John P. Lopez – Conspiracy or coincidence? MLB’s new rules not all Astros-friendly

Aug 12, 2022; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Astros starting pitcher Luis Garcia (77) pitches against the Oakland Athletics in the second inning at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

John P. Lopez – Conspiracy or coincidence? MLB’s new rules not all Astros-friendly

Major League Baseball hates the Astros.

That’s the story, and Astros fans will stick to it — come hell, high water, or the Dodgers implicated in a cheating scandal rumored, scuttlebutt’d, and hearsay’d in part of an anonymously sourced upcoming book.

If that’s not rock-solid, what is!!!??? These rules are just the latest attempt at MLB hypocrisy and bias sticking it to the Astros, right?

The reality, of course, is the MLB most likely does not hate the Astros. However, still scarred from the 2017 sign-stealing scandal, many Astros fans pounce on every opportunity to feel wronged despite winning the 2022 Redemption World Series.

Welp. Get ready to go full-Triple Lindy with these new MLB pace-of-play rules that will be implemented in 2023.

On the surface, they seem perfect for the game. Perfect for everyone – especially fans. The new pitch clock alone took an average of 26 minutes off time-of-game in the Minor Leagues. And banning the shift could be a boon for pull-hitting teams, especially the Astros. Jose Altuve, Kyle Tucker, Yordan Alvarez, and Alex Bregman could feast.

But here is where it could get dicey for the Astros.

When it comes to three key elements of the Astros’ success – defensive shifts, the bullpen, and preventing opponents from stealing bases – the new rules will be a challenge to say the least.

Much of the discussion regarding the pitch clock as Spring Training begins has centered around the unique windup of starter Luis Garcia. While a disappointment for those who loved Garcia’s “rock the baby” delivery, the effect of the pitch clock on him should be minimal. Garcia has all spring to work on a new windup, and if he’s still not comfortable, he may decide to always pitch out of the stretch position, an approach gaining popularity across the league.

But dig deeper, and the true effect of the pitch clock begins to look somewhat more daunting.

The Astros had the best bullpen in baseball in 2022 and was an overwhelming force in the postseason. The Astros in fact became the first team in postseason history to throw at least 40 innings with an ERA under 1.00 (0.83).

Anchored by closer Ryan Pressly and setup man Ryne Stanek, the Astros led postseason baseball in ERA and opponents’ batting average (. 126). They slammed shut every opportunity, also getting big contributions from the likes of Bryan Abreu, Rafael Montero, and Hector Neris, eventually giving up just 23 hits in 13 games.

Those relievers, however, were among the slowest-paced pitchers in all of baseball, especially the shutdown guys, Pressly and Stanek. With the new pitch clock established at 15 seconds and 20 seconds with runners on base, Pressly averaged nearly 24 seconds between pitches and Stanek 22 seconds. It may seem negligible, but in high-pressure situations, routine is everything for pitchers. Abreu also averaged above the 20-second mark.

Much ado about nothing? Not really. Pressly, Stanek, and Abreu should be watched closely this spring.

Then there is the shift.

While the Astros figure to benefit on the offensive side, no team implemented the shift against left-handed hitting opponents more than the Astros by a long shot. The Astros shifted against lefties some 80% of the time, a full 10 points higher than the next-highest defense. Against right-handed hitters, the Astros also fell in the top 15% implementing the shift.

As for the base paths, there are other things to watch for sure.

On the defensive side, catcher Martín Maldonado was one of the most feared defensive catchers in the game, ranking in the top five or six in every statistical category. Giving a slight edge to baserunners figures to mitigate Maldonado’s impact at least somewhat.

Plus, now that bases will be three inches wider, potential base-stealers can get a slightly bigger lead and have slightly less as far to run. And with pitchers limited to just three pickoff attempts, it stands to reason that baserunners could get a better jump after the second pickoff attempt and certainly the third.

In the division, the Texas Rangers, while still a ways from being a legitimate contender, are among the fastest teams in baseball. And the Seattle Mariners, a legit threat, should rank among the top base-stealing teams as well.

The Astros’ running game, meanwhile, was well below average, with Tucker and Altuve accounting for the biggest share of stolen base attempts. Astros’ base-stealing numbers figure to improve with the new rules, too, plus shortstop Jeremy Peña could have a breakout season as a baserunner.

The good news is the Astros remain one of the most complete and dominant teams the game has seen. That alone puts them well ahead of most all MLB teams – especially within the division. New rules or no new rules, they will be heavy favorites.

But the devil, as always, is in the details. And when analyzing the new rules turns from a broad scope and rocking the baby to more granular scrutiny, the Astros definitely have a lot of work to do and adjustments to make — especially on defense and at the back end of the rotation.

Happy spring.

Thanks, Rob Manfred. That’s our story, and we’re sticking to it.

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