Rule changes to strap rockets to Blue Jays

An already aggressive club plans to capitalize on bigger bags, pitch timer

February 15th, 2023

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Get ready to run.

That has been the message since manager John Schneider took over Toronto in the middle of the 2022 season. The Blue Jays cranked up their aggression, pushing for extra bases whenever and wherever possible. It was chaos, sometimes of the controlled variety and other times not.

Given MLB’s offseason rule changes, though, there’s nothing but green lights from here.

The Blue Jays plan to be an even more aggressive club in 2023, with several of these rule changes playing directly into it. The early days of Spring Training are often a game of clue collecting, and the first came when Bo Bichette was asked about the new bases, which are growing from 15 inches to 18.

“The bases don’t mean too much to me,” Bichette said. “I was planning to be more aggressive anyway.”

Bichette is the perfect example of whom these rule changes will help, though.

Outside of Alejandro Kirk -- who is rarely mistaken for an Olympic sprinter -- the Blue Jays have athleticism running through their entire roster. In many ways, it’s a roster well positioned to capitalize on these rule changes, particularly on the bases.

“I think that guys who steal bases are going to steal bases,” said Schneider. “Whether it’s 18 inches or 15 inches, whether there’s a pitch clock or no pitch clock, guys are going to get their bags. But I think it opens it up more for guys like Matt Chapman or [Daulton] Varsho to add on a little bit. [Vladimir Guerrero Jr.] had eight stolen bases last year.”

The bases are just a small part of this. This same change in base sizes led to a 1-2 percent increase in stolen bases in the Minor Leagues when it was tried there, but the main benefit is limiting injuries. Those dropped 13 percent near bases between 2021 and ’22 in the Minor Leagues when these bases were added, largely due to the fact that runners had more room to slide in with their hand or foot while avoiding the fielder.

Combine this with the other rule changes, though, and the fun really begins.

The pitch timer will bring a major change. In 2022, it shortened Minor League games an average of 25 minutes. It will run for 15 seconds with empty bases and 20 seconds with runners on. There’s also a limit of two “disengagements” per at-bat for pitchers, too, meaning a pitcher can attempt to pick off a runner only twice. Combine those two rule changes, and stolen-base attempts -- and successful steals -- shot up noticeably in the Minor Leagues.

2021: 2.23 stolen-base attempts per game (68% success)
2022: 2.81 stolen-base attempts per game (78% success)

“We definitely have the personnel that can do that,” Schneider said. “It’s something I’ve always liked, not just stealing bases but being aggressive first to third, first to home or second to home. Those are the things that we’ll be focused on.”

This won’t turn everyone into Rickey Henderson, but it will turn athletic baserunners with smart instincts into legitimate threats. George Springer should benefit. Guerrero, whom Schneider mentioned, has enough speed to pick his spots. Varsho, Kevin Kiermaier, Santiago Espinal, Whit Merrifield and Chapman could all see more opportunities. Bichette, who stole 25 bases in 2021, could chase 30-plus.

Cavan Biggio might be the most interesting example of all, though.

Biggio is a fast runner, but not blazing. His sprint speed of 28.5 feet per second last season ranked him between Chapman and Merrifield, fourth on the club. He picks his spots remarkably well, though, going 25-for-26 on stolen-base attempts in his career. Players with great instincts, like Biggio, could be rewarded even more than players with great speed.

The Blue Jays will need to pick their spots, of course. There’s a fine line when it comes to aggression, which we saw in 2022.

“There was definitely too much of it at times,” Schneider said. “You don’t want to say it was ‘by design,’ but it was definitely a message I wanted to get across. There is a balance. It’s about being smart and being aggressive. If the mindset is that you’re taking an extra base, I think the technique kind of takes care of itself. How the guys are talking about it right now is great.”

Expect some chaos this spring, too, as the Blue Jays and other clubs test-drive these new rules and try to create some unique game situations. Toronto is ready to run, and thanks to a few new rules, that’s only going to get easier.