MLB is set to introduce a slate of new rules for 2023, which means the game will be slightly different. Pitchers won’t be allowed to drag the play into a crawl (nor will hitters), base dimensions change, and change has been killed, restoring traditional defenses to the field.
But how do these changes specifically affect the Toronto Blue Jays? The Jays should once again be contenders in the AL East, but the race to October will still be dangerously close – every game will count. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the impact of the three rule changes on Toronto’s roster and the club’s style of play.
Starting this season, a 30-second timer between batters will be introduced. In addition to that, the pitcher will have 15 seconds to pitch without a runner on base. With Runners enabled, the caster has 20 seconds to begin their move. If the pitcher does not begin their pitch before time runs out, they are charged with a ball. Conversely, if the batter is not alert in the box at the eight-second mark, he is charged with a strike.
No Blue Jays pitcher has been extremely slow in 2022. Alek Manoah took the longest time between pitches, averaging 20.7 seconds between pitches without men and 25.2 seconds with runners. Yimi García was also slow, averaging 20.5 seconds with the bases empty and 24.4 seconds with the guys. Interestingly, Yusei Kikuchi was relatively quick without men (19.9 seconds), but that jumped to 24.4 with runners – an indication that he was working, overthinking or both.
For the record, forcing a pitcher to increase his pace will destabilize him. Manoah, for example, will no longer be able to flip the rosin bag, remove his glove, and rub the ball as he contemplates his next pitch. Instead, he’ll put his back foot on the rubber and prepare to rip the next pitch. That said, I anticipate top performers like Manoah adapting quickly. Kikuchi, whose struggles were often mental rather than physical, might be more affected. My gut tells me less time for Kikuchi to think is better, but we’ll find out.
The pitch timer also comes with a limit on how often a pitcher disengages the rubber. After two disengages, which include punts or outs, the pitcher must get an out on the third attempt or the runner advances one base. From there, I imagine the PitchCom devices will take over the league, as it will be imperative for pitchers and receivers to communicate quickly.
With the clock ticking, there will be heat on catchers to find the right pitch and get it shot towards the plate. Renowned behind-the-plate communicators like Danny Jansen will be on hand.
The disengage rule also has a huge impact on the running game, and I’ll get to that in a moment.
In 2023, each of the three bases will shrink from 15 square inches to 18 square inches, creating a reduction of 4.5 inches between first and second and between second and third. The goal is to encourage more thefts and reduce collisions around bases.
This modification is great for the Blue Jays’ offense, but not because Toronto is an extremely fast team. The advantage comes from manager John Schneider’s chaotic new style of play. When Schneider took over last season, we saw a noticeable increase in stolen base attempts and hit-and-runs. As George Springer said, “Aggression is hard to defend.”
The shorter distance between bases allows faster guys (think Daulton Varsho, Bo Bichette) to slip a sack, but it also opens the door for smart baserunners (Springer, Cavan Biggio) to cause other types of ravages.
Runners will take longer leads because they know pitchers are limited in their throws. We might even see an increase in delayed flights or “one-way” runs, where runners take massive leads and bait a pitch. Last season, the Blue Jays also stole base when pitchers weren’t paying much attention — first baseman Mark Budzinski was telling his runners to fly away on the next pitch.
With pitchers preoccupied with kickoffs, pitch clocks and a pesky runner on first base, less attention will be paid to the batter. That’s what Schneider wants. Good things happen when your opponent scrambles, and those rule changes fuel the Blue Jays’ frantic 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 players on either side of second base. When the pitcher begins his swing, all four infielders must have both feet touching the ground. If there is a defensive violation, the opposing team can choose the game result or an automatic ball.
The Blue Jays did relatively well against the switch 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 hardest hit by staggered defenses. New Blue Jays Kevin Kiermaier (.552 OPS) and Varsho (.589 OPS) also struggled with the switch. It is reasonable to expect some improvement in the number of such players in 2023.
Defensively, the Blue Jays changed 50.3% of the time a year ago, according to Baseball Savant, including a league-leading 42.9% against right-handed hitters. Toronto made up for lost advantages by adding defensive stars such as Kiermaier and Varsho.
Metrically, the Blue Jays defense was good last season and will be good again. Anecdotally, Bichette should improve at shortstop as he gets reps at the position the traditional way. Chapman will no longer be forced to make double plays at second, setting him up to thrive as a conventional third baseman and racking up the metrics to get him back into Gold Glove territory.
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