MLB Players Most Likely to Be Impacted by New Stolen Base Rules
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Major League Baseball wasn’t exactly feeling the need for speed as stolen bases plummeted in the first 23 seasons of the 21st century, but that’s about to change this year courtesy of new rules that will introduce larger bases, a pitch timer and limits on pickoff throws.
Like with the new regulations on defensive shifts, the opinion on whether this is a good thing depends on who you ask.
We’re going to look at a handful of players who do and don’t stand to benefit from what will be a much more speed-friendly environment in 2023. One might say that’s jumping to conclusions, but it’s a theory strongly supported by how the same rules caused attempts and successes on stolen bases to substantially increase in the minor leagues in 2022.
Lest anyone think we’re only about to talk about speedsters who must be champing at the bit right now, the big picture is more nuanced. After all, certain pitchers and catchers are about to get tested in ways they’re probably not going to like.
In fact, it’s with them that we’re going to begin.
RHP Sandy Alcantara, Miami Marlins
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Given that he pitched to a 2.28 ERA over 228.2 innings amid an effort that eventually won him the National League Cy Young Award, it might appear as if nothing went wrong for Sandy Alcantara in 2022.
He did, however, have a little trouble with stolen bases. Opposing runners attempted 28 steals on him and were successful 24 times. Thus did he account for 26.1 percent of the steals against the Marlins even though he only handled 15.9 percent of their innings.
As for why this happened, there are three plausible explanations:
- Opponents ran on him out of a lack of other options to score runs
- His catcher is a lousy thrower
- Alcantara himself isn’t great at holding runners
The first thing tracks, as the 27-year-old allowed just a .263 on-base percentage (tied for 12th) and a .324 slugging percentage (10th). Ditto for the second thing, as Alcantara’s catcher, Jacob Stallings, had a pop time on throws to second base that was in the 25th percentile. The third thing is harder to quantify, but it seems to track based on how Alcantara nabbed only two runners with a pick-off move that’s nothing special even by right-hander standards.
Which is basically to say that Alcantara and the Marlins can expect more of the same and then some in 2023. Considering that the shift ban also has implications for the ace righty, this year figures to be more of a challenge in general.
RHP Noah Syndergaard, Los Angeles Dodgers
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Set Number: x164202 TK1
The Dodgers typically know what they’re doing when they bring a player aboard, but that doesn’t mean they automatically get the benefit of the doubt with Noah Syndergaard.
He hasn’t been the Syndergaard of old since returning from Tommy John surgery in 2021, specifically to the extent that he’s missing about 4 mph off his fastball. And more than Alcantara or anyone else, the new speed-friendly rules figure to be hell on him.
Even though “Thor” was only on the mound for 134.2 innings last season, he still allowed a league-high 30 stolen bases on just 33 attempts. That brings the total against him since 2015 to 169, which is yet another league-leading mark.
That’s pretty remarkable, given that the 30-year-old didn’t debut until May 2015, subsequently missed time with injuries in 2017 and 2018 and then all of 2020 and most of 2021 recovering from the aforementioned surgery. It’s as if the 6’6″, 242-pounder with the big leg kick is just plain slow to the plate.
Perhaps the Dodgers can impart some mechanical tweaks that will help Syndergaard get through his delivery in a more timely manner. Failing that, the best thing they can do is have him throw exclusively to Will Smith, whose pop time to second was in the 79th percentile last season.
C Yasmani Grandal, Chicago White Sox
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At least with regard to controlling the running game, Yasmani Grandal is to catchers what Syndergaard is to pitchers.
The 34-year-old is historically, um, not great at throwing out base-stealers. He’s allowed 491 stolen bases for his career, which makes him the active leader now that Kurt Suzuki (882) and Yadier Molina (565) are retired.
Longevity is the primary reason Molina was near the top of that list, and that also partially works as an explanation for why Grandal is now atop it. He’s about to enter the 12th season of his career, the first 11 of which saw him nearly match the league average of 27 percent with a personal caught-stealing rate of 25 percent.
The story of the last two seasons, however, is less flattering to Grandal. The 34-year-old has thrown out only 20 of 116 base-stealers, and that can really only be pinned on him. His average pop time to second base in 2022 was fourth from the bottom.
Despite a tumble to a 64 OPS+ in an injury-shortened 99-game sample in 2022, Grandal has typically been a very good hitter to the tune of a 114 OPS+. We bring it up because the White Sox might ultimately be better off using Grandal as their primary designated hitter rather than their regular catcher in 2023.
C Austin Nola, San Diego Padres
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Hitters who found themselves at first base with Austin Nola behind the plate last year only had to remember a simple scouting report: “Run.”
That’s what it was in our personal headcanon, anyway, and can you blame us? The 33-year-old threw out a respectable 27 percent of would-be thieves back in 2020, but since then he’s just 12-for-94 in catching runners. That’s a 12.8 percent success rate.
It’s not as if Nola, who was drafted as an infielder before he converted to catcher during his journey to the majors, is wholly incapable of making good throws. Mookie Betts, who knows a thing or two about bag burglary, was reminded of that in last year’s National League Division Series:
It’s just that Nola doesn’t make good throws more often than not. His pop time to second base was in the 19th percentile last year, and his accuracy wasn’t always (see here and here) right on the money.
If there’s one reason to believe things won’t get too bad for Nola in 2023, it’s that the Padres are returning all the key hurlers from a moundstaff that allowed the ninth-lowest OBP in 2022. But that’s about it. And unlike Grandal on the South Side of Chicago, Nola isn’t nearly a good enough hitter to be shifted into regular DH duty over Matt Carpenter and Nelson Cruz.
LHP Max Fried, Atlanta
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Why talk about Max Fried? Well, why not talk about Max Fried?
The guy is at least three forms of talented, after all. He’s an excellent pitcher who owns a 159 ERA+ across the last three seasons. He’s also an elite defender who’s won three straight Gold Gloves. And last but not least, his pick-off move is the best in the game right now.
If for no other reason than Ryan Weathers still exists, that last point is debatable. But then again, well, just look at this thing:
That’s some kind of aesthetically pleasing maneauver, and it’s been an effective one to boot. Since moving into Atlanta’s rotation full-time in 2019, Fried has picked off a league-high 18 runners. It’s no wonder opposing runners attempted just seven steals on the 29-year-old lefty in 2022, only four of which were successful.
One downside for Fried heading into 2023 is that, like every other pitcher in the league, he’ll be limited to two disengagements (i.e., pick-offs and step-offs) from the rubber per plate appearance. His move should nonetheless allow him to be the most notable exception to the rule as most other pitchers deal with an increase in attempted robbery.
DH Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels
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Bigger bases, specifically, don’t just figure to benefit speedsters by way of more stolen bases in 2023. As the distance between home plate and first base is now slighty shorter, there should also be more infield hits.
For everyone that is, but particularly for Shohei Ohtani.
The two-way star’s best talents are hard to miss, as there just isn’t anyone else in the league right now (or ever) who’s liable to throw a ball at 100 mph and hit a ball 450 feet in the span of a couple of minutes. But it’s occasionally lost in the shuffle that he’s also really fast, especially when he’s going home to first:
You know he can pitch and you know he can hit but did you know he gets to first base faster than anyone?!?<br><br>Shohei Ohtani has averaged just 4.09 seconds from home to first base over the last two seasons. It’s crazy. 😮 <a href=”https://t.co/1eHtwARy51″>pic.twitter.com/1eHtwARy51</a>
Despite his ability to bolt down the line, Ohtani has only been credited with 17 infield hits across the last two seasons. A notable factor is that the 28-year-old generally doesn’t hit the ball on the ground, preferring instead to hit it on a line or in the air.
Ohtani might nonetheless see his infield hits take a sharp upward turn in 2023. Because sans infield shifts—of which he saw 4,034 times across 2021 and 2022—fielders won’t have the benefit of generally being in exactly the right place when he hits the ball on the ground.
CF Corbin Carroll, Arizona Diamondbacks
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AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin
Welcome, everyone, to the part where we finally discuss which players are going to actually steal more bases thanks to the new rules. And yes, we really are going to kick things off by focusing on a guy who has all of two steal in the majors.
It’s best not to judge Corbin Carroll’s potential as a base-stealer according to that number. Better is the number 52, which is how many bases he successfully swiped in 59 attempts in 142 minor league games before he joined the Diamondbacks last August.
Better still is the number 30.7. That was the 22-year-old’s average sprint in feet per second in 2022, which qualified him as the fastest runner in the majors.
David Adler @_dadler
<a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/MLBFieldVision?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#MLBFieldVision</a> — Corbin Carroll triple<br><br>30.1 ft/sec sprint speed (30+ is elite), 10.75 seconds home-to-3rd. <br><br>Carroll strobed every 1 second starting on contact <a href=”https://t.co/oOJS6Na78e”>pic.twitter.com/oOJS6Na78e</a>
Of course, speed is only so useful for stealing bases. The first trick for any would-be base-stealer is to first get on base, and Carroll has the goods there as well. The 22-year-old, who ranks as B/R’s No. 8 prospect, is a legit plus hitter who logged a .310 average with a .426 OBP in the minors.
To say nothing of his solid power and first-rate defensive acumen, such things make Carroll as good a bet as anyone to lead the majors in stolen bases in 2023. If so, he’d be the first rookie to lead in that category since Mike Trout heisted 49 in 2012.
SS Trea Turner, Philadelphia Phillies (and Other Established Speedsters)
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AP Photo/Matt Slocum
Now then, let’s finally discuss Trea Turner and other established MLB speedsters of his ilk.
The Phillies’ new shortstop has stolen a league-high 228 bases since 2016, and he’s coming off a season that saw him achieve peak efficiency with a success rate of 90 percent. That was for “only” 30 attempts, but any notion that the 29-year-old is slowing down is undercut a bit by the fact that his 30.3 feet-per-second sprint was in the 99th percentile.
Another fun fact is that Turner led the majors with 33 infield hits last year. When combined with his 27 stolen bases, his speed alone gained him 60 bases last year. A made-up stat, to be sure, but another one for which Turner was the league leader in 2022.
Here’s everyone else who had at least 40 stolen bases plus infield hits last season:
- Randy Arozarena: 53
- Bobby Witt Jr.: 51
- Ronald Acuña Jr.: 47
- Marcus Semien/Jorge Mateo: 46
- Tommy Edman/Cedric Mullins: 45
- Julio Rodríguez: 42
- Thairo Estrada/Amed Rosario: 41
- Adolis García: 40
All 11 of these guys figure to get more out of their speed in 2023, but none of them is more worth watching than Witt. He actually ranked ahead of Turner with an average sprint of 30.4 feet-per-second in 2022, and at one point he was 26-for-30 in stolen bases before seemingly running out of gas and finishing just 4-for-7 in September and October.
In any case, these guys shouldn’t be alone in reveling in baseball’s new speed-friendly environment in 2023. That goes not just for other players, but really anyone who’s been anxiously awaiting a more action-packed version of baseball to come along.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.