Remaking rosters for a changing game
By James Wagner
Beginning next season, the way the game is played and looks in Major League Baseball will be noticeably different. In the hopes of injecting more action, shaving time off games and reducing injuries, MLB will, for the time, introduce a pitch clock, ban defensive infield shifts and enlarge the bases.
As front offices reshape their rosters for 2023 — free agency began in earnest Thursday — they are weighing the new rules and trying to figure out how they could affect players.
Will teams with more speed become more potent offensively? Will players who had potential hits robbed often by extreme shifts become more valuable? Will defenders who can cover a lot of ground become more coveted? Will fireballers who need a lot of time in between pitches suddenly lose a bit of velocity?
“Major League Baseball players are capable of making very quick adjustments,” said Texas general manager Chris Young, who pitched for 13 seasons in the majors.
“They’re great athletes and they make adjustments,” he continued. “So I’m confident that most major leaguers can adjust to the rule changes. That said, it is something we factor in and we’ll consider. I don’t think it’s going to sway our opinion from one extreme to the other in terms of liking a player to not liking a player.”
Other presidents of baseball operations and general managers at MLB’s annual general managers’ meetings last week echoed similar sentiments: The new rules may not nix their interest in a certain player, but the executives certainly have to account for how they might alter on-field performances.
“You have to make adjustments,” said Dave Dombrowski, the president of baseball operations of the Philadelphia Phillies, whose team lost to the Houston Astros in the World Series this month.
As part of the collective bargaining agreement between MLB’s team owners and its players’ union, the sides agreed to an 11-person committee, controlled by MLB, that would tackle rules changes. For 2023, the players voted against banning shifts and adding a pitch clock, but the vote on changing the base size passed unanimously.
The defensive shift, in which infielders position themselves based on an opposing batter’s tendencies, was the darling of analytically inclined front offices and became a near constant strategy employed by almost every team. But the extreme proliferation of it led to a game in which batting averages plummeted and hitters, frustrated by facing alignments with three infielders stacked on one side — and even some with four outfielders — began trying more and more to smash the ball over the outfield fences. The batting average in MLB in 2022 was .243, the lowest since 1968, according to Baseball Reference.
Beginning next season, two infielders must be positioned on each side of second base when a pitch is released. All four infielders must have their feet positioned in the infield cutout in front of the outfield grass.
Dombrowski said this new rule would somewhat affect how he builds a roster but he added that he didn’t shy away from players who were hurt by the shift before, pointing to the four-year, $79 million contract the Phillies gave left-handed slugger Kyle Schwarber in March. Although he hit .218 last season, Schwarber was a valuable hitter because he clobbered a National League-leading 46 homers and drove in 94 runs. He has never hit for a high average in the majors, but his production could creep up next season.
Where the shift will also be a factor, Dombrowski said, is with middle infielders. The shift allowed some teams to hide the deficiencies of a less skilled infielder because he or his surrounding teammates could be positioned in a way to help, said Derek Falvey, the Minnesota Twins’ president of baseball operations. That soon may change.
“We saw over the last few years that some teams even traded for players that hadn’t played second before and put them there,” he said. “Your eyes get big and you’re like, ‘Oooh, that could be a little dangerous.’ But then you realize, well, with the shift, with the ability to maybe duck it away, maybe sometimes throw the third baseman over into that deep second base position and then kind of hide the range factor there a little bit, you could get the combinations. Now I think you’re stuck with what you got. So you’re going to have to have that range.”
Miami Marlins general manager Kim Ng pointed to her second baseman, Jazz Chisholm Jr., as an example of a defender whom fans will “get to see his skill a little more.” In other words, more athleticism and perhaps more highlight-reel plays on defense.
As for the bases, they will increase in size to 18 inches square from 15 inches in hopes of protecting players — the chances of a first baseman having his foot stepped on should decrease. As an added benefit, the bigger bases could encourage more stolen bases and hits. In 2022, MLB teams averaged 0.51 stolen bases per game, according to Baseball Reference, a rate that has trended down for decades thanks largely to teams deciding the risk is not worth the reward.
Ng said the bigger bags might benefit a team like hers, which has several players with speed, such as Chisholm, Jon Berti, and Joey Wendle. Not only could it net them a few extra stolen bases, she said, but it could lead to more infield hits over 162 games or players successfully breaking up more double plays.
“I don’t know if it would affect per se the way that I could build a club, although it might put more of a premium on speed,” Dombrowski said. Hitting home runs and striking out little, after all, not speed, has been used successfully by the Astros to win.
The pitch clock, Ng said, is “going to be a huge adjustment for everybody, from our defense to pitchers, offense, coaches, manager.” She added later about any potential impact across the sport, “The good part if it does, it’s going to happen to everybody.”
In 2023, the pitch clock will be set to 15 seconds between pitches when the bases are empty, and it will count down from 20 seconds with at least one runner on base, with an automatic ball call issued if time expires. MLB found that its implementation of a pitch clock in the minor leagues last season reduced the average time of games by 25 minutes, to roughly 2 hours, 38 minutes.
But it remained to be seen, some executives said, whether that will hurt pitchers’ performance. As velocity has increased in MLB — the average four-seam fastball was at a record 94 mph in 2022 — so has the time in between pitches. Throwing hard takes a fair amount of energy, and maximum-effort pitchers need a few more seconds to regroup in between pitches.
“I don’t think the impact of cutting it down by a few seconds between pitches in the ninth inning for a guy that is throwing 20 pitches is going to be the difference,” Falvey said. “For a starting pitcher, maybe. For a guy who is going to be a little bit more deliberate between pitches, I can see that.”
(With a pitch clock in the minor leagues last season, MLB found that injury rates dropped and velocity was flat.)
Dombrowski pointed out that younger pitchers who were in the minor leagues last year have already adapted to a shortened time in between pitches. But for the max-effort major leaguers who work slowly, he said, “they’re going to have to make an adjustment.”
He added, “I assume they’ll be able to, but it might mess some of them up, there’s no doubt about that.”