2023 MLB Opening Day: What if baseball is faster in more ways than one?
In addition to increased pace of play, this season might bring a spike in steals
You want fast? The 2023 baseball season started fast. The very first batter of Opening Day, Atlanta Braves star Ronald Acuña Jr., laced a single to right field and quickly drew two pickoff throws from Washington Nationals starter Patrick Corbin.
Voilà, a novel type of tension. MLB’s new rules include a pitch timer and, as part of the effort to boost pace of play, limits on pitcher pickoffs. If Corbin wanted to throw over again, it would be a very different calculation: Get Acuña out, or he is awarded second base. Between those new guardrails and the bigger bases installed this year — 18 inches square instead of 15 — the league clearly tilted the playing field more in favor of runners, hoping to inspire at least a little bit more action on the basepaths.
Whether that would work was more of an open question than whether games would speed up. After one day of baseball, it still is, but Acuña provided the first inkling that maybe, just maybe, baseball will be getting faster on more than one front in 2023.
On the pitch following Corbin’s second pickoff throw, Acuña bolted for second but appeared to slip with one of his early steps and scampered back. The next pitch, he took off again, this time logging stolen base No. 1 easily.
By the end of the night Thursday, runners across MLB had swiped 21 bases, the most in any season’s first set of games since 2011 and up from a paltry five in 2022. Where the pitch timer’s effects are largely about packing the existing action into a more natural rhythm and more tolerable time commitment, reigniting the running game could inject a dynamic intensity that has waned over the past decade. If the uptick from Opening Day holds, it might even wind up being more noticeable than the clock.
A shorter distance to go — thanks to the bigger bases — plus more limitations on pitchers’ ability to limit the running game should yield more attempts and more steals. In minor-league testing and in spring training, it did. But it’s still unclear how much it will move the needle in the majors, where the forces of optimization have tamped down stolen base attempts. Who needs to risk an out to take second, the exaggerated but fair logic goes, if scoring is going to happen only on a home run anyway?
For everyone not named Aaron Judge, though, homers were down in 2022, with a surge likely fueled by changes in the baseball subsiding and the home run rate dropping to its lowest level since 2015. There’s nothing to indicate that homers should rise substantially this year (though there weren’t exactly announcements about the homer-juicing changes during the surge, either). And there might be more men on base thanks to new limitations on the infield shift.
The league-wide rate of stolen bases in 2022 remained low despite the dip in homers — higher than 2021 but lower than in any season between 1973 and 2017. But perhaps now there’s incentive to see exactly how much easier it is to steal under the new conditions. The Baltimore Orioles, aided by some subpar Red Sox pitching, went wild on Opening Day. They nabbed five bases in a 10-9 victory. Cedric Mullins and Jorge Mateo stole two apiece. So did Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Ji Hwan Bae.
An Opening Day spurt of steals could be just that — a fun day for the Orioles and a bad day for the Red Sox with no lasting implications. Some version of that happened in 2018, when opening games featured 18 steals, but the overall season rate wound up even with 2022.
Still, the flicker of speed — evoked in MLB’s marketing campaign for the new rules and in players’ foretelling of “the year of the stolen base” — makes you wonder. What would a new need for speed look like?
If trend lines track with the minors, in which attempts increased by 27% with the addition of the pitch timer and bigger bases, it would blast the game back to the running environment of 2011, except likely with better success rates. Eight batters logged 40-plus steals in 2011. Michael Bourne topped out at 61, and Matt Kemp came within one homer of joining the 40/40 club as part of a riveting MVP race.
Last season, only the Miami Marlins’ Jon Berti reached the 40-steal threshold, the first full season since 1962 without at least two players clearing that bar.
In recent years, the only speed-related feats worth even bothering to imagine were wrapped up in that power-speed combo territory. Acuña, having tallied 29 steals last season after returning from a knee injury and 37 in a thrilling 2019, stands as the game’s best candidate to become the fifth hitter ever to go 40/40 — 40 homers and 40 steals in the same season.
Adding to the chances of that chase would be a win. There are more possibilities, though, depending on how a hypothetical uptick in stolen bases distributes itself. MLB hasn’t seen a 70-steal campaign since Jacoby Ellsbury in 2009. No one has stolen 80 bases in a season since 1988, when Vince Coleman and all-time steals king Rickey Henderson did it.
The home run surge that rippled through baseball recently, peaking in 2017 and 2019, was democratic, so to speak. Seemingly everybody got some extra homers, and even the chance to whack 30 of them if they were willing to twist their swings into enough of an uppercut, but no one was putting up otherworldly totals or threatening records like Judge eventually did in 2022.
More action on the bases — more modes of entertainment in addition to “there goes a home run” — would be a boon for baseball no matter how it shakes out. If you really want to dream, the post-Rickey high for stolen bases in a season is 78 (done once by Jose Reyes and once by Marquis Grissom). Five minor-leaguers got to 70 stolen bases in 2022, whereas no one did so in 2019, pre-rules testing. One speedster, now starting Oakland Athletics center fielder Esteury Ruiz, racked up 85.
There’s a long way between Opening Day and that, but MLB’s tweaks on the basepaths came out of the gates fast.