Friday’s not unexpected news that Major League Baseball’s Joint Competition Committee voted to implement three long-anticipated rules changes for the 2023 season ignited widespread media speculation about how those changes may affect the game. How the KC Royals deal with the new rules remains, of course, to be seen.
Highlights of the changes are indeed interesting.
The simplest one increases base size from 15 to 18 inches square. Why disturb such an established dimension? One belief seems to be that bigger bases promote safety, especially at first base, where first sackers like Vinnie Pasquantino and Nick Pratto gain three inches of position, and a bit of a safety buffer, on the infield side of the bag. And runners will have more room to avoid big first basemen like Pasquantino.
Whether shortening the distance between first and second and second and third by 4.5 inches, a byproduct of the bigger bases, will spawn mores stolen bases is questionable, but could happen and bolster a Royals’ offense that prefers attacking on the basepaths when they can.
KC Royals pitchers will be subject to a pitch clock…and more than that.
The second change, widely characterized as introduction of a pitch clock, is more than that, and more complicated and controversial than base enlargement. The new rule requires pitchers to begin their motion within 20 seconds of their last pitch with at least one base occupied, and within 15 with no runners on. A ball is the consequence of violating the rule.
Simple enough, but there’s more—batters can’t linger too long outside the batter’s box between pitches. Instead, they must be in the box ready to hit with eight seconds left on the clock; if they aren’t, it’s a strike on the batter.
Royals pitchers are also allowed to step off the rubber, or “disengage,” only twice each plate appearance. For example, and to avoid a balk, they can step off once and try a pickoff once, or step off twice, etc. They get two more disengagements if a runner moves up a base.
What happens if a Kansas City hurler forgets and tries a third pickoff throw? If it’s successful, the runner is out; if it’s not, he gets the next base.
Timeouts called by the team batting, injury timeouts and mound visits won’t count as disengagements.
The third new rule means the KC Royals can’t shift or be shifted against.
The true defensive shift—what MLB calls “the situational defensive realignment of fielders away from their ‘traditional’ starting points”—ends when the 2022 World Series ends. While the new shift rule won’t prohibit infielders from incrementally altering their positions based on hitters’ tendencies, it will wipe out more drastic, and more effective, adjustments.
Specifically, teams must deploy two infielders to the left of second base and two to the right of that bag, and at the pitch all four infielders must be positioned on the infield dirt.
Prevailing baseball thinking holds that shifts hurt lefthanded hitters more than righties; how, then, might this restrictive new rule affect some of Kansas City’s lefthanded bats?
Fans hoping the shift ban will help Ryan O’Hearn (if he’s still with the club next year) may be disappointed. According to Baseball Savant’s shift statistics, O’Hearn faces shifts 75.6% of the time, but has a better wOBA (.261) against shifts than when defenses don’t use them (.235).
Although their sample sizes are small, the case is the same for rookies Vinnie Pasquantino and Nick Pratto. Pasquantino’s wOBA is .353 versus shifts, which he faces 93.9% of the time, and .221 with no shift in place. Pratto’s wOBA is .331 against shifts (73.7% of the time) but .245 when none are deployed when he’s batting.
On the other hand, their shift numbers suggest the new rule will benefit other Royals. Shifting Michael Massey 86% of the time results in a .318 wOBA, while his mark with no shifting is .324. And MJ Melendez’s .430 wOBA with no shift in place is 56 points better than in the 75.5% of the time he hits against the shift.
And just in case fans wonder about righthanded Salvador Perez, he has a .430 wOBA when he avoids shifts but a .280 wOBA when shifted, which happens in 77.4% of his plate appearances.
Will the new rules help the Royals win more games? Time will tell, but 2023 will definitely be interesting.