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OC Register: How baseball’s new rules are changing the game, and how they aren’t


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Around this time a year ago, complaints about the state of baseball were not limited to pedants, pundits, and old men yelling at clouds. The league-wide batting average by the end of April 2022 was .231. Mario Mendoza, the light-hitting infielder of the 1970s and 1980s whose name is synonymous with below-average hitting, batted .231 in 1981. To some, the game had changed beyond recognition.

As it often does, batting average crept up as the season progressed. By the end of the season, it reached .243, still the lowest over a full season since 1968. Then as now, Major League Baseball decided it was time to change the rules.

Batting average is about as helpful to diagnosing the balance between hitting and pitching as a digital thermometer is to diagnosing a sick patient: useful, but incomplete. It tells us a lot about the effectiveness of the new rules, but not everything.

Here are a few early observations about what’s changed, and what hasn’t:

1. Batters are being rewarded with more hits ― and not just lefties

The rise in batting average tells us two things. One is more obvious than the other.

By restricting where infielders can stand – both feet on the dirt, with two men on either side of second base – it only makes sense that more ground balls are getting through to the outfield. Sure enough, batting average on grounders was .249 through Tuesday, up from .241 a year ago.

Here’s where the numbers get interesting. Left-handed hitters have always been shifted more frequently than right-handed hitters. Yet right-handers’ batting average on grounders is up 13 points compared to last year, while lefties have gained only three points.

Where lefties hold the early advantage is on line drives: their batting average on liners has jumped 42 points (.628 to .670), compared to 20 points for righties (.633 to .653).

2. Home runs are surging, too

Here’s another one the new rules didn’t see coming: a year ago, one out of every 10 fly balls hit in April resulted in a home run. So far in 2023, the home-run-per-fly-ball rate is up to 12.7%.

MLB has attempted to standardize the physical properties of baseballs ever since home runs surged at record rates in 2017 and 2019. (Ironically, the league acknowledged using two different baseballs in 2021.) Even if no new rules were implemented this year, the question of how easily the ball carries would have been an important one to ask. The answer: pretty easily.

Isolated power, which subtracts batting average from slugging percentage, is tracking at its third-highest March/April rate since at least 2002. If the current HR/fly ball ratio holds, it will be the highest by the end of April in all but three recorded seasons (2017, 2019 and 2021).

Note that home run rates will need time to be judged fairly. Toronto’s Rogers Centre, which changed its dimensions over the winter, has hosted two games. Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg has hosted nine. But the percentage of hard-hit balls (grounders, line drives and fly balls included) is so far the third-highest ever recorded too. No matter where they stood, fielders might be having a harder time catching baseballs this year.

3. More stolen bases

Bigger bases, fewer pickoffs, less time to improvise on the mound: all of these initiatives were intended to increase stolen bases. To the surprise of no one, they’re working.

The rate of attempted steals per game (0.85 through Tuesday) is the highest since 2012, but still well below the heyday which MLB is unabashedly attempting to replicate. The league attempted 1.21 steals per game in 1987. What’s changed is the success rate: at 81.3%, the average thief in 2023 is now successful as often as Ichiro Suzuki was during his major league career. If anything, this might lead to more stolen bases as the season goes on, as teams get more daring on the basepaths and batting average on balls in play increases.

Philosophically, this might rub old-school fans the wrong way. After all, defensive shifts were not the norm until recently, so a rule that repositions two fielders on either side of second base is effectively restoring the game to a previous version of itself. Eighteen-inch bases and limits on pickoff attempts were never the norm. Rather than gently nudging the balance between offense and defense in one direction, these rules forcibly move the needle someplace it’s never been.

4. More double plays

One unintended consequence of the shifting rule to keep an eye on: 2.32% of all fielding chances this season have resulted in a double play, up from 2.25% in 2022. That’s a subtle change that anecdotally seems more pronounced in person.

It’s also somewhat counterintuitive. After all, if more ground balls are getting through the infield, shouldn’t it be harder for teams to turn double plays?

Two factors, I think, are working in the fielders’ favor. One is that if the balls are being hit harder – which they are – fielders should have more time to throw the ball around the infield on double-play attempts. The other is that if batting and on-base averages are up – which they are – there ought to be more runners on first base to double up. Expect that trend to be more pronounced as BABIP rises this summer.

5. True outcomes

Pitchers are still throwing harder than ever, and more breaking balls than ever, so perhaps it is unsurprising that strikeout rates are still sky-high. Through Tuesday, the strikeout rate was essentially unchanged from a year ago. The weird one: the league-wide walk rate is on pace to be the highest in April since 2010.

Combine those figures with the high home run rate, and baseball is still a game of “three true outcomes.” The rate of balls in play is essentially unchanged. What has changed is the difficulty in turning those batted balls into outs.

6. Time (and pace) of game

MLB boasted on its official Twitter account that 10 of the 13 games played Monday ended by 9:30 p.m. local time. Unless you’re a vampire, that’s good news.

You probably knew that the average time of a nine-inning game has fallen by nearly half an hour. Fortunately, Baseball Reference is tracking the more subtle pace-of-game metrics too: Through Tuesday, the average time between plate appearances is down 24 seconds and the average time between balls in play is down by 33 seconds. Thank you, pitch clock!

With all these quicker games, perhaps MLB can reconsider the “need” for an automatic runner on second base in extra innings.

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36 minutes ago, AngelsWin.com said:

Around this time a year ago, complaints about the state of baseball were not limited to pedants, pundits, and old men yelling at clouds. The league-wide batting average by the end of April 2022 was .231. Mario Mendoza, the light-hitting infielder of the 1970s and 1980s whose name is synonymous with below-average hitting, batted .231 in 1981. To some, the game had changed beyond recognition.

As it often does, batting average crept up as the season progressed. By the end of the season, it reached .243, still the lowest over a full season since 1968. Then as now, Major League Baseball decided it was time to change the rules.

Batting average is about as helpful to diagnosing the balance between hitting and pitching as a digital thermometer is to diagnosing a sick patient: useful, but incomplete. It tells us a lot about the effectiveness of the new rules, but not everything.

Here are a few early observations about what’s changed, and what hasn’t:

1. Batters are being rewarded with more hits ― and not just lefties

The rise in batting average tells us two things. One is more obvious than the other.

By restricting where infielders can stand – both feet on the dirt, with two men on either side of second base – it only makes sense that more ground balls are getting through to the outfield. Sure enough, batting average on grounders was .249 through Tuesday, up from .241 a year ago.

Here’s where the numbers get interesting. Left-handed hitters have always been shifted more frequently than right-handed hitters. Yet right-handers’ batting average on grounders is up 13 points compared to last year, while lefties have gained only three points.

Where lefties hold the early advantage is on line drives: their batting average on liners has jumped 42 points (.628 to .670), compared to 20 points for righties (.633 to .653).

2. Home runs are surging, too

Here’s another one the new rules didn’t see coming: a year ago, one out of every 10 fly balls hit in April resulted in a home run. So far in 2023, the home-run-per-fly-ball rate is up to 12.7%.

MLB has attempted to standardize the physical properties of baseballs ever since home runs surged at record rates in 2017 and 2019. (Ironically, the league acknowledged using two different baseballs in 2021.) Even if no new rules were implemented this year, the question of how easily the ball carries would have been an important one to ask. The answer: pretty easily.

Isolated power, which subtracts batting average from slugging percentage, is tracking at its third-highest March/April rate since at least 2002. If the current HR/fly ball ratio holds, it will be the highest by the end of April in all but three recorded seasons (2017, 2019 and 2021).

Note that home run rates will need time to be judged fairly. Toronto’s Rogers Centre, which changed its dimensions over the winter, has hosted two games. Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg has hosted nine. But the percentage of hard-hit balls (grounders, line drives and fly balls included) is so far the third-highest ever recorded too. No matter where they stood, fielders might be having a harder time catching baseballs this year.

3. More stolen bases

Bigger bases, fewer pickoffs, less time to improvise on the mound: all of these initiatives were intended to increase stolen bases. To the surprise of no one, they’re working.

The rate of attempted steals per game (0.85 through Tuesday) is the highest since 2012, but still well below the heyday which MLB is unabashedly attempting to replicate. The league attempted 1.21 steals per game in 1987. What’s changed is the success rate: at 81.3%, the average thief in 2023 is now successful as often as Ichiro Suzuki was during his major league career. If anything, this might lead to more stolen bases as the season goes on, as teams get more daring on the basepaths and batting average on balls in play increases.

Philosophically, this might rub old-school fans the wrong way. After all, defensive shifts were not the norm until recently, so a rule that repositions two fielders on either side of second base is effectively restoring the game to a previous version of itself. Eighteen-inch bases and limits on pickoff attempts were never the norm. Rather than gently nudging the balance between offense and defense in one direction, these rules forcibly move the needle someplace it’s never been.

4. More double plays

One unintended consequence of the shifting rule to keep an eye on: 2.32% of all fielding chances this season have resulted in a double play, up from 2.25% in 2022. That’s a subtle change that anecdotally seems more pronounced in person.

It’s also somewhat counterintuitive. After all, if more ground balls are getting through the infield, shouldn’t it be harder for teams to turn double plays?

Two factors, I think, are working in the fielders’ favor. One is that if the balls are being hit harder – which they are – fielders should have more time to throw the ball around the infield on double-play attempts. The other is that if batting and on-base averages are up – which they are – there ought to be more runners on first base to double up. Expect that trend to be more pronounced as BABIP rises this summer.

5. True outcomes

Pitchers are still throwing harder than ever, and more breaking balls than ever, so perhaps it is unsurprising that strikeout rates are still sky-high. Through Tuesday, the strikeout rate was essentially unchanged from a year ago. The weird one: the league-wide walk rate is on pace to be the highest in April since 2010.

Combine those figures with the high home run rate, and baseball is still a game of “three true outcomes.” The rate of balls in play is essentially unchanged. What has changed is the difficulty in turning those batted balls into outs.

6. Time (and pace) of game

MLB boasted on its official Twitter account that 10 of the 13 games played Monday ended by 9:30 p.m. local time. Unless you’re a vampire, that’s good news.

You probably knew that the average time of a nine-inning game has fallen by nearly half an hour. Fortunately, Baseball Reference is tracking the more subtle pace-of-game metrics too: Through Tuesday, the average time between plate appearances is down 24 seconds and the average time between balls in play is down by 33 seconds. Thank you, pitch clock!

With all these quicker games, perhaps MLB can reconsider the “need” for an automatic runner on second base in extra innings.

View the full article

Excellent info.   I think that the quick  pace of the game would have universal appeal.  With more teams running, maybe a catchers ability to "frame" will be secondary once again to his ability to throw runners out.

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