We have reached the second half of spring training. Every MLB team reached the midpoint of its spring exhibition schedule this past weekend and Opening Day is two weeks and three days away. Spring training games are fun in their own way, though the novelty wears off after a while. I think we're all craving meaningful MLB action. It's not far away. Hang tight.
The 2023 season will be a landmark season for Major League Baseball. There's a new schedule format, one in which every team will play every other team at least once, plus several new rules will be implemented. Here is everything you need to know about the new rules and here's a quick primer:
- Pitch timer: 15 seconds with the bases empty and 20 seconds with runners on base
- Limit on extreme shifts: Two infielders on each side of second base with both feet on the dirt or infield grass.
- Larger bases: 18 inches by 18 inches instead of 15 inches by 15 inches.
The goal is to improve the pace of play and to make more stuff happen on the field. More hits, more aggressive baserunning, more opportunities for the world's best players to showcase their athleticism. The rise of three true outcomes baseball (walks, strikeouts, home runs) has led to longer games with less action. It was time for MLB to intervene, hence the new rules.
With the spring schedule halfway complete and Opening Day less than three weeks away, let's check in on the new rules and how they've impacted the game this spring, shall we?
Where has the pitch timer been all my life? I knew I would love it just from watching the minors the last few years, and I love it even more than I thought it would. The timer keeps the game moving and cuts down on dead time between pitches. There's much less standing around while the batter adjusts his batting gloves, the pitcher catches his breath, etc. The flow of the game is greatly improved.
The primary objective of the pitch timer is cutting down on the dead time between pitches, and a byproduct of that is shorter games. Spring training games averaged 3:00 (three hours) in 2021 and 3:01 in 2022. Through the weekend, they're averaging 2:36 (two hours and 36 minutes) this spring. The 25-minute improvement is in line with the 21-minute improvement at Triple-A last season. Spring training time of game data goes back to 2006 and 2:36 this year is the lowest on record. The previous low is 2:40 in 2006.
The neat thing about this spring is the World Baseball Classic serves as a control group. The WBC is not using the pitch timer and those games have averaged 3:23 through Saturday. USA's opener against Great Britain featured eight runs, 25 baserunners, and seven pitching changes, and went 2:54. That day the Blue Jays vs. Orioles played a game with 14 runs, 26 baserunners, and 12 pitching changes. That one lasted only 2:43. The lack of a pitch timer in WBC games is noticeable.
Last season MLB games averaged 3:03 per nine innings, the lowest since 3:00 in 2018 and down from the record high of 3:11 in 2021. MLB games have not averaged under 2:50 per nine innings since 2006, and it has not been as low since 2:45 since 1989. There's a real chance it happens this year. The priority is reducing dead time between pitches, but shorter games is a benefit. We're getting the same nine-innings of baseball in less time.
According to ESPN, there were 1.89 pitch timer violations per game in the first week of spring games. It was 1.41 the second week and 1.17 the third week. Last year in Triple-A there were roughly two violations per game the first two weeks, and a month into the season players had whittled that down to one violation every other game. There was, of course, a game-ending automatic strike during the spring's first weekend. Surely you remember this:
It's a good thing that happened! Let the players learn the rules in spring training, the hard way if necessary, so they are prepared once games that count begin. The entirety of the history of baseball tells us that if you give players time to adjust to a new rule, they will. Pitch timer violations are gradually declining this spring and they'll continue to decline. There may come a time to adjust the pitch timer rules. Now is not that time. Let the new rules breath a bit.
Three weeks into spring training, the pitch timer is working exactly as intended. Games have a better flow, which is not something we can measure but is something we can see and feel, and the decline in violations tella us players are adjusting. As an added bonus, games aren't quite as long, giving us more time to do literally anything else with our lives.
More balls in play are going for hits
The limit on extreme shifts is a tough nut to crack. How much will it up offense and the league batting average? I don't think anyone knows the answer to that question. Yankees first baseman Anthony Rizzo is one of the most shifted hitters in the game. He hit .222 in 2020, .248 in 2021, and .224 in 2022. If he hits, say, .245 in 2023, it is because the shift helped him? Or is that just the annual ebbs and flows of batting average like his 2020-22 numbers?
For an individual player, it might be difficult to determine how much the limit on extreme shifts is helping, if at all. But on a league-wide level, we should -- should -- be able to pick up on the impact of the new rules. Ignoring the bizarre 2020 pandemic season, here is the league batting average on balls in play this spring compared to the last few springs and regular seasons:
|Spring BABIP||Regular season BABIP|
Not including 2020, spring training BABIP held steady from 2018-22. The decline in BABIP from spring training to the regular season is typically in the 25-30 point range, and if that holds true this year, the league has a chance at its first .300 BABIP since 2017. This does not mean the league will hit .300. We're only talking about the batting average on balls in play here. Strikeouts and home runs (home runs aren't in play in the sense that the defense can make a play on them) are removed, which is why actual batting average is always lower than BABIP.
Anyway, yes, more balls in play are going for hits this spring. It's not a ton more -- the eight-point increase in BABIP from last spring is one additional hit every 125 balls in play, or one every 5-6 games -- but it is more. Mariners outfielder Jarred Kelenic saw the shift in 86.7% of his plate appearances last year, one of the highest rates in baseball. You think he likes the new rules?
It's important to note the new rules are a limit on extreme shifts, not an outright ban. The rules say teams must have two infielders on each side of second base, and their feet must be on the dirt or infield grass when the pitch is released. Outfielders can play anywhere, however, and teams are already toying with an outfielder in shallow right. Here's an outfield alignment the Yankees used against Cardinals infielder Nolan Gorman, a pull-heavy lefty, last week:
Check out this legal defensive shift from the #Yankees with Nolan Gorman hitting and Clay Holmes on the mound.— Max Goodman (@MaxTGoodman) March 8, 2023
That’s center fielder Oswaldo Cabrera in shallow right field with right fielder Estevan Florial shaded toward center. pic.twitter.com/CH7UkHz0d2
One outfielder in shallow right, one in right-center, and one in left-center. Center field is wide open and that's the gamble, that the hitter is more likely to pull the ball into the makeshift shift than find center field. Get burned with a traditional infield shift and you're most likely giving up a single. Get burned with the Gorman shift above and we're talking extra bases, guaranteed. It's a big risk. I'm not sure how often teams will take that risk, but we're already seeing it in spring training. They're willing to at least try it.
"It's something we'd definitely consider in certain situations," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said about the Gorman shift following the game (per the New York Post).
For now, the league BABIP this spring is a few points higher than the last few springs. The limit on extreme shifts very likely contributes to that. It might even be the sole reason. We're still in fact-finding mode though. We need more data before we can begin to make real conclusions about the impact of the new rules. The early returns suggest that yes, we'll see some more hits, and that's a good thing overall. More hits equals more offense, and more offense equals more exciting baseball.
Stolen bases are way up
As expected, stolen bases and stolen base attempts are up significantly thanks to the limit on disengagements and the larger bases. Pitchers now get only two disengagements (pickoff throw or step off) per plate appearance. If they disengage a third time, an out must be recorded on the play, otherwise it is a balk. That, plus the (slightly) shorter distance between bases, makes it a little easier to steal bases. And that was the goal. Stolen bases are exciting and MLB wants more action.
Again ignoring the bizarre 2020 season, here are the stolen base numbers this spring compared to the last few springs and regular seasons:
|Spring SB attempts per game||Spring SB success rate||Reg. season SB attempts per game||Reg. season SB success rate|
With the exception of 2022, which had an unusual truncated spring because of the owners' lockout, the spring training stolen base attempt rate has typically been 25% to 30% higher than the regular season stolen base attempt rate the last few years. If that holds true this year, the regular season stolen base attempt rate will be in the 0.88 per game range. That would be the highest since 2012.
Stolen base attempts typically decrease from spring training to the regular season but the stolen base success rate increases, and we can chalk that up to the player pool. The talent pool is so diverse in spring training. A hitter might face a Cy Young contender in his first at-bat and a Single-A kid in his second. You have veterans going through the motions and youngsters trying to win a job on the same field. Look at the players who have attempted the most steals this spring entering play Sunday:
- Zac Veen, Rockies: 7 for 8
- Tim Lopes, Padres: 6 for 6
- Will Benson, Reds: 5 for 6
- Pete Crow-Armstrong, Cubs: 4 for 6
- Justin Dean, Braves: 5 for 5
- David Hamilton, Red Sox: 5 for 5
- Tim Locastro, Mets: 5 for 5
- Richie Martin, Reds: 5 for 5
- Forrest Wall, Braves: 5 for 5
Those are the only nine players who have attempted at least five steals this spring. You have four prospects looking to impress (Benson, Crow-Armstrong, Hamilton, Veen) and five journeymen trying to show they deserve a roster spot (Dean, Locastro, Lopes, Martin, Wall). It's not the guys locked into Opening Day big-league roster spots who are running up stolen base totals this spring. It's the guys trying to win a job.
That all said, yes, stolen base attempts and the stolen base success rate are up this spring, which is exactly what MLB intended with the rule changes. A point exists where there are too many stolen bases, but we are nowhere near that point. This spring suggests we are likely to see stolen bases in the regular season at a rate along the lines of the 2000s, not the 1980s.