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Baltimore Orioles outfielder Pat Valaika (11) takes a defensive shift during a July 2021 game against the Tampa Bay Rays.

(Steve Nesius/Associated Press)

This rule change will be the most obvious to the eye. Abrupt internal moves have become so common across majors in the past decade that it’s even more remarkable when the field doesn’t change. We’ve seen four outfield players. We have seen two outfield players. We’ve seen the third baseman line up in shallow right field against most left-handed hitters. And we’ve seen San Diego Padres third baseman Manny Machado position himself 200 feet from home plate on several occasions in right field.

Detractors argue that this trend helped create three true hits (home runs, walks, or strikeouts) that disrupted game action. They also argue that it has created a disadvantage for left-handed hitters by converting ground balls to the right side and line drives into shallow right-field outs. Detractors believe it’s up to hitters to adjust, that the sport goes through cycles.

MLB decided the forced change was needed after watching batting average on balls in play (BABIP) drop 6 points from 2012 to 2022 and strikeouts rise. So starting next season, defenses must have at least four players in the outfield and at least two fullbacks on either side of second base. The penalty is an automatic goal.

“Lefties will definitely benefit,” said the American League executive. “But how much?” Is that two extra hits a month for Bryce Harper? Five? Does his OPS? [on-base-plus-slugging percentage] raise 10 points? Twenty something? It’s hard to design.”

One National League executive pointed to the Pittsburgh Pirates signing first baseman Carlos Santana to a one-year, $6.7 million contract as an example of a club predicting results.

Last season, Santana, a switch-hitting hitter, had a similar strikeout rate as Mookie Betts, but hit .192 with a .692 OPS and a 100 OPS+ (meaning he was a league-average hitter) in 364 plate appearances left-handed. . Betts finished with a .269 batting average, an .873 OPS, and a 136 OPS+ (meaning he was 36% better than the average hitter).

“It might be one of the best signings, value-wise, in the offseason,” the executive said.

This rule does not eliminate the displacement of the field. Teams are still going to bat up the middle, to the left of second base, with the second baseman in the left-handed hitter’s hole.

“You’re going to see the second baseman, but you can’t go out and take that short line to right,” Cleveland Guardians manager Terry Francona said. “I just hope it doesn’t encourage bad hitting. Hopefully the unintended consequences don’t spill over to where guys are really trying to pull through now and you’ll see more hits.”

When it comes to building rosters, several managers and executives said their middle infielders, especially second basemen, will become more important. In theory, teams may become more reluctant to put the first defensive responsibility of the bat at second base.

“As far as the defensive positions, we want to create a very athletic outfield that can cover ground,” Arizona Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo said. “I’ve already asked our guys to come in and prepare from the waist down if you’re an inner-city player because you have to go out and get the job done on a much bigger scale.

“It’s going to create more offense. There will be a lot of holes in the defense. We’re still going to plug holes the best we can, but we’re only going to do it with two guys.”


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