Spring is here and with it a new season of the MLB, the pastime of America (although the last World Classic has given arguments to qualify that nickname). An especially interesting one. Because it will mean the premiere of a series of changes destined to make the game more dynamic and because the last free agency left a series of movements that have widened the range of teams aspiring to win the World Series next fall.
Rob Manfred, nine years already as Commissioner of the league, achieved in the new collective agreement with the players’ union what he had been looking for for a long time: more rhythm for a sport that in terms of game duration was beginning to be anachronistic. The solution that will be put into practice this year, after having been tested in the minor leagues, has three variants.
First, a pitching clock. From now on, pitchers will have 15 seconds to pitch against a batter with the bases empty, and 20 when there are players on base. The batsmen will have to be in position at the latest eight seconds from the end of the count. If one of the two does not comply, he will be penalized with a free ball or strike, respectively. On the other hand, the pitches and feints allowed to try to eliminate players already on base are restricted to two. A third will result in a free base for all runners.
For now the measure works. In the preseason games, Spring Training, the average duration was 2h35, compared to 3h04 last season. Opinions? Several posh pitchers, including Met Max Scherzer, three times chosen as the best of the year, have spoken in favor, assuring that they will adapt their routines to the new regulations, and even believe that they can get more out of it than the previous one in terms of What about the mental game with the hitters? Others, especially relievers, believe that the pressure can be excessive in risky situations, with several bases occupied.
Another novelty is the prohibition of defensive changes by which the teams (some more than others, depending on their needs), saturated with players the flank of the diamond that the batter in action at that moment has more tendency to hit. Now the four players of the infield (first base, second, third and shortstop) will have to be evenly distributed on both sides of second base, and may not be positioned behind the sand zone. Once the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand, they will have freedom of movement. If the rule is broken without negative effects for the batting team, there will be no penalties. If they do, that team will decide if they want the penalty to be imposed or if they prefer to keep the result of the play. The majority opinion is favorable to the elimination of the so-called shifts, especially among left-handed hitters, the most affected, and among players traditionally punished for this strategy such as Corey Seager or Joey Gallo. Even some pitchers have spoken in favor. In the minor league test, the batting percentage among lefties increased eight points because of this.
The last big change is in the size of the bases, which go from 15 to 18 square inches with a double purpose: increase the number of attempted steals, a spectacular action that brings out the athletic qualities of players like few others in this sport, and reduce the number of injuries that occur due to collisions between runners and defenders.
A busy free agency
The latest free agency was a rosary of interesting moves with the potential to change the landscape of the league for the next decade, with two clear and antagonistic protagonists: the New York Mets and the San Diego Padres. A large market that under the ownership of investment fund magnate Steve Cohen is behaving as such and a small market that has thrown in the rest in an attempt to get its first title.
162 million in five years for the closer Edwin Diaz, 162 in eight for outfielder Brandon Nimmo, 86 in two for Justin Verlander, the last Cy Young of the American League (one of the two conferences that divide the 30 teams) and relief of Jacob deGrom, who moved to Texas; 75 in five for another starter, Kodai Senga, one of the new Japanese sensations… Movements that have brought New Yorkers’ staff spending to 375 million dollars (346 euros) including the luxury tax. More than any other team in the league. Cohen’s answer to the doubts that such a stipend has generated? That he will do whatever it takes to break what is already 37 years without winning the World Series.
The bet of the Padres, whose home is a city with less than two million inhabitants and who compete in California with four other teams (Dodgers and Angels in Los Angeles, Giants in San Francisco and Athletics in Oakland) is even more surprising. . To the incorporation of Juan Soto via transfer in 2022, to which they will have to renew for the maximum at the end of the season, they have added Xander Bogaerts (280 million in 11 years). Manny Machado was signed 350 million for 11 years and in 2021 they already tied Fernando Tatis Jr. for 14 years and 340 before he was sanctioned with 80 matches for marijuana use. If he returns to his pre-penalty selves, there isn’t a lineup with more potential in the league, though in the starting rotation they may be a bit short if injuries, like the one that will keep Joe Musgrove out until April, catch up with them.
In any case, Mets and Padres are clear contenders in a squad that also includes the Astros, current champions, whose main addition is the first Cuban José Abreu (58 million in three years); the Dodgers, who keep Clayton Kershaw in the rotation (one year at a rate of 20 million) and incorporate ThorNoah Syndergaard ($13 million for one season), a star starter on the wane whose fastball is unknown after a series of physical problems; the Yankees, whose great winter operation has been to keep the current MVP of the American League on the team (62 home runs in 2022, seventh best mark in history in a single season), Aaron Judge, who will pocket 360 million in nine years in the Big Apple after a flirtation with the Giants; the Phillies, finalists last year, who have taken Trea Turner out of Los Angeles with a contract of 300 ‘kilos’ for 11 seasons; and the Braves, calmer in free agency because they have already secured their future by sealing long ties with Austin Riley, Ozzie Albies or Ronald Acuña Jr.