You caught up on all the changes yet?
I don't mean to the baseball, its new specifications serving to impede home runs after a half-decade of them being as ubiquitous as ever. I don't mean with the humidor, its universal application putting the flight of the ball ever more at the mercy of environmental conditions so that the game played in April looks little like the one played in August.
Those are indeed changes from the past two years that have already wreaked havoc on the Fantasy Baseball world, forcing us to reevaluate, mostly on the fly, things as fundamental as what it means to be a good pitcher or hitter. It's been disorienting, to say the least.
And just when it seems like we've gotten a handle on it all and honed our method of attack for next year, here come more changes, just agreed upon this weekend to take effect in 2023. They may be the biggest ones yet.
You can familiarize yourself with all the dirty details if you haven't already. Among them, pitchers will now have to release the ball within a certain timeframe, and the bases are getting slightly bigger. Those changes alone could have some impact on the Fantasy game, and I don't mean to gloss over them. But two others I think will be even more transformational: a limitation on infield shifts and a limitation on pickoff attempts.
The goal of these changes, in conjunction with the ones we've already seen, is to return the game to a more familiar aesthetic after it had naturally evolved, through superior talent and improved analytics, into something more ... how should I put this? Boring. More boring.
A three-true-outcomes game, you may have heard it called, referring to the events decided strictly between the pitcher and hitter, without a need for fielders -- i.e., home runs, strikeouts and walks. MLB would like less of them and more of everything else. We've already seen what I'm calling Step 1, a reduction in home runs, implemented through the new specifications on the ball and the widespread use of the humidors. This next round of changes represents what I'm calling Step 2: more of everything else.
That's right: offense is about to increase again, but in a different way from before -- one that will seem familiar to longtime Fantasy Baseballers but foreign to everyone else.
Let's break it down.
Get ready for more stolen bases
One effect of these changes that may not be obvious at first glance is that players are incentivized to run more -- like, much more. This is in small part due to the bigger bases reducing the distance between first and second by 4 1/2 inches but in larger part due to the limited number of pickoff attempts. Pitchers get two per plate appearances now -- less if they "disengage" the rubber for some other reason. What happens after the second? The runner takes an enormous lead, presumably, making a stolen base attempt seemingly a foregone conclusion.
Now, before you let your imagination run wild, note that there is a mitigating factor. A pitcher can throw over a third time, but he's ceding the base by way of a balk if that throw doesn't result in an out. So the runner can take an aggressive lead, yes, but he can't make himself a sitting duck by walking halfway to second base.
So how big of an effect could this have? Well, let's start with what we've seen in the minors, where stolen base attempts have risen from 2.23 per game in 2019, the last full year without the pickoff rule, to 2.83 per game in 2022. Success rate during that same time has also improved from 68 percent to 77 percent.
"If you impute this type of increase to the major-league level, what this would get us back to is sort of roughly where we were in the early 2000s," said MLB executive vice president Morgan Sword.
So where were we in the early 2000s? That's around the time I first started playing Fantasy Baseball, so I remember it fondly. Let's look at 2000 itself, comparing it to 2021 since that's the last completed season.
- In 2000, Marlins second baseman Luis Castillo led the major leagues with 62 steals, and three players had more than 50. In 2021, Starling Marte led the majors with 47, and only one other player had even 40.
- In 2000, 42 players stole 20 bases or more. In 2021, only 19 did.
- In 2000, there were 2,924 stolen bases in all, 51 percent of the number of home runs hit. In 2021, there were 2,213 stolen bases, 37 percent of the number of home runs hit.
It's the second stat, the number of 20-steal players, that has me most excited. One of the hallmarks of the juiced ball era, which we've now exited, was the democratization of home runs. It's not just that more were hit but that more were hitting them, resulting in a record number of players with 20-plus. The standards for hitting a home run were reduced to the point that even smallish middle infielders could access them, which is why we experienced unprecedented depth at those premium defensive positions, making position scarcity a thing of the past. Only now are we seeing first base return to being the most power-laden position, as God intended it.
But just like we saw a democratization of home runs during that fleeting era, I'm hopeful this new pickoff rule will lead to a democratization of stolen bases, making them accessible to more than just the superlative athletes and the slap hitters with no other way to distinguish themselves offensively. Someone like Brandon Lowe, for instance, has the speed to steal double-digit bags, but he hasn't had much inclination to do so until now.
Inclination, that's key. It's why I think the major-league increase in stolen bases has a chance to exceed even the minor-league increase. Since the days of Moneyball, teams have so emphasized making every out count that their tolerance for risk on the base paths has shrunk to virtually nil. That's not an issue in the minors, where development is prioritized over wins and losses. Even prior to this year, minor-leaguers were taking off nearly twice as often as their major-league counterparts. And major-leaguers are already so much more efficient at stealing bases, their 76 percent success rate basically matching the number that the minor-leaguers have achieved with the new rules. That rate won't have to improve by much to make the reward worth the risk again, particularly as offenses become less reliant on the long ball.
What I'm imagining is a fun interplay developing between the pitcher and baserunner wherein the baserunner takes an aggressive lead from the beginning, hoping to coax a throw, and the pitcher resists, knowing he has only two. The runner will have to "earn" that second throw, and once he does, you don't think he's going to take advantage? He'll have every license to do so. I'm a little worried the major-leaguers will be so much more successful than the minor-leaguers in this regard that the stolen base numbers could actually get out of hand.
But for now, I'll consider it a welcome change, particularly as far as the Fantasy game is concerned. At least in leagues that use traditional 5x5 scoring, stolen bases have gone for such a premium in recent years that it's almost like a race to get them first, all other statistics be darned. It's served to disconnect the Fantasy game from the real one and compromised the experience, I think. If stolen bases go back to being just part of the equation rather than the main part of the equation, it'll make for more thoughtful analysis and a wider variety of drafting styles.
Get ready for higher batting averages
Infield shifts are gone, at least in their most drastic forms. From now on, teams must have four defenders on the dirt and two on each side of second base. This prevents the now almost universal practice of putting three on the right side of second base when a left-handed hitter is up and restores a more traditional infield alignment that's certain to yield more hits on balls in play.
It won't impact all players equally, of course. In fact, I'd wager to say the majority won't see any batting average increase directly attributable to the shift. But I also don't think it's an exaggeration to say that a handful of players could see their batting average improve by as much as 40 points.
If I can get anecdotal for a second, I remember players like Mark Teixeira and Brian McCann seeing their numbers tumble when those infield shifts first came into fashion in the early 2010s. Teixeira hit .290 in his first seven seasons compared to .239 in his final seven. Likewise, McCann hit .286 in his first seven compared to .237 in his final eight. Even Albert Pujols, one of the most shifted-upon right-handed hitters at the time, may owe some of his decline to the increased prevalence of shifts. Granted, age may have also played a factor for these three, and none was exactly swift of foot. But the timing was too specific and the contrast too stark for me to dismiss it as coincidental.
But that was then. You're probably wondering who benefits now, and I'll have a better idea after I audit every player individually this offseason. Looking at some of the leaderboards against the shift, Corey Seager stands out as a potential beneficiary, but it's been just a one-year phenomenon for him. Others have mentioned Matt Olson and Joey Gallo as possibilities, probably because they're left-handed sluggers who struggle with batting average, but while I wouldn't rule either, their splits don't make for the most compelling case. Speaking more generally, I'd that say anyone with a low BABIP despite an average-or-better ground-ball rate stands to benefit.
Part of the reason I'm reluctant to get too specific, though, is that we don't know how individual behaviors will change in light of this news. The fly-ball revolution, which reached its apex about five years ago, was a direct response to the increasingly drastic infield shifts. "What if I just hit it over the shift?" was a common refrain. Will certain hitters go back to tailoring their swings for line drives, no longer being as fearful of ground balls? For the ones who've lost power the past two years because of changes to the way the ball is manufactured and stored, it certainly makes sense, but every player who comes to that decision will do so in his own time. It won't happen overnight.
Get ready for higher WHIPs
The average WHIP in 2000 was 1.47. The average WHIP in 2021 was 1.30. That's a big difference, and I'll admit much of it is attributable to strikeout rate. But if we're returning to more of a 2000 aesthetic, where batted balls more often result in hits, then it stands to reason that WHIP will rise in a way that doesn't correspond neatly with ERA. I'm not saying the league-wide mark will climb all the way to 1.47 again, but we'll need to adjust our expectations for what it means to have a good WHIP, whatever it ends up being.
It could also make for an even starker contrast between the bat-missers, whose strikeouts obviously wouldn't result in any more hits, and the pitch-to-contact types, whose batted balls might. The latter are having a hard enough time keeping up as it is.
Get ready for a more varied player pool
You see what this is all adding up to, right? When home runs aren't as easily achieved and batting averages aren't as easily suppressed and stolen bases aren't as novel or specialized, then the result is a wider variety of player types.
One of my biggest gripes about playing Fantasy Baseball in recent years is the homogenization of the draft. Everybody is basically looking to do the same thing, grappling over different versions of the same player and hoping to pick the one who ends up having the best year. Part of it's because the data and analysis have become so sophisticated that it's harder to get an edge over the competition. But it's also hard to get an edge when we're all forced to build a team the exact same way, just choosing when to divert our attention to stolen bases and saves, basically.
I know what I'm saying probably doesn't make sense if you've only played Fantasy Baseball for the past five years or have memory-holed everything that came before then. No doubt you can identify players with unique qualities who are, by definition, not "the same." But my point is that they're fewer and farther between than they should be and once were. You don't really see players like Michael Young anymore or Placido Polanco or Martin Prado. A Johnny Damon brought different things to the table than a Carlos Lee or an Adam Dunn or a Hunter Pence.
You might think I'm just remembering old guys for nostalgia's sake, but if you had been there, you'd understand. Every player was his own unique piece of the puzzle, and everyone's draft took on a different shape trying to make all those pieces fit. Interchangeability was diminished. Differentiation was inevitable. A league that allows different players to excel at different things is just more interesting, period.
Get ready for a more entertaining game
The more time I spend reflecting on these changes, the more optimistic I am that they'll improve the long-term outlook of the game, both the real-life and Fantasy versions of it. I'm always leery of unintended consequences, but MLB has tested these changes across various levels of the minors over the past two years, collecting the equivalent of 3 1/2 MLB seasons of data on it. They've made tweaks as necessary and eliminated what didn't work. What remains is only what's been shown to have the desired effect.
There will be growing pains. Violations, particularly with regard to the pitch clock, will be more frequent early before decreasing over time. It's also important to remember that the consequences of these changes won't be fully realized on Day 1 or even in Year 1. Some player adaptations will come about slower than others, and then a new generation will come up that doesn't need to adapt at all.
But there will be an immediate impact, too. Shorter games by up to half an hour. Less dead time between pitches. More baserunners. More action on the bases. More ground to cover for the infielders, opening the door to more highlight plays. Basically, everything that was lost during what we'll come to know as the three-true-outcomes era will begin anew, with a few additional perks to boot.
And once we're able to wrap our heads around them, these changes should serve to liven up the Fantasy game as well. For all we've been jerked around the past couple years and all the painful lessons still to come next year, the end result I believe will have been worth it.