Early Data on the Various MLB Rule Changes Looks Promising
We are but a week into MLB Spring Training games, so I’d caution against taking too much away from these early data points. But, then again, a week’s worth of games is actually a lot of action when distributed across the whole of the Cactus League and Grapefruit League, so there’s probably at least a little bit of signal here.
ESPN reports that, through the first week of Spring Training game under the new rules, we’re seeing slightly more offense while also seeing a reduction in game length (which necessarily means that all that’s being chopped off is dead time):
Runs and batting average were both up through the first wave of games compared to spring training a year ago. Players were hitting .272 through Feb. 28, with an average of 11.9 runs scored. That’s up from a batting average of .259 and 10.6 runs through the same period in 2022.
The uptick in offense does not appear to be affecting pace of play, thanks in large part to the introduction of the pitch clock. The average game time through Feb. 28 was 2 hours, 39 minutes. That’s down from 3:01 over the same stretch last spring training.
Now, while we can pretty clearly attribute the drop in game time to the pitch clock, assigning responsibility for the offensive changes is a little trickier. For one thing, the pitch clock may be having an impact on pitcher effectiveness, so there’s that. For another, sometimes there are league-wide changes in philosophy about who plays when and how in Spring Training (it’s a copycat league, so you could get signal within a week). For still another, with the World Baseball Classic coming, it’s very possible a disproprotionate number of very good players are playing more and longer than they would have in a typical first week of spring. For still ANOTHER, last year’s first week of Spring Training games came after the lockout and it was all kinda rushed. Maybe that depressed offense.
All that said, yes, what you’re hoping is that the bump in offense – and specifically the bump in batting average that might be driving it – is tied to the elimination of extreme shifts. The whole point of that rule change is to allow for more base hits, so it would be great to know that it’s working. I just think we’re going to need a lot more time – and the regular season, frankly – to come to much in the way of conclusions there.
Furthermore, I’m going to keep mentioning: eliminating the shift isn’t JUST about short-term game-level impacts. It is also about changing the way players and organizations approach the development of their skills/rosters/player pool. It could impact scouting and player development. It could impact pitching. It could impact the way different skills are valued. A lot of that stuff takes many years to manifest, not just a single game. Do we want BABIP to go up in 2023? Yes. But is that the only marker of this rule change being a success? No.
Oh, also? I’m looking forward to the regular season data on stolen bases. That’s not really one you can seriously evaluate in Spring Training.