By Ronald Blum/AP Baseball Writer
Baseball has transformed in the 145 days since Dusty Baker and the Houston Astros sealed the franchise’s second title in six seasons.
As New York Mets owner Steve Cohen dominated an offseason that saw billions spent, the sport braced for a new world that includes pitch clocks, bigger bases, limits on defensive shifts and pickoff throws, and an overarching attempt to reverse decades of lengthening games and the Analytics Era domination of the Three True Outcomes — strikeouts, walks and home runs.
“Late-inning relievers more than anyone will have to figure some things out and make some adjustments,” Minnesota Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “Left-handed hitters, it’s going to help them, period.”
Last year’s average game time was 3 hours, 4 minutes after the introduction of the PitchCom electronic device to signal pitches, down from a record 3:10 in 2021. MLB’s average was 2:46 in 2005 and 2:33 in 1981. A pitch clock of 15 seconds with no runners on base and 20 seconds with runners is designed to cut game times considerably.
Higher pitch velocity and increased shifts led to the major league batting average dropping to .243, its lowest since 1968. The only seasons with lower averages were the record bottom of .237 in 1968 along with 1967 and the dead-ball era seasons of 1884, 1888 and 1908.
Over the objections of players, the sport’s 11-man competition committee adopted a rule that two infielders are required to be on either side of second and all infielders to be within the outer boundary of the infield when the pitcher is on the rubber. Bases were increased from 15-inch squares to 18-by-18, which shorten the distance by 4 1/2 inches and may lead to increased stolen bases.
In spring training through Sunday, games time averaged 2:35 in a drop from 3:01. Runs fell from 10.6 per game to 10.2 and batting average from .259 to .256, but batting average on balls in play rose to .325 from .314 for lefty hitters while remaining .311 for righties.
No player will be watched more closely this season than Shohei Ohtani, a two-way megastar in the final year under contract with the Los Angeles Angels. He and three-time MVP teammate Mike Trout nave have played in a postseason game together. Ohtani has made it clear he wants to win. A taste of October might be needed to persuade the Japanese sensation to remain with the franchise.
Other storylines to watch include Aaron Judge’s ascent to Yankee captaincy — the first since Derek Jeter — after his 62-homer season; Fernando Tatis Jr., set to return from a drug suspension on April 20, teaming with Manny Machado to try leading the Padres to their first World Series title; and can Carlos Correa remain healthy with Minnesota after San Francisco and the Mets backed out of deals with the All-Star shortstop?
Five areas to focus on as the 2023 season starts Thursday:
Batting average for left-handed hitters was .236 last year, down from .254 in 2016, when lefties were one point below the big league average.
An early focus will be on which left-handed hitters benefit most from the new shift restrictions. Among those who could be helped are Corey Seager, Kyle Schwarber, Anthony Rizzo, Cody Bellinger, Rowdy Tellez, Vinnie Pasquantino and Yordan Álvarez.
Teams still are allowed to position outfielders as they wish, so some managers may experiment with moving the left fielder into short right with certain lefties at the plate.
Cohen inspired the character of Bobby Axelrod, who returns to Showtime’s “Billions” in Season 7. Season 3 of the Mets under Cohen should be as interesting as the television drama.
New York raised its payroll to a projected $370 million and is set to shatter the record, set by the 2015 Los Angeles Dodgers at $291 million, while also paying a luxury tax on track to be $116 million. The Mets added Justin Verlander, José Quintana, Kodai Senga, David Robertson and Omar Narváez while losing Jacob deGrom to Texas and re-signing Edwin Díaz, Brandon Nimmo, Jeff McNeil and Adam Ottavino to big deals. Díaz already is out for the season following a knee injury during the World Baseball Classic.
“$300 million, which is still a lot of money, didn’t get us like it used to,” Cohen said.
OLD FACES IN NEW PLACES
Verlander left the champion Astros for the Mets after winning his third Cy Young Award.
Others on new teams include deGrom (Texas), Trea Turner (Phillies), Xander Bogaerts (Padres), Carlos Rodón (Yankees), Dansby Swanson (Cubs) and Willson Contreras (St. Louis).
“The goal is to make 30-plus starts and I truly believe that I will be able to do that,” said deGrom, limited by injuries to 26 starts during the past two years.
Bruce Bochy (Texas), Matt Quatraro (Kansas City), Pedro Grifol (Chicago White Sox) and Skip Schumaker (Miami) are the four new managers among the 30 teams, while interim tags were removed for Rob Thomson (Philadelphia), Phil Nevin (Los Angeles Angels) and John Schneider (Toronto).
“You do realize how much you miss it and how much fun so many different parts of the game bring to you,” said the 67-year-old Bochy, who led the San Francisco Giants to three World Series titles and left after 2019, his 25th season as a big league manager.
Shortstop Anthony Volpe, just 21, made the Yankees’ opening day roster after playing 22 games at Triple-A. He joins a rookie class that includes Arizona outfielder Corbin Carroll, St. Louis outfielder Jordan Walker, Baltimore infielder Gunnar Henderson, White Sox outfielder Oscar Colás, Cleveland catcher Bo Naylor and Colorado infielder Ezequiel Tovar, plus a pair of Japanese imports: Boston outfielder Masataka Yoshida and the Mets’ Senga.
“I don’t even know what lies ahead but Thursday I just want to go out and play, and have fun,” Volpe said.