Illustration by Steve Zimmerman, Star Tribune

Baseball's new defensive rules favor athletic ability — and knowing your place on the field

By La Velle E. Neal III Star Tribune

March 29, 2023
Illustration by Steve Zimmerman, Star Tribune

The Twins used assorted shifts, which are now illegal, more often than most other teams. During the offseason, adding players with first-rate defensive skills became a priority. New rules are a big reason why.

The Twins used assorted shifts, which are now illegal, more often than most other teams. During the offseason, adding players with first-rate defensive skills became a priority. New rules are a big reason why.

FORT MYERS, FLA. — One thing about the new defensive rules bothers Carlos Correa: He no longer can enjoy having soft grass or turf under his feet as the pitch is delivered.

Nope. The Major League Baseball overlords have spoken. While banning the shift, infielders must keep both feet on the infield dirt during pitches as they attempt to end baseball's version of the prevent defense.

"The part I don't like is that I can't play on the grass because it gives me more range against slower runners," Correa said. "I'm a grass player because of my arm. I guess it's the same for everyone."

During his first spring training game in February, Correa engaged umpires about how close he could get to the grass without sounding alarms.

He's not the only one adjusting to MLB's rule changes. In addition to being tied to the infield dirt as the ball is thrown, there can be only two infielders on each side of the second base bag.

Pitchers are required to work faster, with 15 seconds allowed to deliver a pitch with no runners on base. And the introduction of the pitch clock forces teams to pay more attention to how they hold runners, so that pitch clock doesn't become a countdown clock for base stealers.

The Twins, who open the season Thursday in Kansas City, have paid extra attention to defense in the offseason, signing Gold Glove outfielders Joey Gallo and Michael A. Taylor, strong-armed catcher Christian Vazquez, and trading for ex-Cincinnati starting shortstop Kyle Farmer.

Moving around

The shift ban is the most noticeable defensive change. In the past, teams brought someone from the left side — usually the third baseman — to play short right field. That, combined with the second baseman and first baseman, created a triangle of terror for lefthanded pull hitters.

Hitters also were foiled on hard-hit balls up the middle that the shortstop, starting on the outfield grass, could gobble up.

Defensively, the Twins have been one of the shiftier teams in the league. The MLB average last season was slightly less than 35%, but the Twins shifted almost 45% of the time. Their effectiveness can be debated, as opponents' batting average on balls in play (BABIP) ranked 12th, but that's a reflection of pitching quality as well as positioning.

The Dodgers are the gold standard with a defensive BABIP of .263 since 2019 that's lowest in baseball — and also reflective, in part, of better pitching to go with excellent positioning.

For defenses like the Twins, the overall change might not be as significant. A Baseball America story in September pointed out that shift-banning trials in 2021 in all of Class AA led to a .308 BABIP. In 2019, it was .305.

There's an argument that batted balls no longer catchable via the shift will be balanced out by balls caught in a regular alignment.

"They're not difficult adjustments to make for the players," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. "They're going to be in actually more traditional spots where I don't think there's much of an issue dealing with those spots."

Baldelli then dropped an interesting nugget.

"We're going to end up discussing the range of players a little bit more," he said, "because they're going to have to cover more space individually."

Second becomes a focus

Yes, range at second base had been devalued because of the proliferation of the shift. That tool now rises in importance once again as front offices will be looking for rangier second basemen soon.

Falvey mentioned the Brewers using 230-pound Travis Shaw at second. By comparison, Twins regular second baseman Jorge Polanco is listed at 208. And the second basemen the Twins could use at the start of the season with Polanco injured — Willi Castro and Nick Gordon — have range.

"The shift allowed you, to some degree, squeeze in there on the second baseman," Falvey said, "and if you decided if you were one of those teams that were going to swap the third baseman over in deep right field, it did allow for a little bit of protection there. The middle infielders now get stretched a little bit more defensively than we have seen over the last few years.

"The shift was created so you caught more balls on that side of the field. In some ways, it also allowed you to deploy players differently."

Infielders can move once the pitch is thrown, but if they start with a foot on the grass, the pitch could be called a ball — the team on offense would have a right to veto, of course, if, for instance, they hit a home run.

Correa, the Twins' unofficial assistant general manager, did point out an exception to using nimble second basemen.

"If you have a second baseman who puts up a 100 OPS+," he said, "that might be more important."

Catchers take notice

Controlling the running game becomes more important in this new era. Bases are larger, shortening the distance between first and second by 4.5 inches. With so many stolen bases coming down to a fingernail, will that encourage more base stealing?

Pitchers will have 20 seconds to deliver a pitch with a runner on base. They will have three opportunities to throw over to first. If the third try is unsuccessful, the baserunner is awarded a base. All that seems to give baserunners a big advantage.

The Twins have noticed some teams being more aggressive during spring training, and the Twins have been encouraging their baserunners to take more aggressive leads.

Holding runners on base becomes more important. And, after the second throw over, that pitching clock can become a countdown clock for the would-be base stealer. How aggressive will baserunners be, knowing the pitcher can throw over so few times?

On the other hand, pitchers can use the clock to their advantage, varying their deliveries to mess with the baserunner's timing. You don't want the pitch clock to become a countdown clock as the runner knows the pitcher has to throw.

Twins catcher Ryan Jeffers believes good baserunners are going to steal, no matter what. But they will be prepared. It also helps that the Twins signed Vazquez. He does everything well, including holding runners on base.

"We've got the buttons on the PitchCom that say 'hold' and 'pick' so we have different types of pickoffs that we are going to be using just to switch it up on guys," Jeffers said.

Whether all this works — the positioning, scouting, timing — remains to be seen. The feeling-out process begins when the first regular-season pitch is thrown.

But things will move more quickly.

"The game will be different," Baldelli said, "but only moderately different. And it's leading us to play the type of baseball I think a lot of people want to see."