Sometimes, crime does pay. In fact, some are expecting it to pay even more in 2023. The “unlawful act” in question, of course, is stealing bases, a transgression likely to rise under the guise of the new MLB rules.
There are four changes coming this season, all of which are expected to work in tandem to increase steals. Let’s examine each of them with an eye towards how they might assist and abet runners in an increase of nefarious basepath activity.
Change No. 1: Disengagement from the rubber
With a runner on base, a pitcher is allowed to step off and/or try to pick him off only twice per plate appearance. A third attempt is allowed, but if the runner isn’t called out, a balk is ruled. Once a runner advances, the disengagement count resets.
It may not happen a lot, but this sets things up for an entertaining “cat and mouse” game between the pitcher, catcher, and runner. Some will test the limits and extend their lead after two disengagements. It then becomes a decision of whether the pitcher has a better chance of picking off the daring runner, or if the catcher has a greater probability of throwing him out.
Change No. 2: Bigger Bases
The bags will now be 15 inches per side, up from a foot. The stated intention if to reduce collisions between first basemen and oncoming runners. However, with the distance between bases now being 4 1/2 inches closer, this could help shift bang-bang plays in favor of the runner, especially with replay reviews.
There are other repercussions serving to assist the runner. Assuming a tag is applied in front of the base, the added width offers up more room for the runner to evade the fielder’s glove — another act which replay can help identify. In addition, with more surface area to grab, there is less of a chance that a runner will overslide or otherwise lose contact with the bag.
Change No. 3: Pitch Clock
In lieu of throwing over, some pitchers have tended to hold the ball in the set position for an extended period of time before releasing it towards home plate. This tactic is now all but eliminated since holding the ball too long with result in a ball being called.
The mere presence of the pitch clock may increase running since some hurlers will be more focused on the clock and less on the runner. Chances are this will only be a problem in the season’s early days until everyone grows accustomed to the brand new ticker, but it could be an influence in April and May.
Change No. 4: Shift Legislation
Fielders will still be able to shade towards the bag, so this is not going to be a factor during the stolen-base process itself. That said, the hope is that legislating the shift will result in more hits, hence there should be an increased number of opportunities for runners to take off. It may also bring the hit-and-run back into the game.
Working in concert, these four factors should inflate the number of steals this season. With that now established, the next question to ask is clear.
How much more will players run?
A logical place to start is to access the league-wide impact of the new rules, based on the SB trends in the minors where these rules were all tested before being implemented by MLB. Of course, the effect will be different in the majors, but at a minimum, the level of increased running should serve as an upper boundary of what to expect. Most of the early studies suggest that steals increased at least 20% and perhaps even as much as a bit over 30%. When the 2023 ESPN Fantasy Baseball Projections were initially unveiled, a 20% increase over last season was factored into the process.
Recently, Rotowire’s Jason Collette posted some preliminary work on Twitter, suggesting a potential 25% stolen base increase over last season. Even though there is some evidence the total could well jump by more than 20%, it was decided to leave the change intact. The chief reason is that minor leaguers are mostly young, with fewer health issues and less of a need to curtail running. It may be the case that MLB teams deem it to be too risky for many players to increase their exposure to injury via running and sliding. In other words, we’re dealing with a vastly different subject pool.
Who will be doing the running?
The next step is to determine the allocation of the approximately 500 additional stolen bases as compared to last season. Most analysts will break the player pool into three segments:
Those who will not run regardless.
Those who don’t need the extra benefits to be successful.
Those who will benefit from the new environment.
The key to this process will be figuring out exactly how big that last group will be, which is (at best) educated speculation. While it’s not uniform, many teams adhere to the “75% success rate” mantra since that is considered to be the break-even point with respect to run-scoring potential. It stands to reason everyone’s success rate will tick up a little bit for 2023, but those edging into the 75% territory may be afforded the green light more frequently.
Identifying these names is the “educated” part. Deciding the extent of any increase in 2023’s success rate and/or attempts is the speculation aspect, although it can be framed with logic. If the other two groups of players (those who don’t run and those who will run regardless of rules changes) are not going to account for the expected 20% overall increase, then it stands to reason that the increase of this group of players has to be greater than 20%.
While the cutoff points for the following list of names may seem arbitrary, we do need to set some endpoints. As such, it was decided that those stealing between 10-35 bags last season are the most likely to increase their running in 2023.
Sparing you the tedious math, a formula was set up to increase the SB opportunity based on last season’s numbers in a bell curve fashion. Those in the middle had their chances spike by close to 35% while those on the high and low end of this list enjoyed “only” a 25% increase.
This is obviously going to be a work in progress as the spring goes on and we start to figure out if reports and results out of training camps are actual news or just noise. For example, the St. Louis Cardinals, Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox have all said they plan to run more this season. Well, there are always reports of this nature. Some come to fruition while others fail to manifest. Our projections are updated weekly and will incorporate “manager-speak” if it’s deemed to be actionable. That said, it is incumbent upon each fantasy team manager to do their own homework and make decisions of this nature, based on how they read and interpret the reports.
With respect to rotisserie and category scoring, having fewer active players under the new ESPN standard format renders it even more important to focus on multi-category contributors. The low-HR/high-SB type of player is even less useful in our new format.
These “steals specialists” are probably best deployed on Mondays and Thursdays (lighter-schedule days) when you’re trying to have as many active spots filled as possible. Because they aren’t as helpful overall, they may be available on waivers to stream against teams whose battery has issues controlling the running game. Paying attention to team trends in-season may assist in identifying players who are indeed running more.
The same notion holds true for points formats. That is, players with a high SB success rate and little else to offer a fantasy manager may be the best options available to “burn and churn” on Mondays and Thursdays.
During the draft in any format, “breaking a tie” between players by going with ones on the above lists could prove profitable. Yes, any steals increase is already baked into their projection and ranking, but the eventual distribution of our expected 500 extra bags is not going to strictly follow our described model. Life is never that neat. Some will end up adding even more steals than predicted and some will ending up being less successful than we thought. It’s just another example of where your gut has to come into play.
There are so many factors that come into play when it comes to setting player expectations for the upcoming season, with more than usual being art as opposed to science. Even so, knowing the logic and scientific framework behind the projections can help keep your speculation in the sensical realm. Good luck! Now go out there and get some Draft Day steals of your own!