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Saturday SOC: The New Rules are Working

A stream-of-consciousness take on baseball’s new rules.

MLB: Spring Training-Texas Rangers at Arizona Diamondbacks Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

It’s Saturday. It’s not podcast week. Games are being played. Some even count!

That means it’s time to bring back my Saturday Stream of Consciousness posts. Yes, those posts where I don’t spend a few hours doing in-depth research and analysis but instead give an off-the-cuff maybe/maybe not accurate opinion on something I find interesting.

Today it is the new rules that baseball has implemented for the 2023 season.

I know that some fans hate change. All change. Any change. Every change. So, the idea of having a giant clock counting down the seconds in the corner of the screen is vile heresy to the core of what the game is and should be. Pete Rose and Bob Gibson didn’t need a clock to know when to get into the batter’s box or throw a pitch! Baseball has never had a clock and never needed a clock before.

And why change the size of the bases? Vince Coleman didn’t have any problem stealing bases with normal, regular-sized bases! Why not just slap a used pizza box down there on the infield dirt?

Old school baseballers – and I mean this respectfully – find themselves at a complete loss regarding the new rules banning the shift. On the one hand, they hated the idea of the shift. Just hit the ball the other way, Matt Carpenter! On the other hand, they also hate the idea of having to write a brand-new rule to stop teams from doing what they don’t like.

The game is changing. And most of those changes, at least in terms of rules, are coming in response to the way the game has changed. Let me say that again but better. Changes to the game are causing more changes to the game. I know what many of you are thinking because I’ve read the comments on Facebook posts and Tweets: “Can’t we just leave the game alone?”

I sympathize with those of you who don’t like changes to the game you love, even though I’m in no way an old-school baseballer. You probably knew that from all the Statcast analytics and nonsensical statistical abbreviations that I pepper throughout my articles.

I’m one of those weirdo creative types who love change just for the sake of change. Change can be fun, interesting, weird, crazy, and exciting. Change something about something and you just never know what will happen! Sometimes change can bring good, positive results. Sometimes the opposite.

Old-school baseballers are right about one thing: three-true outcome baseball can be boring. Playing for the walk. Waiting for the homer. Hard hit balls that would have been a hit a decade ago, finding their way right into the shortstop’s glove… in short right field.

Treating a baseball plate appearance like a golf stroke, where a batter needs a full five minutes to collect themselves, gather their thoughts, talk to their caddy (the third base coach), test the wind direction, and then fiddle with their gloves BETWEEN PITCHES is unnecessary, annoying, moronic, and yawn-inducing.

Without any rules to govern it, this game we all love used to be faster. There used to be more things happening. It seems like it used to be more fun.

At the same time, there are reasons why the game changed. It wasn’t just random. There was thought, consideration, research, and measurable and tested quantifiables that led to those changes.

I think the shift is a great example. Managers have known about spray charts and used them for decades. They knew that players – lots of players, most players – had pretty dramatic tendencies in their batted balls. Remember Dave Duncan and Tony LaRussa’s note cards? That was over thirty years ago. Still, despite knowing the data, managers and players allowed the status quo to govern their actions rather than adopting change in accordance with what the data said.

For a long time, baseball was “better” because it was intentionally foolish. In my other world of philosophy, theology, and sociology, we might use the (not so technical) term “foolish” to describe someone who has information about something and then doesn’t choose to use that information to affect a positive change in their environment.

Playing a dead pull hitter with a normal infield alignment and then giving up a pulled ground ball base hit to lose a game is foolishness. A fool knows what they should do, chooses not to do it, and then gets mad about the result.

For the last thirty years baseball decided they weren’t going to be foolish anymore. They got smart. And they got smart in ways that were intended to help the game. Hitters found advantages. Pitchers found advantages in response. Fielders found advantages. Managers and front offices found advantages.

For a few decades, the game ebbed and flowed and changed and moved, until the search for advantages became so universal that no one could gain advantages anymore. The result wasn’t league parity. It was league statis. Everyone had to play/manage/administrate in the same way or they would lose what little probability edge they had. That paralyzed teams into a very specific kind of game played in the very confined creative space of statistical ROI.

That sucked the life, fun, and energy out of baseball.

And that flipped the equation. Smart baseball suddenly became foolish in a completely unexpected way. Baseballers had masses of information available to them and became increasingly effective at using that information to affect change. They were making the right decisions. Almost all the time. But all those right decisions were resulting in a game that fewer and fewer people wanted to watch.

Sometimes smart can be pretty foolish.

So, the league has stepped in. And they said, “Hey, all of you smart baseball people. Do you remember when baseball used to be fun? When there was lots of action? And cool things were happening all the time during games?”

Those smart baseball people were like, “Yes, we remember. But that kind of baseball was actually pretty foolish.”

And the sociologists sitting in the corner observing all of this said, “Actually, the game in the past probably didn’t have ‘more fun’ and probably didn’t result in measurably ‘more action’ than the current game. Our minds just remember moments of significance and forget all the insignificance that surrounds those moments. So, we romanticize aspects of the past and make them into our reality, even though historical reality was something quite different.”

And everyone rolled their eyes at the sociologies.

So, the league said to the smart baseball people, “Ok. Well, what if we made some changes to the rules so that fun, old kind of baseball wasn’t foolish anymore but was smart and right?”

So, they did.

And now smart baseball has a whole new set of rules to play around with and in. And, whether the game was actually more funner or more actiony in the past doesn’t matter. Because the game right now appears to be more funner and more actiony. And teams now have plenty of new ways to look for advantages.

(This is a stream-of-consciousness piece and I can break the rules of grammar if I want to.)

Take a look at this Tweet from Jeff Passan:

The pitch clock is helping games go faster. Even with ads – Spring Training games are frequently televised – there is about a twenty-five minute change in the length of games. We’re seeing highlight packages where pitchers are running through entire multi-pitch at bats in the same time span as one pitch last season.

The pace of play is snappy. The action is coming quicker. Pitches are coming faster. Batters are staying in the box. And yes, there are some moments when the ball/strike punishment from the clock has affected things in strange ways, but that’s one of the prices we have to pay for positive change.

There’s more action in the game. I mean that in two ways. First, there’s simply less downtime. See above. Second, there are more balls in play, more runs being scored, and, somehow, fewer strikeouts. A lot of that is tied to the shift. BABIP – Batting Average on Balls in Play – is up as teams can’t slide their infielders around as much to cover the tendencies of batters.

This mostly affects ground balls, but a rise from .235 to .258 in BABIP is just enough to influence about a +.4 difference in runs per game.

The slightly larger bases are causing a pretty notable spike in stolen base attempts. Steals are up around 33%. That’s a lot! Do you want to see a return to Whiteyball? Add 33% to Tommy Edman’s steal totals in the last few years. 40-50 steals from him is not out of the question. Especially since he already has shown such a high success rate throughout his career.

Suddenly it’s smart baseball to try to run! Teams that can do that will gain an advantage.

If I think about what baseball used to be; what old school baseballers claim it was, at least, I think of a game that was faster. It didn’t have that much more runs being scored. But there were more runners on base and runners were more active when they were on base. You could claim that hitters were better at putting the ball where fielders weren’t, but I think it’s actually that fielders just weren’t where the hitters put the ball as frequently. The game rewarded instead of punishing a diverse offensive approach and more hitters were capable of playing the game more diversely.

If you’re a fan of old-school baseball, I think you’re going to see it this year. And yes, it will be because of a change in the rules, but it’s the results that matter in the end. Don’t let a change in the rules stop you from enjoying the return of something you loved.

If you’re a fan of new school analytics, I think you’re going to see all kinds of new ways that teams are searching for and applying the advantages they find. There are a lot of new things to think about, analyze, and consider. This new/old game should be a lot of fun to break down.

The new rules are working. Baseball is changing. But the changes look like they’ll be good for everyone.