To paraphrase, without rules, there would be chaos. Well, except for those playing fantasy baseball, in which case the MLB rules being implemented this season are rendering player evaluation even more chaotic than usual. What follows is a review of the new rules and how we’re accounting for their likely effect on projections and rankings.
While not a new rule, MLB is instituting a more balanced schedule, mostly to level the playing field with the extra wild card added last season. Everyone will now play 13 games against divisional foes, six fewer than previously. Teams will match up six or seven times with everyone else within the same league. Lastly, interleague play now entails a series with every team in the other league, keeping the same home and home with one’s geographical (or otherwise determined) rival.
The main repercussion is pitchers in weaker divisions have fewer soft opponents while hurlers in divisions with strong offenses don’t have to face a potent lineup as frequently. Similarly, hitters may gain an advantage if the division was replete with superior pitching while other batters may suffer from facing fewer subpar arms.
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The caveat is quantifying the quality of hitting and pitching in each division is an impossible task, especially with so much player movement. Using last season’s numbers and adjusting for the new schedule raised or lowered some pitcher’s ERA between 0.10 and 0.15 units. This is enough to shuffle raw rankings and projected earnings a bit, but it is well with the variance intrinsic to projection and valuation theory.
No adjustment was made to the standard projection engine, but drafters should craft their own opinions with respect to where an advantage can be gleaned, and use that as a tiebreaker. For example, the offenses in the AL Central appear weak, so AL Central pitchers will face a tougher array of opponents. On the other hand, AL East and NL East pitchers should face a lighter schedule to which they are accustomed.
Starting in 2023, there must be two infielders on either side of the keystone, all with their cleats on the dirt of infield grass. There are no restrictions for outfielders. The Boston Red Sox have already taken advantage of that with Joey Gallo at the plate by moving their left fielder into the rover position in right field. Chances are, Boston was simply practicing the oddball alignment, but with the Green Monster closer than other outfield walls, ostensibly go without a left fielder and trust an infielder or center fielder to hustle into left and hold Gallo, or someone similar to a two-base hit.
With so much data available, it may seem possible to calculate an adjusted batting average if the shift were legislated last season. The problem is it is unclear where the defense would have set up and whether the approaches of the pitcher and batter would have differed. That is, we can logically identify the hitters most influenced by the shift, but quantifying is unfortunately speculation.
Looking at the big picture, the BABIP (batting average of balls in play) trend of the various types of batted balls, broken down by handedness, can be used to gauge the effectiveness of the shift. The group showing the steepest decline in BABIP (hence better defense) are left-handed hitters with a strong ground ball lean. Examples are Corey Seager, Juan Soto, Jesse Winker, and even though he’s a fly ball hitter, Gallo.
With respect to adjusting projections, Statcast has an expected hits metric which helps answer the question, “What would have happened with no shift?” Our projection methodology already regressed hits towards this number, so no further tweaks were needed.
The effect on pitchers won’t be felt, but right-handers inducing a lot of grounders could see their BABIP rise without the shift. An example is Sandy Alcantara. The Marlins infield defense is already suspect with Luis Arraez playing second base and Joey Wendle manning shortstop. As skilled a Alcantara is, he’s a strong candidate to see his ratios increase, so think twice before investing.
PITCH CLOCK, DISENGAGEMENTS FROM THE RUBBER and BIGGER BASES
The final three changes are lumped together since the chief consequence relates to stolen bases. There is some concern that select pitchers and hitters will require adjustment to get used to the pitch clock, but the expectation is for almost everyone to get accustomed to the change without affecting their performance.
- The pitch clock will influence the pace and rhythm of the game, which will have an indirect effect on stealing bases.
- The bases are now 15 inches per side, up from 12. This lessens the distance between first and second by 4 ½ inches, which may not seem like much, but with replay reviews, it could matter. Further, a runner is less likely to lose contact with the bag, not to mention having more area to touch the bag while evading the tag.
- Starting this season, pitchers can only disengage from the rubber twice during a plate appearance. This includes a pickoff attempt, or just stepping to force the runner back. A third disengagement is permitted, but if an out is not recorded, a balk is called, and all base runners advance.
This set of rules was tried in various forms in the minor leagues, with an estimated increase in steals of 30 percent. Considering most of the minor league players are younger, hence better equipped to run, assuming the same increase in MLB feels aggressive.
There isn’t a means to confidently project how much of an increase we’ll see in MLB, though 30 percent seems like the upper limit. For our projections, a 20 percent increase was assumed. However, it was not applied linearly. One extreme is not likely to increase their running, while the other probably doesn’t need the new advantage to be successful. Everyone differs on the extent of the middle group, but most agree the increase will be concentrated on this bubble of players.
Mathematically, if either end of the pool isn’t increasing their running, those that are need to be doing so at greater than the overall projected 20 percent clip. Intuitively, those in the middle of the group will benefit more than those adjacent to the bookends. Furthermore, those with a success rate a bit under 75 percent could benefit, since the rules bump up the rate a couple ticks, and 75 percent is considered the break even point for managers to give the green light.
All the above was handled algebraically in our projections, with the final outcome yielding about 500 more steals than last year.
Strategically, it’s still best to avoid the one (or two) category speedsters when assembling a roster. However, this season, you could land on a player with a big spike from their usual production by concentrating on players whose total is usually between 15 and 30, and/or have recorded a success rate between 70 and 75 percent. Reports of more running are often more noise than news, but this spring, they could have more credence. Examples will be included in the team capsules of the weekly newsletter.