MLB opening day offers clocks, shift bans, Ohtani and Judge
By Ben Walker
AP Baseball Writer
A major shift in how Major League Baseball is played. About time, too.
Aaron Judge aiming at his own home run record, Shohei Ohtani trending with every pitch and swing, Dusty Baker trying to win another World Series ring.
All-Stars in different spots, a new scheduling concept featuring each team facing all 29 opponents.
If it sounds like these plot lines are from a movie — “Everything Everywhere All at Once” comes to mind — it’s true.
Opening day is Thursday and the full slate includes games at Dodger Stadium, Fenway Park, Wrigley Field and Yankee Stadium. And good news for fans — there’s no snow in the forecast at any of them.
Manny Machado drew the first pitch clock violation in spring training and it was nuisance. A game between the Braves and Red Sox ended on a clock call and it was a novelty.
Chances are, if Max Scherzer or Nolan Arenado or some other intense star gets timed out in a key spot, it could go nuclear.
But MLB realized it had to do something to cut all the dead periods when absolutely nothing was happening. Well, except for hitters adjusting their batting gloves or pitchers pawing at the rubber. So with games routinely dragging on for more than three hours, the slowdown is getting sped up.
The sport that never had a clock suddenly has them all over the park. Gerrit Cole, Max Fried and the rest of the pitchers get 15 seconds to throw with nobody on base, 20 seconds with runners on. Vladimir Guerero Jr., Mookie Betts and the hitters need to be ready.
The early returns were good, spring training games lasted nearly a half-hour less this year. But remember, that was in Clearwater, Tempe and Lakeland — it might be a lot different, especially early in the season, when umpires begin pointing to their wrists at Busch Stadium, Camden Yards and Petco Park.
NL home run champ Kyle Schwarber, 2020 World Series MVP Corey Seager and a bevy of left-handed boppers should benefit hugely by this rule change. Because from now on, those pull hitters won’t face a wall of three infielders on the right side.
Defensive shifts dominated the game in recent years, a big reason why batting averages plummeted so sharply. José Ramírez, Cody Bellinger and other lefties increasingly found themselves being thrown out from shallow-to-medium right field.
No longer. Realizing that shifts were a winning strategy on the field but a losing proposition with fans, MLB banned them. These days, two infielders must be standing on each side of second base. And no playing deep on the grass to rob hits, either — Dansby Swason, Jeremy Peña and other infielders need to be on the dirt.
One likely effect: With more grounders sneaking through for singles, look for the number of no-hitters and near-gems to drop.
SHO OR GO?
All eyes will be on Shohei Ohtani when he starts for the Los Angeles Angels on opening day at Oakland. Here’s what fans will really watch: Where will the two-way sensation wind up?
Quite possibly the most popular and talented player on the planet, Ohtani clinched the World Baseball Classic for Japan and earned the MVP trophy by striking out Angels teammate Mike Trout.
Ohtani can become a free agent after this year. He’s never reached the postseason since joining the Halos in 2018 — Trout, a three-time MVP, has never won a single playoff game, but that’s another matter.
At 28, it’s hard to imagine Ohtani sticking around Anaheim after yet another lost season. If they don’t start winning soon, the Angels can either trade him to a very ambitious team or risk letting him walk away for nothing.
Two-time Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom bolted New York for a greener field in Texas. Three-time Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, a model of power pitching, now on the mound for the Mets.
Trea Turner smoothly slid over to join pal Bryce Harper on the Phillies. Xander Bogaerts livened up a San Diego lineup that already included sluggers Manny Machado, Juan Soto and the suspended Fernando Tatis Jr.
AL batting champion Luis Arraez was traded from Minnesota to Miami and former MVP José Abreu signed with the World Series champion Houston Astros.
Maybe the most intriguing newcomer: Red Sox outfielder Masataka Yoshida. He powered Japan in the WBC and was penciled into the Boston cleanup spot even before his major league debut.
We get it: Stolen bases are for suckers, modern metrics show they’re not worth the gamble. Miami’s Jon Berti stole 41 last season and topped the majors; it was the lowest total for the MLB leader since 1963, when Maury Wills and Luis Aparicio each swiped 40.
Execs hope bigger bases that are 18-inch squares, up from 15-inch squares, will help entice more speedsters to try. It cuts down the distance between the bags by a few inches. They “look like a pizza box,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. Pitchers also will be limited in how many pickoff throws they can make.
Note to MLB: If you really want to get Randy Arozarena, Bobby Witt Jr. and Ronald Acuña Jr. on the run, see Andrés Giménez and others drop down more surprise bunts, open up hitting lanes and just increase overall offense, here’s a better idea — shorten the bases to 88 feet.
The NFL spruced up its game by moving back the extra-point line, making the PAT a more competitive play and prompting coaches to go for two. The NBA overhauled its sport way back by adding the 3-point arc. We know baseball has its hallowed distances — 90 feet and 60 feet, 6 inches — but they don’t have to stay that way forever, especially not with younger audiences eager for more action.