by Paul West
It’s only a few days into spring training, and Major League Baseball’s new rules are already wreaking minor havoc. Clock violations have already called, one of them ending a game with the bases loaded and the score 6-6. The stated reasoning was headlined by ‘pace of play,’ but the total effect will likely be something else: a recalibration of the battle between offense and defense. This might be the biggest structural boost given to MLB scoring since the pitching mound was lowered in 1968. Let’s examine.
Larger bases will shorten the distance between bases; the first thing people are saying is it will increase stolen bases, but analytics and other factors might still make some managers and front offices hesitant to risk outs (the decrease in sacrifice bunting follows similar logic). But one other effect is beyond dispute: it will lead to baserunners making it successfully from base to base at a higher clip, whether it’s home to first or first to third or tagging up to score. Infield singles will increase, as a lot of plays that used to end with ‘out by a step’ will now be ‘safe by a step.’ It be a less risky gamble to take extra bases: stretch a single to a double, score from first on a double, go from first to third on a single. This will lead to more traffic on the bases, and have an animating effect on the action on the bases overall.
The old saying is, ‘people are creatures of habit.’ Many pitchers are creatures of not just habit, but routine and extreme deliberation. When pitchers are stressed, by hitters’ counts or the aforementioned increased traffic on the bases, they often step off the mound to gather themselves; the new pitch clock will mean some–obviously not all–pitchers will feel rushed. Rushed pitchers often find it harder to be effective, which could lead to more walks and hits…and traffic on the bases. Of course, there are situations and matchups where the clock will favor the pitcher; there are hitters who are famously deliberate at the plate, and fast-working pitchers like Max Scherzer will find it to their advantage (he’s already said as much) to dictate the tempo of at-bats and keep hitters off balance. But overall, pitchers having to execute under time duress when they aren’t used to doing so will lead to more missed pitches and hung pitches than before. Fortunately for fans of pitching, this effect should level off as players gradually acclimate and future generations learn the game with the pitch clock in effect.
Another thing that will facilitate baserunning is the limitation of pickoff moves. When a pitcher can only check on a runner a couple of times, elite base stealers will be able to take more liberties once a pitcher has run out of pickoffs. This will also translate to bigger leads on the pitch, even for runners who don’t steal bases…which will make it easier to take extra bases on balls in play. A runner with a bigger lead is harder to double up on a medium-speed grounder, and will be a step or two closer to scoring from first on a double, facilitated by shorter distances from base to base (see above).
This might have the biggest effect of all the rule changes, and it’s also the one that’s most overdue. Defensive shifting is an important part of defensive strategy in any field sport, but it had gotten to the point where it was distorting the essential nature of the game. Blistering line drives, in which the hitter had effectively won the at-bat, were roaring into tightly gathered assemblies of defenders who were sometimes nowhere near their stated defensive positions, and the result was twofold: all but a small percentage of hitters were making outs on balls that were likely hits at almost every level of play in most forms of baseball or softball; and hitters and coaches were getting frustrated and distorting their swings and approaches to ‘hit over the shift,’ exacerbating the increasing problem of limited-outcome hitting (which we’ll get to in a minute). Just as most field sports employ defensive shifts as a necessary element of strategy, most field sports have some sort of ‘illegal defense’ rule whereby defenses can’t completely distort the game’s positions to unfairly limit avenues to offensive success. With shifts regulated to within reason, line drives in the gap will once again be likely extra-base hits; this will especially be true for lefties.
Something Had To Be Done
The thing is, despite legitimate questions about some of the new rules, something had to be done about the state of offense in the game. In 2009, no MLB team collectively hit less than .240; the next year, the number jumped to one, and the year after that it was two. It bounced up and down between zero and five for a few years, and in 2018 it was eight. Then it was eleven, twelve, and fourteen. A few concurrent trends have contributed to the problem.
All over the sports world, people have gotten bigger, stronger, and faster while sports science and knowledge of training methods and biomechanics have continued to advance. Limits of past generations have become present-day norms. NFL tight ends are the size of offensive tackles or NBA power forwards, and run routes in ways people used to think only players half their size could run. As recently as the 1990s, a 90mph fastball was considered impressive and over 95 was elite; now, there are high schoolers throwing almost 90 and a multitude of pitchers throw between 95 and 100 (granted, this is in part due to changes in how fastball velocities are measured). An average fastball is harder to catch up with than ever, and more pitchers have what are considered ‘wipeout’ secondary pitches.
Bullpen Depth & Usage
On top of the proliferation of hard throwers and hard-breaking sliders, hitters have to contend with more varied pitching arsenals over the course of a single game than ever before. This is due to two main reasons: pitcher health and analytics. With more pitchers throwing harder, at maximum effort, and closer to their physical limitations, more pitchers’ arms are wearing out and breaking down. This has necessitated shortening the outings of max-effort pitchers with wipeout stuff, meaning hitters might have fewer at-bats to adjust to that day’s starter. Additionally, analytics have taught managers and front offices to tell which pitchers tend to struggle after the second or even first time through a batting order (to be fair, it’s not a new phenomenon that some struggle multiple times through an order)–so pitchers are pulled before their numbers indicate they’re likely to run into trouble (how often this is done prematurely, and the extent to which this hampers the durability of some pitchers, is a florid tangent on its own). The aforementioned proliferation of power arms means that more managers can throw a parade of high-powered arms at opposing hitters, giving them less time to acclimate to a single pitcher and helping batting averages plummet.
Another problem is the increased use of the ‘launch angle’ approach to hitting. This is somewhat the result of an analytics-based approach that says it’s worth the risk for certain hitters to sell out for power, and somewhat the result of, the aforementioned ‘hit over the shift’ mentality. With shifts no longer distorting defenses ad absurdum, the latter motivation should stabilize and more people should go back to a line-drive approach.
Increased Athleticism Of Fielders
There are now half a dozen players at any given position who can make throws, catches, or defensive stops that were show-stoppers just a couple of generations ago. Nolan Arenado and Manny Machado are among many players who make jaw-dropping throws from third, and more and more outfielders have the kind of range and athleticism you once only saw in the top tier. This leaves less available space for batted balls to find.
What Can We Expect From This MLB Season?
It won’t all happen at once, but along with the preseason’s speedier pace of play we’re likely to see more scoring. It will be the aggregate effect of time-anxious pitchers, emboldened baserunners, and hitters freed from the effects of slow-pitch softball shifts. There will be pitfalls–the pitch clock might eventually have to be lengthened–but the game will speed up and liven up, and scoreboards will light up.