Since assuming control of Minor League Baseball in 2020, Major League Baseball has used the minors as a testing ground for some of the changes MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has been wanting to bring to the game. Before the runner on second in extra innings—the “ghost runner” (or “Manfred Man” as we’re fond of calling it)—was brought to MLB, it was tested in the minors and deemed to be an effective way of curtailing extended extra-innings-fests. Now Manfred wants to make some other changes that have been introduced in the minors—pitch clocks, banning of the shift, and limiting attempted pickoffs to first being the major points—part of baseball as soon as 2023. These changes will not only alter the face of baseball, but they’ll also require some teams—like the Mariners—to drastically shift their identities.
Tomorrow, Friday the 9th, MLB’s Competition Committee will meet to vote on these proposed rule changes, and the outcome of that vote is all but set in stone. MLB holds the majority of votes on the eleven-person committee, with six votes; the MLBPA, the player’s union, holds four, and there’s one umpire representative. With such a power imbalance at the table, the idea that there’s any sort of vote or semi-democratic process towards implementing these changes is clearly illusory, but it allows Manfred to couch his changes to the sport as part of a “committee” rather than a unilateral decision. Also of note: there is no one who has actually played the game under these new rules on the committee, as MLBPA doesn’t yet represent minor-league players, meaning that the people who have the most firsthand knowledge on how these rules impact players literally don’t have a seat at the table.
John’s article earlier breaks down all of the major changes, but let’s examine how these proposed changes impact the Mariners, specifically:
Pitch clocks have been used in the minors for several years now and have sped up the game well, shaving over twenty minutes off the average MiLB game. The implementation of the pitch clock has earned mixed reviews from players, with some appreciating the quicker pace and others bemoaning the adjustment, and rave reviews from gameday staff and the like. who have experienced both pre- and post- pitch clock ball. Generally it has been acknowledged that the pitch clock has trimmed some of the fat from games, expediting them without losing any core element of baseball strategy. The pitch clock rules seem complicated, but I can attest to forgetting they’re there after years of watching minor-league games, and I think fans and players alike will appreciate the quicker pace of games.
A pitch clock shouldn’t affect the Mariners starting rotation too much. If you feel like Logan Gilbert is a fast worker, you’re correct; per FanGraphs’ “Pace” metric, he’s the seventh-fastest qualified starting pitcher in baseball at getting a pitch delivered, hucking one up there every 20.5 seconds. The rest of the rotation is right on his heels: Marco Gonzales (21.1, 13th among qualified starters), Luis Castillo (21.4), George Kirby (22.6), and Robbie Ray (22.7) all rank above-average in pace, and Chris Flexen (22.6) is also a quick worker. The bullpen, not so much—Matt Brash is the clubhouse leader there with 22.6, and Muñoz and Diego Castillo both take over 25 seconds between pitches, so this is a rule change that will likely be felt more in bullpens than in starting rotations. Expect to see a lot of pace of play drills on the back fields at spring training this year.
Pickoffs, step-offs, and bases:
This rule is less universally hailed in the minors, but it looks like it’s coming to MLB anyway. Pitchers complain that having to keep track of pickoff attempts gives them more to think about during already intense at-bats, and also puts defenses at a disadvantage by limiting the number of pickoff attempts when a particularly fast runner is on at first. In 2019, there was one player with 60 stolen bases, and another two with 50-plus. This season, there are already two players with 70 stolen bases, another five in the 60s, and eight in the 50s. This is great news for players with elite speed and maybe less elite power, but less great news for pitchers looking to control the running game. Bigger bases will also offer would-be stealers more real estate to grab onto.
As far as how this rule impacts the Mariners, it’s a mixed bag. A more steal-happy environment should allow the speedsters in the organization to shine, giving Sam Haggerty less to lose sleep over this off-season regarding his roster spot. It’s also helpful that the Mariners have one of the premier base-stealers in all of minor-league ball in their organization, Modesto speedster Jonatan Clase, who just notched his league-leading 55th steal. And it also puts the very real possibility of a 30-30 season for Julio on the table.
However, the Mariners pitching staff has worked hard to improve on what was a team weakness in 2021 regarding the running game. They ranked 27th in baseball in stolen bases allowed in 2021 and this year have cut that number to 18th, a number that should only improve with Cal Raleigh and his elite arm taking over full-time catching duties. The Mariners do have the benefit of having some lefties in the rotation who are better positioned to keep an eye on first, but the larger bases and limited pick-offs will challenge even the teams who excel at controlling the running game, which the Mariners, despite improvements on that front, are not.
Limiting the shift:
This is the rule change that has the most potential to impact the Mariners, who are one of MLB’s most shift-happy teams, as well as one of the best at defensive positioning.
Which MLB teams play 3 infielders (or more) on the pull side vs balls put in play the most often?— SIS_Baseball (@sis_baseball) September 8, 2022
1. Blue Jays
The Mariners infield has -3 Defensive Runs Saved in non-shift scenarios, and +19 in shifts, a good portion of their +33 DRS in defensive positioning, which ranks 9th in MLB. That competitive advantage will be all but neutralized with these new rules. If it feels a little like punishing an analytics staff for being good at their jobs, well, it is.
The Mariners, with their young core, should be able to adapt to many of these new rules with ease. The pitch clock rules seem complicated, but I can attest to forgetting they’re there after years of watching minor-league games, and I think fans and players alike will appreciate the quicker pace of games. Rules that benefit base-stealers could both help the Mariners’ speedsters like Julio, Dylan Moore, and Sam Haggerty, but also hurt a pitching staff that’s worked hard to improve on controlling the running game. But the biggest impact will likely be seen in the lack of shifting. The Mariners have worked for years to improve their infield defense under the tutelage of Perry Hill, while combining that with analytical defensive positioning that’s among the best in the game. Now they’ll lose part of that advantage. Thankfully, no MLB committee can take Perry Hill away.