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How the 2023 MLB Rule Changes Impacted Fantasy Baseball

And what it means for your drafts in 2024.

Last offseason, I attempted to predict which players would be affected most by the incoming rule changes. One season later, we know the answer to the question posed in the title of that article.

Now, with a full season of data under our belts, we can fully and accurately analyze these rule changes’ impact on the fantasy baseball landscape last year. Looking forward, we can also determine what impacts the rule changes will have on our drafts for the 2024 campaign.

We’ll look at the rule changes through three different lenses.

First, I’d like to examine my predictions to see what we can learn from them. What players were we right or wrong about? What was right or wrong about my analysis?

From there, we’ll have an understanding of the consensus before the 2023 season and we’ll be able to determine how to go about analyzing the 2023 results differently. Which players were impacted the most or the least?

Lastly, we’ll peer into the future and use the findings from 2023 to inform our drafting process in 2024. What archetypes of players are affected the most or least? Have players developed a learning curve? How should drafting strategy change with the new landscape?

 

Preseason Forecasting

 

Pitch Timer

When predicting how the pitch timer would affect pitchers, I broke them into two categories: fast pitchers and slow pitchers. I figured pitchers who took a lot of time between pitches would be impacted negatively because they would be forced to alter their routines. On the flip side of the coin, pitchers that worked quickly would have a head start and wouldn’t have to change anything.

The five “slow” pitchers I singled out were Shohei Ohtani, Aaron Nola, Luis Garcia, Jordan Montgomery, and Jeffrey Springs. Both Springs and Garcia underwent surgery in 2023, so they can be omitted from our analysis. That leaves us with three pitchers, each of which didn’t have results in line with my predictions.

Ohtani had an incredible year on the mound (and at the dish, for that matter), winning the AL MVP Award unanimously. However, he took steps back across the board compared to his numbers from 2022. Most notably, his walk rate soared over the double-digit mark (+3.7% from 2022). This can be correlated to less recovery time in between pitches but can also be blamed on an elbow that would snap in September, resulting in surgery over the offseason.

Nola also had a down year compared to previous seasons. However, he was unlucky, with an ERA (4.46) nearly a run higher than his xFIP (3.48). Either way, that xFIP was his highest since 2019, so there was some decline in skill. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what went wrong though, especially when looking through the lens of the rule changes. His control didn’t change dramatically, his fastball velocity remained the same, and he maintained the same spin on his curveball. Chalk this one up to bad luck and natural regression.

Montgomery also had inconclusive results regarding the impacts of the rule changes on his success. He improved in the ERA department, regressed in the xFIP department, walked more batters (but not outside his career range), and maintained his fastball velocity and curveball spin.

It’s only fair to conclude that pitchers who took their time before the rule changes were not necessarily negatively impacted by the introduction of the pitch clock.

The five “fast” pitchers I pointed to last year were Logan Gilbert, Brady Singer, Aaron Ashby, Miles Mikolas, and JosĂ© BerrĂ­os. Ashby didn’t pitch in the majors all year due to a litany of injuries, which leaves us with four arms that also had very different results.

Singer and Mikolas took huge steps back, and it wasn’t a result of added pressure from the pitch clock.

Gilbert and BerrĂ­os had incredible seasons. The former had a breakout campaign while the latter had one of the most notable bounceback seasons. While both likely found it easier to reach or return to a higher level because they didn’t have to adjust their tempo, it wasn’t the main factor in their 2023 success. That leads us to another conclusive result suggesting pitchers who didn’t have to speed things up didn’t have a leg up on their peers.

 

Defensive Shift Limits

Considering the limits to defensive shifting, I suggested that pitchers with high pulled ground ball rates would be negatively impacted because there would be fewer defenders in the vicinity to gobble up easy outs. From the batter’s box, I turned to Mike Petriello and Pitcher List’s own Taylor Tarter to create a list of players with pull-heavy approaches that would see boosts to their BABIP.

Shane McClanahan, Framber Valdez, Logan Webb, Kyle Wright, and Alex Cobb were the fantasy-relevant pitchers I noted that relied on an outsized amount of pulled ground balls. I couldn’t have been more wrong about my prediction. The first three arms had excellent seasons, Wright dealt with injuries all year, and Cobb was solid all year long. It turns out, it’s much harder to predict the future than I thought.

Kyle Schwarber, Salvador Perez, Corey Seager, Alex Bregman, Mitch Haniger, and Rowdy Tellez were the fantasy-relevant hitters I picked out from my peers’ pieces. Both Petriello and Tarter had much more success predicting the effects of the rule changes than I did in any other category.

Seager might be the single player that benefitted the most from the rule changes. He turned in an MVP-caliber season, boosting his BABIP by nearly 100 points. In doing so, he lent credence to the idea that pull-heavy hitters would fare better moving forward thanks to the limitations to shifting.

Meanwhile, Perez, Bregman, and Tellez all saw their BABIPs increase, albeit to differing results. On the contrary, Schwarber’s BABIP dropped 31 points and Haniger’s fell 23 points. So, while the predictions in this category were generally accurate, they weren’t a catch-all regarding the impacts of the defensive shift limitations on pull hitters.

 

Bigger Bases

I broke players that would potentially benefit from the bigger bases down into three archetypes: high-volume base stealers, aggressive base stealers, and fast runners with few attempts.

I figured that players who attempted a lot of steals in 2022 would continue to do so in 2023. All-Stars Ronald Acuña Jr., Bobby Witt Jr., and Julio Rodríguez increased their stolen base totals. Jon Berti, Cedric Mullins, Randy Arozarena, Marcus Semien, and Adolis García stole less often. While Jorge Mateo, Tommy Edman, and Trea Turner maintained their paces from 2022. There was no correlation between being aggressive before the rule changes to being aggressive after.

I also assumed that players who got caught stealing often would continue to have the green light with the potential for more success with bigger bases for which to reach. Acuna, Witt, Rodríguez, Starling Marte, Shohei Ohtani, and José Ramírez increased their stolen base totals. Arozarena, Mullins, Semien, Dylan Moore, Bo Bichette, Dansby Swanson, and Rafael Ortega stole less often. While Mateo and Christopher Morel maintained their paces from 2022. I was getting somewhere but was still missing the mark.

The archetype with which I spent the most time was the players that exhibited elite speed but didn’t use it to swipe bags in 2022. These players might finally put their wheels to good use knowing that they’d be able to impact the game more often on the basepaths. Corbin Carroll and Gunnar Henderson increased their stolen base totals. While Mike Trout, Byron Buxton, Jeremy Peña, and Oscar Gonzalez maintained their paces from 2022.

There are two problems with these results. There would be no opportunity for any of these players to reduce their stolen base totals because they didn’t steal much in 2022. Additionally, it disregards any players that stole often in 2022. So while it might have been good at the time to discover players you might find at a discount in the draft room, it didn’t truly represent the players that would benefit the most from the rule changes. There was a happy medium between the three archetypes that I was unable to uncover.

The conclusion we’ve reached from analyzing my predictions before 2023 is that it was very difficult to pre-determine the benefactors of the rule changes. On top of that, it means there’s a different process we should be using to predict 2024’s benefactors. We’ll use what we learned in this section to inform our drafting process in 2024.

 

The True Benefactors

 

Pitch Timer

Of the three major rule changes, the addition of a pitch timer will be the most difficult to correlate to changes in results from 2022 to 2023. Even if pitchers match our criteria for players we expected to be impacted, countless outside factors contribute to differing results from year to year.

A player might have been dealing with an injury in either season. A player might have been expected to regress to the mean from the previous season. A player might have seen a change to his pitch mix or stuff. A player might have switched teams. There are too many factors to list, but the point is that it’s almost impossible to determine which players were affected by the pitch timer the most.

The following 10 pitchers (min. 100 IP in each season) improved their FIP the most from 2022 to 2023.

Name 2022 2023
Yusei Kikuchi 5.62 4.12
Kyle Bradish 4.46 3.27
Josiah Gray 5.86 4.93
Mike Clevinger 4.98 4.28
Sonny Gray 3.40 2.83
José Berríos 4.55 3.99
Nathan Eovaldi 4.30 3.88
Charlie Morton 4.26 3.87
Pablo LĂłpez 3.71 3.33
Paul Blackburn 4.21 3.83

Only BerrĂ­os was pointed out as someone who might benefit from the addition of a pitch clock. The rest of the pitchers improved different facets of their games. Kikuchi scrapped his curveball. Bradish turned to a sinker and got more experience in MLB. The younger Gray went from terrible to bad. Clevinger was another year removed from surgery. The elder Gray changed the shape of his slider. Eovaldi, Morton, and Blackburn kept the ball in the yard. While LĂłpez joined a new team.

The following 10 pitchers (min. 100 IP in each season) saw their FIP decrease the most from 2022 to 2023.

Name 2022 2023
Adam Wainwright 3.66 5.99
Tony Gonsolin 3.28 5.43
MartĂ­n PĂ©rez 3.27 5.30
Michael Kopech 4.50 6.44
Lance Lynn 3.82 5.53
Max Scherzer 2.62 4.32
Shohei Ohtani 2.40 4.00
Tyler Anderson 3.31 4.88
Clayton Kershaw 2.57 4.03
Aaron Nola 2.58 4.03

Both Ohtani and Nola were identified prior to last season, but as we determined earlier, there was nothing that led us to believe their lack of success was directly correlated to the introduction of the pitch timer. The remaining pitchers similarly can blame their down seasons on outside factors. Wainwright, Scherzer, and Kershaw encountered age-related regression. Gonsolin eventually required surgery. PĂ©rez, Lynn, and Kopech couldn’t keep the ball in the yard. While Anderson joined a new team.

 

Defensive Shift Limits

In a similar fashion to the previous section, there are too many outside factors to determine the impact of the shifting limits on pitchers.

However, we can look at the hitters that benefited in the BABIP department and single out the players that fit the criteria to be deemed a benefactor of the shift limits.

The following 10 hitters (qualified in each season) saw their BABIP increase the most from 2022 to 2023.

Name 2022 2023
Corey Seager .242 .340
Cody Bellinger .255 .319
Austin Hays .289 .345
MJ Melendez .257 .311
Anthony Santander .248 .299
Carlos Santana .209 .255
Juan Soto .249 .296
Yandy DĂ­az .323 .367
Mookie Betts .272 .316
Matt Chapman .277 .319

Seager was always going to be the top name on this list, but it’s interesting to see that many of these batters should have been identified earlier. Tarter mentioned Santander and Melendez, while both he and Petriello identified Santana. All but Soto and DĂ­az had higher pull rates than Seager across both seasons. The rest of the hitters likely weren’t identified earlier because they didn’t have hits taken away by the shift, but rather, just had unlucky BABIPs or severely outperformed expected BABIPs in 2023.

We saw batting average on left-handed hard-hit grounder increase across the board. While this does remove a big portion of the sample size, lefties were shifted more often than righties because of the orientation of the field. They found much more success in 2023 on pulled grounders hit 90+ mph than they did in 2022.

 

Bigger Bases

The bigger bases (combined with pickoff limits and pitch timers) had the most apparent impact on the game and led to the biggest change to the fantasy baseball landscape. We saw 25 players improve their 2022 stolen base totals by at least 15. These players benefited the most and the list doesn’t even factor in the higher floor and ceiling to the stolen base potential of every player.

The following 25 players increased their steal totals by at least 15.

Name 2022 2023
Ronald Acuña Jr. 29 73
Esteury Ruiz 1 67
Corbin Carroll 2 54
Bobby Witt Jr. 30 49
CJ Abrams 7 47
Nico Hoerner 20 43
Ha-Seong Kim 12 38
Willi Castro 9 33
Josh Lowe 3 32
Francisco Lindor 16 31
Bryson Stott 12 31
Wander Franco 8 30
TJ Friedl 7 27
Dairon Blanco 1 24
Ji Hwan Bae 3 24
Jarren Duran 7 24
Maikel Garcia 0 23
Jake Fraley 4 21
Nolan Jones 0 20
Travis Jankowski 3 19
Chas McCormick 4 19
Will Benson 0 19
Drew Waters 0 16
James Outman 0 16
Spencer Steer 0 15

There were plenty more who increased their totals by anywhere between five and 14 steals.

Even though it was difficult to forecast who might steal more, we undoubtedly saw an increase in steals and success rates. According to an article by Jayson Stark on The Athletic, the stolen base success rate reached its highest point ever. The rate of stolen base attempts reached its highest point since 2012. For the first time this decade, six players stole at least 40 bases and 51 players swiped at least 20 bags, the most since 1989. We have entered a new era of base stealing.

With a greater understanding of which players were impacted by the new rule changes, we can start to understand and prepare for the altered fantasy baseball landscape for 2024.

 

What Does This Mean for 2024?

 

Pitch Timer

As outlined throughout this article, it’s almost impossible to predict pitchers that will be affected by the pitch timer. Even more so in 2024, pitchers will have adjusted to the pitch timer after a full season of enforcement, rookie pitchers will have encountered the pitch timer throughout their minor league careers, and the league is implementing even further reductions to the clock.

The brand new rule changes for 2024 are the only place to gain an edge in your drafts. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look the way it did last season. Last offseason, I might’ve suggested targeting slow pitchers or pitchers that did well with runners on base. Now that we know the effects of changes to the pitch clock, I’m less willing to believe that there are stats to dive into that might foreshadow changes in performance when a new rule is implemented, especially regarding the pitch timer.

What’s more likely to happen is that, after a year in which we saw so many pitchers go down with injury and plenty succumb to Tommy John surgery, we’ll see more of the same in 2024. More pitchers hitting the IL further limits to innings, and generally, more chaos. Pitchers seem reticent to throw the ball softer to make up for the lack of rest between pitches, and in turn, are likely to experience more injuries.

Your draft strategy when taking this into account should go one of two ways. Go all in on high-upside arms that might flame out or get injured as the season wears on, or go for the durable Tobys that may not get you a ton of strikeouts, but will make up for it in volume. Ensure that you’ve got a contingency plan for any injury that may occur during the season.

 

Defensive Shift Limits

Analysts had plenty of success taking advantage of research that pointed to players that would benefit from shift restrictions. Now that those have been implemented, it won’t be possible to find diamonds in the rough in that fashion.

However, fantasy managers can still take advantage of a market inefficiency. Seasoned fantasy managers can be stuck in their ways and many analysts have a difficult time shaking their perception of players. If you take advantage of these facts, you may gain an edge by targeting hitters who pull the ball hard on the ground.

Left-handed pull-hitters had much more success in 2023 than they did in 2022, so targeting them without the worry of them pulling down your batting average could net you a league-winner. We won’t see any more turnarounds in the fashion of Corey Seager, but we will see players of his ilk find more success than we did in years past. If projection systems aren’t weighing these players’ new BABIP floors heavily enough, you can target them at a discount in drafts with confidence that the BABIP baseline they set in 2023 is likely here to stay.

 

Bigger Bases

This is where the fantasy landscape has changed the most. Stolen bases are no longer at a premium…or are they?

There are now more base stealers than we’ve witnessed in a long time. However, this isn’t just limited to the top 5% of base stealers – it’s a league-wide phenomenon. So, while there are more steals to go around, it seems as though the threshold has just shifted.

In the past few years, if you were hypothetically hoping for your fantasy team as a whole to steal 100 bases, you’d be racing to grab all the base stealers in the draft room. While that total is easier to reach now, it’s easier for everyone to reach because the increase in stolen bases is universal – everybody is stealing more often and with more success. That hypothetical goal of 100 stolen bases just shifts to 150 and you’re right back where you started.

Don’t get tricked by the alien steals totals we witnessed last year. Grabbing enough projected steals to win you a category in the past won’t be nearly enough. You’ll still want to target stolen bases just as aggressively as you did in previous seasons. However, now there are more options from which to choose. You just have to shift your expectations for what will be impactful in your standings.

Go out and get a couple of projected 30-base stealers, but don’t stop there. There is a big difference between a guy stealing seven bases and another swiping 12 and it’ll add up quickly. On top of that, the players who don’t steal at all are now an even bigger detriment to your team. Make sure they provide in other categories and that you have their speed deficiency covered.

 

Photo by Brian Rothmuller | Icon Sportswire
Adapted by Kurt Wasemiller (@KUWasemiller on Twitter / @kurt_player02 on Instagram)

Jake Crumpler

A Bay Area sports fan and lover of baseball, Jake is a graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz with a B.A. in English Literature. He currently writes fantasy articles for Pitcher List, is the lead baseball writer at The Athletes Hub, and does playing time analysis at BaseballHQ. Some consider his knowledge of the sport to be encyclopedic.

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