Baseball is innovating.
MLB is set to introduce a slate of new rules for 2023, which means the game will look a touch different. Pitchers won’t be allowed to drag the game to a crawl (neither will hitters), base dimensions are changing, and the shift has been killed, restoring traditional infield defences.
But how do these changes impact the Toronto Blue Jays specifically? The Jays should be contenders again in the AL East, but the race to October will still be dangerously close — every game will count. With that in mind, let’s examine how all three rule changes impact Toronto’s roster and the club’s style of play.
Starting this season, a 30-second timer between batters will be introduced. On top of that, the pitcher will have 15 seconds to deliver a pitch with no runners on base. With runners on, the pitcher gets 20 seconds to start his motion. If the pitcher doesn’t start his delivery before the clock expires, he’s charged with a ball. Conversely, if the batter isn’t alert in the box by the eight-second mark, he is charged with a strike.
No Blue Jays pitchers were egregiously slow in 2022. Alek Manoah took the longest between pitches, averaging 20.7 seconds between tosses with no men on and 25.2 seconds with runners on. Yimi García was also slow, averaging 20.5 seconds with the bases empty and 24.4 seconds with guys on. Interestingly, Yusei Kikuchi was relatively quick with no men on (19.9 seconds), but that jumped to 24.4 with runners on – an indication he was labouring, overthinking, or both.
Anecdotally, making a pitcher rush his rhythm will throw him off. Manoah, for example, now won’t be able to flip the rosin bag, remove his glove, and rub the ball as he contemplates his next pitch. Instead, he’ll get his back foot on the rubber and get ready to rip the next pitch. That said, I anticipate top performers like Manoah will adjust quickly. Kikuchi, whose struggles were often mental rather than physical, may be more impacted. My gut tells me less time for Kikuchi to think is better, but we’ll find out.
The pitch timer is also accompanied by a limit on how often a pitcher disengages the rubber. After two disengagements, which include step-offs or pick-offs, the pitcher must get an out on the third attempt or the runner advances one base. From this, I imagine PitchCom devices will take over the league, as it’ll be imperative for pitchers and catchers to communicate quickly.
With a clock ticking away, there will be heat on the catchers to find that right pitch and get it firing towards the plate. Renowned communicators behind the plate, such as Danny Jansen, will be handy.
The disengagement rule also greatly impacts the run game, and I’ll address that in a moment.
In 2023, each of the three bases will increase from 15 inches square to 18 inches square, creating a 4.5-inch reduction between first and second and between second and third. The goal is to encourage more stealing and reduce collisions around the bases.
This modification is great for the Blue Jays offence, though not because Toronto is a blazing fast team. The advantage comes from manager John Schneider’s new chaotic style of play. When Schneider took over last season, we saw a notable uptick in stolen base attempts and hit-and-runs. As George Springer put it, “it’s hard to defend aggression.”
The shorter distance between bases makes it easier for quicker guys (think Daulton Varsho, Bo Bichette) to swipe a bag, but it also opens the door for smart baserunners (Springer, Cavan Biggio) to cause other types of havoc.
Runners will take longer leads because they know pitchers are limited in their throw-overs. We could even see an increase in delayed steals or “one-way” leads, where runners take massive leadoffs and bait a throw over. Last season, the Blue Jays also stole bases when pitchers weren’t paying much attention — first-base coach Mark Budzinski would tell his runners to take off on the next pitch.
With pitchers concerned about disengagements, pitch timers, and a pesky runner at first base, less attention will be directed to the hitter. That’s what Schneider wants. Good things happen when your opponent is scrambling, and these rule changes feed into the Blue Jays’ breakneck style.
Defensive shift limits
Under the new rules, defensive teams will be required to have a minimum of four players on the infield, with two infielders on either side of second base. When the pitcher starts his motion, all four infielders must have both feet touching the dirt. If there’s a defensive violation, the opposing team can choose the result of the play or an automatic ball.
The Blue Jays hit relatively well against the shift in 2022, finishing 10th in baseball with a .663 team OPS, according to Fangraphs. Santiago Espinal (.558 OPS), Matt Chapman (.597 OPS), and Jansen were the most adversely affected by shifted defences. New Blue Jays Kevin Kiermaier (.552 OPS) and Varsho (.589 OPS) struggled against the shift as well. It’s reasonable to anticipate some improvement in those players’ numbers in 2023.
Defensively, the Blue Jays shifted 50.3 percent of the time a year ago, according to Baseball Savant, including a league-leading 42.9 percent against right-handed hitters. Toronto compensated for the lost advantages by adding defensive stars such as Kiermaier and Varsho.
Metrically, the Blue Jays defence was good last season and will be good again. Anecdotally, Bichette should improve at shortstop as he gets reps at the position in a traditional manner. Chapman won’t be forced to turn double plays at second anymore, setting him up to thrive as a conventional third baseman and rack up the metrics to shoot him back into Gold Glove territory.