DETROIT – Major League Baseball introduced several new rules this offseason that will dramatically change the way the game is played.
The infield shift is banned, pickoff attempts are limited, and pitch clocks will be strictly enforced.
Baseball fans, typically resistant to change, might need some time to adjust to how these rules affect the sport. But Detroit Tigers fans might be a little more open minded, considering how the current roster is constructed.
Infield shift ban
The most high-profile rule change requires teams to keep two infielders on each side of second base as the pitch is delivered, and they have to stand with both feet in front of the outfield grass.
I think this will indirectly change the game in a variety of ways: fewer home runs and strikeouts, for instance (thanks to less incentive to sell out for power). But the most obvious difference in the post-shift world will be that a higher percentage of ground balls turn into hits.
This can only help the Tigers, who had the worst offense in MLB by a wide margin last season. Not only did they score the fewest runs in the league, they also finished last in home runs by 17 -- 13% fewer home runs than the second-worst power team in baseball.
Here’s the other problem: Detroit wasn’t compensating for a lack of power by getting on base. The Tigers ranked 25th in batting average and 29th in on-base percentage.
Batting averages league-wide have dropped lower and lower in recent seasons -- in part because players are selling out for power, but also because of the shift.
Very few teams tried to “beat the shift” in a traditional sense -- by bunting down the opposite base line or slapping the ball the other way. Instead, they “hit ‘em where they ain’t” by, you know, blasting homers over the wall.
Detroit did neither.
The Tigers didn’t have a single player hit 20 home runs last season. In fact, only four guys reached double figures. Even though the juiced ball era is over, 2022 was a borderline historic power outage for Detroit.
So while most other MLB offenses were being hurt by the shift, they were also at least making up for some of it with home runs.
Detroit will still be one of the most power-deprived teams in the league this season. The additions of Nick Maton (7 career homers) and Matt Vierling (8) to the everyday lineup aren’t likely to provide a power boost.
Since the Tigers are hitting so few home runs, balls in play becoming inherently more valuable can only help them. It narrows the gap between home run specialists and contact specialists.
Last season, the Tigers had the seventh-highest ground ball rate in baseball, at 44.7%. That’s generally bad, because ground balls rarely turn into extra-base hits, but it’s not as bad when more of them turn into base runners.
To hit more home runs, the Tigers would need to put the ball in the air a lot more often. But no team had a smaller percentage of fly balls result in home runs than the Tigers, probably because no team hit the ball hard less frequently (26.1% hard-hit rate, 30th in MLB).
It’s still a bad sign that the Tigers won’t hit many home runs, but comparatively, the fact that ground balls are suddenly more rewarding will help them more than most teams.
Infield shift ban, part 2
We’ve established that the shift ban will help the Tigers’ offense, but it could also have a subtle positive impact on the defense (compared to other teams).
One of the reasons the Tigers signed Javier Baez to a long contract is that he’s considered an excellent defensive player at shortstop.
Last season, that obviously did not play out, as he led MLB in errors. But the vast majority of those were throwing miscues, and it might help if Baez is playing a more traditional shortstop, and therefore making more of the conventional shortstop throws he’s used to.
Most importantly, the ban on the infield shift will add value to Baez’s defensive range. When infielders are shifted, it often eliminates that value, because players are already standing where the ball is most likely to go.
Teams with incredibly athletic infielders -- especially shortstops -- will gain an advantage under the new rules because their players will get to more ground balls, while the shortstops for other teams don’t.
In three of the five seasons before he joined the Tigers, Baez ranked among the top 10 shortstops in terms of range runs above average -- in other words, how many runs were prevented directly due to his range.
Detroit invested heavily in Baez, and his offensive trends are worrisome. Getting more value out of his defensive skills would lessen some of the blow.
Gimmicky base running changes
It’s no surprise that MLB is banning shifts to make games more fun to watch and installing a pitch clock to make them shorter, but the base running changes are a little more unconventional.
Pitchers are only allowed to step off the rubber twice per plate appearance, and if they step off a third time, it must result in a pickoff, or else the runners get a base.
The bases are also larger, which will give runners more room to avoid tags and, technically, make the distance to steal a little shorter.
Detroit was nowhere near the top of the league in stolen bases last season, but that’s probably a result of rarely being on base in the first place. And regularly playing from multiple runs behind, devaluing the risk/reward ratio of attempting steals in the first place.
But we’ve seen that A.J. Hinch likes to force the issue in the running game, especially since this lineup doesn’t come by runs naturally.
Between Akil Baddoo, Riley Greene, Baez, and Vierling, the Tigers have a handful of players who could take advantage of the new rules.
The overarching takeaway here, though, is that the gimmicky new base running rules could act as an equalizer. Are the Yankees going to risk being thrown out on the base paths with Aaron Judge or Giancarlo Stanton coming up? Probably not often. But the Tigers don’t have those types of hitters, so the base running rules could have a greater benefit.
Nobody knows exactly what this is going to look like, so there’s an opportunity for Hinch and his staff to be proactive and create an advantage.
Pitch clock concerns
Many players around the majors are having a hard time with the pitch clock rules. Hitters have to be in the batter’s box and facing the pitcher by the time the clock hits eight seconds, and pitchers have to start their motion before the time runs out.
It’s mostly affecting players who have spent a long time in the league, such as San Diego Padres third baseman Manny Machado.
Versions of these rules have been in effect in the minor leagues for awhile now, though, so that could work to the Tigers’ advantage.
Other than Miguel Cabrera, Baez, and Jonathan Schoop, there aren’t many longtime MLB vets in the Detroit dugout. Most of the roster is comprised of young players, many of whom already played within these fast-paced rules in the minor leagues.
The pitch clock will be an adjustment for everybody, but it’s going to be much harder for a team of veteran players who are used to messing with their batting gloves for 20 seconds between pitches. I don’t expect the Tigers to be penalized with extra strikes or balls very often.