Baseball is not a set of rules. It never has been. Baseball is the way players and teams seek wins inside (and sometimes decidedly outside) the lines drawn by the book and on the field. So when the 2023 MLB season rolls around, there will be extremely interesting baseball to watch.
New rules announced earlier this month will force players and teams to adjust in various aspects of the game. The shot clock and its pickoff-related limitations introduce a whole new element to the game of Major League Baseball, but we’re here to talk about the change, or the change in the way teams will change, and the ways in which could visually and strategically alter games
MLB’s new rule seeks to roll back an age-old strategy that has become a near-ubiquitous and perhaps all-too-efficient hitting draft. Beginning in 2023, the defending team must have two infielders on either side of second base, all facing the outfield grass, when each pitch is delivered.
That will effectively ban the three most conspicuous, and harassing by announcers, forms of the infield: the one where there are three charged outfielders on one side of second base, the one where the second baseman is essentially playing outfield shallow right. , and in which there are only four outfielders.
In place of those alignments, new (or newly prevailing) arrangements and tactics will emerge. The same minds that have been printing those little cards that players have in their hats will be coming up with ways to remove as many hits as possible within the added limitations.
What will that look like when he hits the field next April? Well, we can’t quite know yet, but we do have some guesses.
Middle infielders live on the edges
The most predictable result of the new limits will be for infielders to line up as close to the forbidden territory as possible. For the most part, that will mean shortstops getting as close as possible to the imaginary line through second base when left-handed hitters are batting.
Lefties are moved much more frequently and much more effectively than right-handed hitters. Improving defensive tactics has lowered left-handed hitters’ batting average on balls in play (BABIP) to .282 this season, a level not seen since 1972: defensive work that led to the creation of the designated hitter. BABIP has generally been understood to hover around .300, but as defenses have learned to customize themselves to each hitter, that number has sunk. Overall, the BABIP league was between .295 and .300 each season between 2004 and 2019. But he’s down to .292 in 2020 and 2021, and he’s at .290 in 2022.
A good defense is not bad, of course. Nobody wants to turn games into batting practice. The idea is to make good defensive results require… good real defense, the kind related to athletics and visual stimuli.
However, teams aren’t going to take MLB’s conceptual goal as a marching order and place all of their fields on the traditional Little League standings chart. A lot of balls that “should be hit” by old school game logic will still be outs. Chief among them – the line leads through the middle. Note that the rule only states that the infielders must be on the ground, on the prescribed side of second when the pitch is released. While the second basemen will have to be on the ground next year, the shortstops who often take those punches away when shy to the left of second base they are on perfectly legal positioneven by 2023 standards.
(Don’t be surprised if that gap closes eventually, too. MLB has tested an even stricter version of at-bat limits in the minors.dubbed the slice of the pie rule, which would open up the middle of the field by prohibiting infielders from standing within a certain wedge of the field around second base).
Depending on how important teams think these margins are, we may even be approaching a situation where midfielders are taking base-stealing-style “secondary leads.” With every pitch against a left-handed hitter, perhaps the shortstop starts closer to his traditional hole, but is walking to the right side, bursting into a full run as the ball leaves his pitcher’s hand.
It could be a lot of fun!
There are complications at the time of that, especially with men on point guard, but it’s not hard to imagine the potential.
Check out this looping line driven by the Rangers’ Nathaniel Lowe. The A’s are playing defense, and the lineup is fully legal under incoming 2023 standards.
The result, however, is very 2022. A shortstop catches what looks like a hit across second base..
Left gardener? More like middle right fielder
The hitters who inspire the most extreme swings are the powerful left-handed hitters. His batted-ball profiles involve a lot of deep, high fly balls, and pretty much anything on the ground gets dragged.
Many of the moments that lowered batting averages and prompted the rule change are designed to stifle these hitters. When they work, they hardly involve any movement, there’s just a guy standing where the ball lands. Like when Phillies bopper Kyle Schwarber hits a ball directly to Braves third baseman Austin Riley … who was parked in shallow right field..
In their most extreme form, they are more or less a snapshot of everything MLB has banned for the coming year.
That’s how the Tigers faced Yankees first baseman Anthony Rizzo in June. Four deep outfielders, a second baseman playing the outfield, a first baseman and a third baseman whose job it is to scare Rizzo with the idea of a double tap. In this case, Rizzo hit directly to the second baseman playing shallow in right field.
Perhaps the biggest question entering the new world of limited at-bats is how much risk teams are willing to take to cover short right field against Rizzo, Schwarber, Juan Soto, Matt Olson and others.
While second and third basemen are now prohibited from occupying that vantage point, outfielders are not. It’s possible that against some hitters, teams will bring in their left fielder to fill that role. MLB.com’s Mike Petriello made a helpful diagram of what that might look like with the 2023 rules in place.
In essence, it creates more of a risk/reward dynamic if they want to remove that basic line momentum hit. The rule changes are in place because the “go the other way” adjustment never came for hitters. If teams think they never will, then it might make sense to vacate the left-field line and risk a 3-pointer. Or, he could create a different type of pre-pitch motion, like the shortstop running to right field. Perhaps a third baseman starts in his usual position to protect himself from the bunt, but then runs back to make sure a can of corn doesn’t land on the left.
Players in the lineup will have to change
Whether teams opt for big-move innovations to replicate the change or stick to more normal versions of infield defense, the demands on infielders are changing. A trend that drives slower-footed sluggers into more defensive and demanding positionsthen covering them with turns, it will be reversed.
Max Muncy and Mike Moustakas, the poster boys for that idea, will become second basemen of a very specific era. In the future, they will be designated hitters or first basemen.
Beyond the players who will move in and out of major league roles, there could be more specific field skill considerations. If you’re thinking of risking a dramatic change in the outfield, you might be more likely to do so if you have a shortstop or third baseman who is particularly adept at field flying balls behind them.
Those kinds of directional breakouts are now publicly available via Statcast., so you can be sure that teams have even more advanced metrics to measure the skills of their players. Public data, for example, points to Trea Turner, the Dodgers’ star shortstop approaching free agency, as an infielder doing well. turning and running to catch a ball raised over his shoulder.
It won’t move the needle as much as his MVP-caliber bat, but it could be important information for a team planning the brave new world of defense.