If you are savvy enough to read next week’s column, you will be doing so with spring training underway in Florida and Arizona. Hip, hip, hooray! Astros pitchers and catchers have their first workout scheduled for next Thursday, with the full squad due early the following week ahead of games starting February 25. Spring training baseball is not meant to be exciting, but the major rules changes that will take effect this season will be in full effect in the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues, making spring games more interesting to follow.
The biggest change is the death of infield shifts. As reminder or to get up to speed, the first and second baseman must now always be aligned on the first base side of second while the shortstop and third baseman must both be on the third base side of second. Plus, all infielders must have both feet on the dirt of the infield.
There are legitimate points to be made as to why shifts should be allowed, and also why modifying the rules makes sense. I get the argument that if hitters can’t take advantage of an open side of the infield, shame on them. However, taking advantage of a shift is not as easy as it looks.
The best argument against shifts is that they clearly more penalized left-handed hitters. You think Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez will miss losing some hits on balls smashed on one hop 30 or 40 feet into the outfield only to have a second baseman make the play? If once every other week Tuck or Yordan picks up a hit that the shift would have taken away, over 500 at bats, that’s about a 25 point difference in batting average. Defenses couldn’t shift in the same fashion against right-handed hitters because unless the batter/runner has Martin Maldonado or Albert Pujols level (non)speed, throwing guys out at first from 30 or 40 feet out in left field is not viable.
Welcome the pitch clock. There will be griping from some pitchers and hitters. Suck it up buttercups! Adapt or die. In the minor leagues the pitch clock knocked off 20-25 minutes from the average game length. The average big league game should not take more than three hours. For darn sure a 3-1 or 4-2 game shouldn’t take more than three hours.
With no runners on base a pitcher has 15 seconds from when he gets the ball to start his motion, with runner(s) on base 20 seconds. Failure to comply is an automatic ball. It’s called the pitch clock but batters are on notice too. There is simply no need for batters to be stepping out of the batter’s box to contemplate the meaning of life every pitch or two. Batters not in the box and ready when the clock gets down to eight seconds get an automatic strike. There are several exceptions, such as a batter gets one timeout per plate appearance,
The bases themselves are 20 percent larger. Instead of 15 inches square they are now 18 inches square which serves a couple of purposes. There will be a bit more space for infielders to avoid baserunners at the bags. That’s sensible. We’ve all heard “Baseball is a game of inches.” Legendary General Manager Branch Rickey is credited with coining the phrase. Rickey is also the guy who brought Jackie Robinson to the Major Leagues, and the guy who basically invented the farm system.
Anyway, back to game of inches. The larger bases shorten the distance between first and second, and second and third base, by four and a half inches. A massive change it is not, but a meaningful change it is. Think of the close calls on stolen base attempts, or a runner going from first to third on a single. It’s not mastering advanced calculus to get that a shorter distance between bases makes it easier to successfully get to the next one. Anything that increases the value of speed in the game is a good thing.
Base stealing will also be impacted by the new pickoff limitations rule. Say Jose Altuve leads off with a single. Up comes Jeremy Pena. The pitcher gets two “disengagements” during Pena’s at bat. Pickoff attempts and stepping off the rubber both count as “disengagement.” A third disengagement not resulting in a pickoff is an automatic balk. Does Altuve take a huge lead to draw pickoff throws knowing that after two non-pickoffs he gets a big advantage?
Might any unintended consequences result from the rules changes? Let’s find out.
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