Fantasy Baseball: What impact will 2023 MLB rule changes have?
Last season, in the first year of the universal DH, batting average for all hitters across Major League Baseball sank to .243. That was the lowest league-wide batting average since 1968, The Year of the Pitcher, a season that prompted MLB to lower the pitching mound and redefine the strike zone.
While so much failure was taking place at the plate in 2022, almost nothing was happening on the base paths, either. The average team's stolen base total was 83. Jon Berti led baseball with 41 steals. We haven't seen a 50-steal season by any player in the majors since 2017.
Somehow, in an era in which base hits and base stealing are increasingly rare, the time of an average nine-inning game is actually almost 30 minutes greater than it was 40 years ago. Run scoring last season was basically at the same level as in 1982, and total plate appearances were down slightly, yet games are routinely stretching beyond three hours.
Fewer fun things are happening, and it's taking longer.
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Against this backdrop, MLB's leadership understandably decided that several significant rules tweaks were justified in an effort to reintroduce action on the bases and trim much of the dead time from a typical game. If you're an attentive fan, you're probably already aware of (and might have formed an opinion on) the decision to restrict defensive shifting, enforce a pitch timer and limit pick-off attempts. Perhaps you also have thoughts on MLB's new mega-bases:
MLB’s new bigger base size pic.twitter.com/44uZ95GpZW
— Jack Harris (@Jack_A_Harris) February 14, 2023
Our purpose today is not to pass judgment on the wisdom of the new rules — although, just for the record, I love them with my whole true heart. Instead, we'll attempt to evaluate their likely impact on fantasy baseball. Experimentation has taken place with versions of these rules in the minors, so it's not as if MLB is without relevant data. We can say with reasonable confidence that three big changes are ahead, at least two of which will alter the fantasy landscape.
Base-stealing is back
Look, we're not promising a return to the blazing baserunning of the '70s and '80s, when a player had zero chance to lead any league in steals without reaching 70-plus. But it will likely take more than 50 steals to top the leaderboard in 2023.
In addition to supersizing the bases, MLB will limit pitchers to two pick-off attempts or step-offs per plate appearance. If a third disengagement occurs without an out being recorded, baserunners will be advanced. When these rules were implemented in the minors in 2022, stolen-base attempts increased by 0.6 per game, and overall success rate jumped to 77%.
Without question, elite major-league base stealers are going to be able to take advantage of the new restrictions on pitchers, at least to some extent. Anyone on the sprint speed leaderboard who sees regular at-bats and gets themselves on base at a respectable clip should be eying double-digit steals in the new environment.
We should note that an increase in base stealing and success rate across baseball shouldn't change much about the way you draft the category. As in every other season you've experienced, it remains a good idea to get your stolen bases from players who make positive contributions in multiple stats; that's why you find guys such as Trea Turner, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Julio Rodriguez at or near the top of the consensus ranks. Ideally, you won't need to rely on Berti-level players to keep you competitive in the category. We're not looking for guys who are severe liabilities in four stats and helpful in one.
Shift limits should have a big impact on a subset of players
If you're a left-handed slugger who has been rocketing line drives to right field into the gloves of over-shifted shortstops, life is about to get much easier. In the year ahead, defenses will be required to position two infielders on either side of second base (and with their feet on the infield dirt) when a pitch is released. Defenses can still be partially shifted in anticipation of a batter pulling the ball, but they can't arrange a wall of fielders in shallow right. Again, the hope is to increase base hits and baserunners, restoring traditional outcomes on various balls in play.
However, the new limits on defensive shifting are not going to affect all batters equally. We might not see huge year-to-year differences in BABIP and batting average in the aggregate, but a specific sort of hitter is going to gain value. The list of the most shifted-against players in MLB is, not surprisingly, loaded with left-handed and switch-hitting power hitters. This is clearly where you'll find the greatest beneficiaries of the new shift rules. But let's remember that changes to the rulebook aren't going to fix anyone's contact issues; Joey Gallo isn't gonna challenge for a batting crown (or approach .240, in all likelihood).
When shopping for batters who should get a shift-related boost, we're looking for LHBs who've been heavily shifted against and who put the ball in play consistently via liners and ground balls.
Corey Seager, come on down.
Seager was one of the most frequently shifted batters last year (92.8% of PAs), and he was also a clear candidate for positive regression. Up and down the draft board — from Kyle Tucker to Max Muncy to Alex Kirilloff — you can find hitters who fit the likely-to-surge profile.
Games will be shorter
To be perfectly honest, we can't guarantee this will have any sort of meaningful fantasy impact, but it's a definite quality-of-life improvement for fans. Forcing pitchers to work faster via the pitch clocks cut 25 minutes from the average minor-league game in 2022 without sparking any substantial, obvious change to run scoring or, apparently, injuries. Strikeout rate was down slightly, but not to an extent that would've been meaningful for fantasy purposes or identifiable at an individual level.
[2023 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | OF | SP | RP]
It seems safe to say that the pitchers who were already working fast — think Shane Bieber, Nestor Cortes, Luis Castillo and Sandy Alcantara — are not going to be negatively affected by a ticking clock. That's not to say they can't regress in 2023, but a pitch timer won't be the reason. However, we also shouldn't assume pitchers who've worked slowly in the past will suddenly struggle. Those guys were simply operating within the rules as previously written.
You can't convince me this man's stuff won't play in 2023 because his tempo wasn't particularly crisp in the past:
Nearly 4 minutes of Shohei Ohtani K'ing hitters with Sliders. 😯
[2nd best Run Value of any pitch in baseball.] pic.twitter.com/BfrZ1xviHd
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) January 8, 2023
The only worrisome issue with the pitch clock is that the seventh inning is going to sneak up on you fast, which means beer sales will be cut off before any of us is ready. But, hey, there will be an adjustment period for everyone.
If MLB truly manages to bring back stolen bases, singles up the middle and the two-and-a-half-hour ballgame in a single season, then we are all winners. Even the most curmudgeonly fan should agree that baseball is better when it involves more in-game action and less standing around.