level.
Statcast has a “Pitch Tempo” leaderboard that can help to identify players who are likely going to need to speed up their pace on the mound to comply with this rule. Here is the White Sox’ leaderboard for 2022:
So, relievers Joe Kelly and Reynaldo Lopez are two guys who are likely going to need to speed things up quite a bit on the mound. Liam Hendriks and Michael Kopech are also over that 15-second mark with the bases empty, though Lucas Giolito and Jose Ruiz are cutting it close. Perhaps as no surprise from last season, Johnny Cueto should have no issues in Miami – nor should Dylan Cease in Chicago, who had the best 2022 tempo among returning players that are expected to make the 2023 26-man roster.
In many ways, this rule calls back to the banned substance checks that occurred during the 2021 season. At the beginning of the enforcement period, things were going fine. However, pitchers quickly became pretty against the invasiveness of the checks – with Max Scherzer and Lance Lynn among those who caused the biggest scenes. At the end of the day, it made MLB look bad with star pitchers so visibly upset, and it led to a change in the rule in 2022 which saw the checks become a lot quicker and only involve checking the pitcher’s hands for a substance.
Could this same chain of events happen with a pitch clock? For fans, by mid-July, no one is really going to be paying attention to this rule – the pitch clock is just a new fascination that, like anything else, will fade as it becomes the norm. In that same vein, perhaps by mid-July, umpires won’t enforce the pitch clock to the same extent by mid-season – and, hopefully, never in the game’s key moments.
If the Jazz Chisholm incident last year is any preview of what the pitch clock will be like for hitters, it will be very interesting to see how hitters adapt to it. At the end of the day, the stars of baseball being visibly upset is not a good look for the player or for Major League Baseball, so they will likely look to avoid this whenever possible.
The Shift Limits
Ah yes, the shift. Some love it and others hate it. Personally, I enjoyed it. It brought a new way to play the game and a new strategy tool for both offense and defense. On defense, it was a skill to know how to shift – there were teams who were really good at it, and there were teams like the 2021 White Sox who just always seemed to be out of position.
However, the shift is a thing of the past now, and it can no longer be used to separate teams that were good at it and the teams that weren’t so good at it. This will be a game-changer for MLB, and offense will likely improve as more action will occur throughout the course of the game. Tom Verducci, who did research on this topic, mentioned two things that stood out:
- The MLB batting average should increase from .243 (the fifth-worst ever, and the worst in 54 years) to .255 (equaling the highest since 2011).
- Ground balls will go up, and strikeouts will go down, both slightly.
For the White Sox, Yoan Moncada, Yasmani Grandal, and Gavin Sheets are the three returning White Sox players who were greatly shifted upon during the 2022 season. Gavin Sheets saw shifts in 62% of his plate appearances, Moncada in 78% of his PAs from the left side (highest on the team), and Grandal in 76% of his PAs from the left side (second-highest). With AJ Pollock not returning, no other returning player was shifted upon in more than 20% of their plate appearances.
Here is the difference between those three players’ wOBA in plate appearances in which they were shifted upon and those in which they were not shifted upon.
As you can see pretty clearly, both Gavin Sheets and Yoan Moncada could see dramatic improvements in their game because of the shift restrictions, as both players saw higher wOBA values when they were not shifted upon than when they were. This isn’t necessarily a guarantee of improvement, but rather just a directional measure of the fact that Moncada and Sheets should see improved output. As for Grandal, well, it’s hard to judge much based on his 2022 season. However, looking at historical shift results, Grandal would also be expected to see an improved level of output.
To get a better understanding of just why the shift restrictions will be so helpful for these three hitters in particular, take a look at the defensive positioning for Moncada, Grandal, and Sheets throughout the 2022 season – both the second baseman and shortstop are routinely standing in places they are no longer allowed to stand. Hard ground balls – and even seeing-eye singles – are incredibly likely to find their way through the infield.
On the other side of the ball, the White Sox are now deploying the strategy of having two shortstops playing up the middle in Elvis Andrus and Tim Anderson. It will be interesting to see how Andrus adjusts to second base – but, now, it’s more clear than ever that second base will be considered a more important defensive position than offensive one in the coming years.
The Bases/New Pitching Rules
This rule change is one that Pedro Grifol has spent some time talking about, and it stands to reason that this rule could be the one that helps the White Sox as a whole the most. The bases are now bigger – from 15 inches to 18 inches. As a result, the base paths have been shortened by about 4.5 inches – which is not insignificant given the number of close plays that occur over the course of a baseball season. The White Sox are a team that is set up to use this to their advantage.
Last year the White Sox’ 58 stolen bases were ranked near the bottom of the league (24th). However, they were also only caught 10 times – which was the fewest in the league. This signals that the White Sox were incredibly risk-averse when stealing their bases, but also have the ability to steal at a high rate. The biggest concern for the White Sox in this area will be the health of their base stealers. Both Luis Robert and Tim Anderson struggled with injuries last season, which aids in their low stolen base totals. At the same time, only 11 stolen bases for Luis Robert is shockingly low, and it stands to reason that the team could have been more aggressive last year on the basepaths. With the bases being bigger, it also reduces the risk of injury via a player sliding into a fielder – which is how Robert found himself on the IL last year.
The other aspect of the likely increase in stolen bases this season is the fact that a pitcher can only throw over to first base twice in an at-bat. If the pitcher throws over a third time, he must get the runner out, or else a balk will be called. For pitchers, this might bring a new aspect in learning how to hold runners on and keep guys close. It may also allow base runners to be a bit riskier in their decision-making, trying to use this rule to their advantage to get bigger leads early in at-bats. Another point of emphasis will be the need for catchers and pitchers to consistently be on the same page with their plan of attack for base runners and when they find it most beneficial to throw over during an at-bat.
When all is said and done, look for stolen bases to be a focal point for the team this season, especially with the addition of known speedster and fan-favorite Billy Hamilton.
It is an exciting time of year, as baseball is right around the corner and Spring Training games are already underway. While the game we all love is changing right before our eyes, there are still many ways in which these rules can help the White Sox – and hopefully, the game as a whole. Regardless, it should be a fun year of baseball here on the South Side.
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Featured Image: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports