2023 Rule Changes and the New York Yankees
by Andy Singer
December 6, 2022
Much has already been written about the state of the Yankee roster and many have also written about their personal offseason plans for the team, complete with evaluations of targets who can make the Yankees better. One aspect that I believe has been missing from many of those evaluations is a projection of how the rule changes coming to MLB in 2023 will change the performance of both players on the Yankees currently and players who could be obtainable both on the free agent and trade markets. As a reminder, the rule changes are as follows:
MLB is instituting a pitch clock on plays in which the ball is not put into play. The pitch clock will commence when the pitcher receives the ball back from the catcher following a pitch. Pitchers will have 15 seconds to throw the ball with the bases empty, and 20 seconds when there are runners on base, or a ball is called. Batters must be in the batter's box within 8 seconds, or a strike is called.
MLB is limiting pitching "disengagements" to 2 per plate appearance. Disengagements include pickoff and fake pickoff attempts, stepping off of the pitching rubber, and defensive timeouts. If the pitcher disengages a 3rd time in a plate appearance, a balk is issued by the home plate umpire, unless the play results in a baserunner advancing.
MLB is making the bases larger. Bases will increase from 15 inches square to 18 inches square. The distance between 1st and 2nd and 2nd and 3rd bases will decrease by 4.5 inches.
MLB is eliminating the shift. All infielders must be positioned on the infield dirt, with 2 infielders on each side of the 2nd base bag until the pitcher releases the ball.
Without any further ado, let's dig into how each of these rule changes will impact the Yankees:
The Pitch Clock
I would argue that this is actually the rule change that impacts the Yankees the least. Most Yankee pitchers pitched with good tempo in 2022 with rates clocked by Statcast that are already generally within the boundaries of the 15 and 20 second pitch clocks. Pitchers coming up from the minors have pitched with a pitch clock for years, so I wouldn't expect any adjustment there either.
In fact, the only pitcher who has significant work to do to speed up their tempo in 2023 is Jonathan Loaisiga. Loaisiga was rated with a Slow% (a percentage of pitches on which a pitcher's tempo was longer than 30 seconds) of 21.2% with the bases empty and 20.9% with runners on base and a timer equivalent with the bases empty of 19.8 seconds. Most pitchers adapt relatively quickly to changes in tempo, but it does bear noting that Loaisiga will have to speed up a bit.
Likewise, Yankee hitters exhibit good tempos as well, with the only slow times consistently posted with runners on base. Only Anthony Rizzo, DJ LeMahieu, and Aaron Hicks clock in with a Slow% over 20% with runners on base. Again, there's nothing egregious here, so I don't see significant impact to the team in 2023.
Limiting Disengagements and Larger Bases
I am lumping these two rules together because the net effect of the two rules working in tandem encourages teams and their players to take more aggressive risks on the basepaths. For reference, both rules were in place in the minor leagues this season, and there were 2.83 stolen base attempts per game there as opposed to just 1.36 stolen base attempts in MLB. While younger players tend to be faster and more aggressive on the bases, I would still expect a significant jump in stolen base attempts in MLB next season.
The Yankees are actually set up well for these changes. The organization changed their training methodology a couple of seasons ago, and players are focusing less on bulk muscle and more on getting lean and more agile. This has been an ongoing process with multiple goals, but the Yankees made a significant jump in 2022. Once the players were more agile (you can look at the sprint speed metrics over at Statcast for the proof), the Yankees put more emphasis on the running game in 2022, and the results were overwhelmingly positive. The Yankees went from 10th in stolen bases in the American League in 2021 with 63 stolen bases, to 4th in the American League with 102 stolen bases. Even Aaron Judge stole 19 bases.
There will be even greater incentive to steal bases in 2023. Compared to 2022, the Yankees will be even younger and faster for the majority of the season. Oswald Peraza and Oswaldo Cabrera have proven capable of stealing a significant number of bases down in the minor leagues and are highly likely to spend at least the majority of the 2023 season at the Major League level. Harrison Bader, who was efficient (but not necessarily prolific) as a base stealer in St. Louis, might be pushed to be significantly more aggressive with a few inches of advantage, given his plus speed. Anthony Volpe is credited with 60+ speed on the 20-80 scouting scale and has stolen 94 bases in the last two seasons...and he will likely make his Yankee debut in 2023. In short, the Yankees are continuing their transition to a younger, faster team, and the new rules will push this team to be even more aggressive this year and in years to come.
On the flip side, I think the Yankees have a real problem on their hands behind the plate. Jose Trevino was a revelation for the Yankees behind the plate in 2022, and he was possibly the best defensive catcher in the league from a total value perspective. However, Trevino has one Achilles heel: his arm. Among the 83 catchers who threw at least 5 balls down to 2B in 2022, Trevino had the 10th worst arm by velocity in Major League Baseball, averaging 77.9 MPH (worse even than Kyle Higashioka, who is generally regarded as having a light arm for a catcher). Due to his quick exchange, Trevino's pop time was closer to the middle of the pack, but a still poor 53rd out of 83.
Increased stolen base attempts will necessarily change the calculus on catcher value, and catchers who can throw and produce good pop times with good caught stealing rates will be significantly more valuable than they have been in the last 10 years. Jose Trevino derives most of his value from his defense, which is likely to take a hit from the lack of value his arm provides in this scenario. I worry that Trevino will no longer be a starting caliber catcher with added negative value from his arm.
On the flip side, this is precisely why catchers like Sean Murphy of the A's will command an even higher return on the trade market this offseason than he possibly could have last season given how well he throws in addition to his ability to hit, block, and call a decent game behind the plate.
I saved the best for last. Obviously, there are some Yankees who stand to benefit at least at the margins from eliminating the shift. I think it makes sense to look at them individually, but first, I'm going to discuss my methodology for highlighting the players below.
First, I wanted to find players who faced a significant percentage of defensive shifts in 2022. Once I established that list, I wanted to narrow it down by finding players with high expected batting averages on balls hit to the pull side with exit velocities over 90 MPH and launch angles below 14 degrees that resulted either in batted ball outs, fielder's choices, or fielding errors. Here are the returns from that search (with an Easter egg thrown in with a player the Yankees are rumored to be after):
Not only did each of the above players produce high expected batting averages from the events in question, but their average exit velocities were in the high 90s in 2022. Let's take a look at each player individually:
Rizzo had the most batted ball events that fit the parameters I noted above, with 33 batted balls. If you look at his spray chart, there are at least a dozen balls that were hit into the teeth of the shift, where no 2B will be standing in 2023:
Digging deeper into those batted ball events, many looked like this:
That should have been a 1-2 RBI single to keep the rally going. In 2023, that's exactly what will happen. If we take expected batting average in these specific situations at its word, Anthony Rizzo likely deserved 12-13 more hits in 2022. That would have taken him from a .224 batting average to a .250 batting average; from a .338 OBP to .350+; and he would have certainly earned more RBIs. Rizzo has the most to gain of any current Yankee from the elimination of the shift. Rizzo saw the shift on 82.6% of at-bats in 2022. He might find another gear in 2023.
Donaldson had a bad year at the plate in 2022, producing just a 94 OPS+, his worst mark since establishing himself as an offensive threat in 2013. Donaldson might be a player that is aging out of being able to hit at an above-average level, but he still hit the ball hard in 2022, and the shift cost him some hits. Donaldson was shifted against in 36.3% of at-bats, and hit 27 balls that matched our criteria. Here's what those batted ball events looked like:
Let's take a closer look at the video of one example from this spray chart:
A few more seeing eye singles might make Donaldson more confident at the plate. At the very least, getting an extra 8-10 singles might be enough to get him very close to average offensive performance.
Torres had a wildly inconsistent season in 2022, but it was still above-average offensively in the aggregate. Torres was shifted on in 40% of his at-bats. Torres is not known as a strong "exit velocity guy", but here we see that Gleyber produced a surprising number of very hard grounders into the heart of the shift in 2022:
Here's a ball that Gleyber hit almost 106 MPH while he was shifted against:
I'm not sure Gleyber will get anything more than a few extra hits, but a few extra hits makes Gleyber more than merely above-average offensively, with the possibility for more if expected batting average underestimates the number of balls that will get through without the shift.
Trade Target: Bryan Reynolds
The Yankees have been interested in acquiring Bryan Reynolds for at least a year and change. Reynolds is a very good (and occasionally great) offensive player. However, he has done that despite being harmed by the shift possibly even more so than Anthony Rizzo. In 2022, Reynolds had nearly the same number of balls hit into the shift as Rizzo. He was shifted on in nearly 75% of at-bats, and he performed significantly better without the shift, with a .346 wOBA when the shift was on, but a .373 wOBA when the shift was off. Check out his spray chart:
Reynolds averaged almost 100 MPH exit velocity on these batted ball events with a .378 expected batting average. We can see why from plays like this:
In 2022, Reynolds could have added as many as 12 hits without the shift, which would have brought his batting average from .262 to .284. There were reasons to like Reynolds as a trade target already, but the elimination of the shift only adds to that list.
Lastly, the end of the shift is going to put significantly more pressure on middle infielders' range, as you will no longer be able to hide a guy with good hands but no range at 2B or SS. Luckily, the Yanks have a youth movement on the way with Cabrera, Peraza, and Volpe, but I do wonder what LeMahieu and Torres' defensive numbers will look like at 2B in 2023, as neither is particularly rangy.
Rule changes will not be the be-all, end-all of changes in performance from 2022 to 2023. However, I think it's clear that the changes will make a performance impact on teams across baseball. Overall, multiple Yankees stand to benefit from these changes, though it's not all roses. While catching help is far from the top of most people's to-do list, I think the numbers show that there may be more trouble there than meets the eye, while multiple Yankee hitters (and a realistic trade target) stand to benefit greatly from the elimination of the shift.
Most importantly, evaluating the Yankees in the context of rule changes highlights the importance of the coming youth movement, as both the elimination of the shift and the rule changes meant to encourage more aggressive baserunning will make speed and defensive range in the infield much more valuable.