Take Me Out to the Ball Game!
With Spring Training around the corner, baseball’s return is quickly becoming reality. Soon we’ll start the nearly eight-month MLB journey, breaking down our favorite teams and players on everything from A(djusted ERA) to Z(one rating).
The process starts when Spring Training games officially begin on Friday, February 24th.
There will be plenty to keep an eye on during the six weeks leading up to Opening Day on March 30th. These four major storylines should hold our interest until the regular season is underway.
Rules Are Rules
Major League Baseball adopted a new set of rules for 2023 to speed up the pace of play and increase offense.
Spring Training will give fans their first glimpse of how each team plans to approach this new era.
The first of three major changes is an increase in base size.
First, second, and third base are expanding from 15 to 18 square inches. It may not sound like much, but baseball has always been a game of inches.
The distance between first and second base and second and third base is decreasing by 4 1/2 inches, which could be the difference between extra baserunners or extra outs.
The change could impact the game’s speediest thieves.
Kansas City third baseman Bobby Witt Jr. tied for the league’s second-fastest sprint speed last season at 30.4 feet per second. He finished with 30 stolen bases in a fantastic rookie season, but also was caught stealing seven times, giving the sophomore slugger room for improvement.
The same is true for Baltimore’s Jorge Mateo, who finished second in MLB with 35 stolen bases, but also got caught stealing nine times (fourth overall) despite a top-ten sprint speed of 30.1 ft/s.
The second rule change is the addition of a pitch clock.
Players will now be pushed to pack in pitches with just 15 seconds between throws when the bases are empty and 20 seconds with runners on.
That could be a problem for some of the league’s best relievers, who are adversely affected by the change.
For example, Atlanta’s Kenley Jansen was one of the most notorious in the league last season for his slow delivery. On average, Jansen took 25.6 seconds between qualified pitches with the bases empty (third slowest) and 31.4 seconds with runners on (slowest).
Other big-name RPs like Giovanny Gallegos, Mark Melancon, and Aroldis Chapman are just as stingy with their time, while slower starters such as Frankie Montas, Shohei Ohtani, and Zac Gallen also will need to pick up the pace.
The final rule change gave the defensive shift the shaft.
Under the new rule, teams will no longer be allowed to employ the shift to take advantage of a hitter’s tendencies. Instead of over-stacking one side of the field, two defenders are required to be on either side of second base at all times.
Infielders also are required to remain on the infield dirt and players are not allowed to switch from one side of second base to the other. In other words, teams can’t swap their best defender back and forth during the inning to skirt the new rules.
The change affects some teams more than others.
Against left-handed hitters, only two teams (Atlanta and Colorado) shifted less than 40% of the time. The worst offenders were the Houston Astros, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Minnesota Twins, who all employed the strategy more the 70% of the time.
The shift was less common against right-handed hitters, but the Toronto Blue Jays, Dodgers, Miami Marlins, Seattle Mariners, and New York Mets still shifted more than 30% of the time.
For pitchers, it could mean fewer easy outs. For example, Miami Marlins pitchers Sandy Alcantara and Pablo López led all pitchers in outs resulting from the shift. Clayton Kershaw, Tony Gonsolin, and Julio Urías also were among the league leaders in that category thanks to the Dodgers’ love for the shift.
Keeping an eye on those players during Spring Training could offer insight into how teams plan to adapt to the new paradigm.
On the other end, some batters could see positive adjustment.
Corey Seager, Kyle Tucker, and Cody Bellinger were the most heavily impacted. Last year, each one faced the shift over 90% of the time. Other top sluggers like Kyle Schwarber, Yordan Alvarez, Ohtani, Max Muncy, Seth Brown, Anthony Rizzo, and Matt Olson were over 80%.
It’s hard to imagine the new rule will be anything but good news for many hitters, and this spring will offer our first look at the game’s new direction.
It would be disingenuous to say that anybody expected what Aaron Judge accomplished in 2022.
That’s not because Judge was incapable of such feats, but prior to 2022, his health and production rarely ever worked in tandem. Plus, even projecting a great season from Judge would have fallen short of his historic rise.
Judge slashed .311/.425/.686 while smashing 62 home runs. His chase to take the Yankee home run crown from Roger Maris and his 61 homers in 1961 captivated the baseball world. Judge is now seventh all-time in home runs for a single season.
Judge’s 11.4 fWAR, measured by FanGraphs, was the highest for any hitter since Barry Bonds in 2004 (11.9 fWAR) and 20th all-time. Only four times has a player posted an fWAR above 10.0 in the non-steroid era: Mookie Betts (10.5, 2018), Mike Trout (10.2, 2013), Buster Posey (10.1, 2012), and Trout again (10.1, 2012).
Judge even improved throughout the season. He hit a ridiculous .417/.570/.869 in September and .349/.502/.784 overall in the second half.
It was no wonder the soon-to-be free agent dominated offseason headlines, as he was besieged by suitors in the search for a new home.
Ultimately, Judge chose to hold on to his pinstripes, agreeing with the Yankees on a staggering nine-year, $360 million contract.
So, what kind of follow-up can we expect from the player with inarguably the greatest offensive season of the past 15 years?
Most projections have Judge falling well below his record-smashing pace from 2022. Few put Judge over 50 home runs let alone 62, and many expect his slash line to fall back near his career averages of .284/.394/.583.
Was his success last season driven by good fortune? Good health? Or a good contract?
Those answers will start to take shape in Spring Training and continue throughout the season.
Old Faces, New Places
While Judge chose to remain with the Yankees, other stars packed up and moved to new homes.
Is that Jacob deGrom in a Texas Rangers uniform? These things often take time to settle in for both players and fans, but Spring Training serves as an excellent adjustment period.
So, who were the big names on the move?
Of course, there’s deGrom. After spending his first nine years in the league with the Mets, deGrom is now in Arlington. Keeping him healthy will be priority No. 1 for the Rangers this spring.
To replace deGrom, the Mets signed Justin Verlander. The future Hall of Famer already made a big leap once in his career. After pitching 13 seasons with the Detroit Tigers, Verlander was traded to Houston where he spent the next five seasons and won two World Series titles. Even at 40 years old, he could again be in the conversation for the Cy Young.
Verlander wasn’t the only arm to move to the Big Apple. Carlos Rodón signed a six-year, $162 million contract with the Yankees. Rodon spent his first seven years with the Chicago White Sox. He finally realized his immense potential in 2021 with a 2.37 ERA and 12.55 K/9. He followed that up last year on a one-year deal in San Francisco with a 2.88 ERA and 11.98 K/9.
Shortstops also were hot commodities.
Trea Turner said goodbye to the Los Angeles Dodgers to sign an 11-year, $300 million contract with Philadelphia, Xander Bogaerts left the only home he’s ever known in Boston to take an 11-year, $280 million deal in San Diego, and Dansby Swanson turned a career-best season with Atlanta into a seven-year, $177 million contract with the Chicago Cubs.
And there was one more…
No other free agent had an offseason like Correa.
After opting out of his contract with the Twins after just one season, Correa and his agent were looking for a big payday.
They found it. Briefly.
On December 15th, it was announced that Correa and the Giants agreed to a massive 13-year, $350 million deal to keep the shortstop in the Bay City until he was 41. But the deal was halted just three hours before his introductory press conference.
Reports came in that Correa failed his physical and the Giants wanted to renegotiate. Instead, Correa took off across the country and found a new deal with the Mets for 12 years and $315 million.
Not long after, San Francisco’s front office was validated when Correa failed another physical with the Mets’ doctors.
In the end, Correa found his way back to Minnesota on a six-year, $200 million contract.
So, why all the concerns?
In 2014, Correa fractured his ankle and required surgery to repair the damage. Despite playing every season after his surgery, reports came out that one doctor this offseason called Correa’s ankle “the worst ankle he’s seen.”
All eyes will be on Correa — or at least his ankle — when the makes his return to the Twins. He certainly will want to prove both his doubters and doctors wrong.
Also returning from injury is San Diego Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr.
Tatis fractured his wrist before the 2022 season and went under the knife in March to repair the damage. A few months later, just before Tatis was set to return, it was announced he had failed a PED test and was suspended for 80 games.
Part of that sentence carries over into the 2023 regular season. He can’t officially return until April 20 at the earliest, but fans will still be able to watch Tatis this spring.
In 2021, Tatis slashed .282/.364/.611 with 42 home runs, 97 RBI, and 27 stolen bases. He finished with a 7.3 fWAR and 157 wRC+, putting the third-year player among the game’s elite.
Spring Training will give the first glimpse of a Padres lineup brimming with talent after last season’s trade for Juan Soto and the offseason signing of Bogaerts. The top of the lineup could challenge for best in the game with Tatis, Soto, Bogaerts, and Manny Machado. Witnessing that lineup alone could be worth the price of spring admission!