Fantasy baseball roundtable: First impressions of new rules in action

Think the new rules aren't having an impact? Jonathan India of the Reds has two steals already this spring, He stole three bases over the entirety of the 2022 season. AP

With spring training games now well underway, we've had a chance to see a bunch of baseball being played with the new pitch clock, larger base size and a very noticeable lack of infielder traffic jams between first and second. So, what are our first impressions of the "new normal" in MLB? Now that we've seen things in action, how do we think fantasy baseball will be impacted?

As more and more leagues get ready to hold their drafts, we posed these questions to the intrepid duo of Tristan H. Cockcroft and Eric Karabell. Read on to find out what they have to say about it.

Roughly two weeks into the spring training schedule, what are your takeaways?

Tristan H. Cockcroft: The new rules are great, great, GREAT!!!!!

Pardon the emphasis, but it certainly feels like there has been a distinct "rah-rah" posturing among broadcasters, writers and the like regarding how the new rules are improving the game. No, I am absolutely not here to feed you an "it's a plate of perfection" take on this rules change package. I do passionately appreciate how the pitch clock is advancing the pace of these games, although I felt distinctly that way at every one of the numerous minor league games I attended last year, so it's not an unfamiliar change to me. At the same time, we're still talking about spring games that don't count, and there's still an awkwardness to the volume of rule-violation calls that I hope dissipates as the players get more comfortable with them as we get closer to Opening Day.

(On an aside, I still loathe the "ghost runner" rule in extras, especially coupled with the speedier game. I still crave the possibility of attending a 20-inning game that gets me back home and into bed at 3:30 a.m. I'm not even joking! But, hey, maybe now I'd have been home by 2 a.m.)

First off, fantasy-wise, the rule tweak that most caught me by surprise was the one ironing out the rules on pitchers' deliveries, something you can distinctly see with historic "toe tap"/"rock the baby" types like the Kevin Gausman, Luis Garcia and Kenley Jansen. All three have been relatively effective in exhibition play thus far, but anything that qualifies as a significant change to a pitcher's approach raises a flag, so I'm watching them all closely -- though I'm not changing their rankings just yet. With Gausman, he was the poster boy for my Kings of Command this year, so there's a lot of prospective movement for him in my ranks.

As fantasy managers, we're always looking for a change towards the positive, usually a pitch tweak, velocity bump or some other adjustment that renders a previously poor-performing pitcher profitable, but change to a pitcher with a pretty good prior pace can be precarious.

All those P's ... now I'm pooped.

Eric Karabell: You do seem pooped! I always wanted to see that word get into a fantasy article. I can retire now.

While most people would point to the enlargement of the bases adding to prolific stolen base totals as the most important adjustment for fantasy baseball, I still think it is all about outlawing the shift. Kyle Schwarber hits a bouncer into the second base hole one year ago and he is out. Now, he may not be out. I doubt Anthony Rizzo wins a batting title anytime soon, but I do see him and myriad other left-handed pull hitters (which most are) raising their collective batting averages.

I admit that when choosing between hitters in some of my drafts that I have considered the likelihood of a modest batting average adjustment affecting pre-conceived value, and have made my choice based on that. Perhaps not in the early rounds -- and not with Joey Gallo suddenly hitting his own weight -- but dare to dream.

With the pitchers you mentioned, I assume that any veteran athlete is skilled, talented and smart enough, and has enough support and instruction from teammates and coaches, to make the necessary adjustments to the pitch clock rule. It's the same with hitters, really. Everyone will be fine and no discernible statistical adjustments will end up resulting from most of these tweaks (or, at least, I really have not been drafting pitchers or stolen base threats differently).

Cockcroft: You know I'm a numbers guy, so I'll share some so far.

Using Statcast data (and granted, only certain spring stadiums are equipped to collect it), the leaguewide batting average is .262, three points up from last spring training and 19 points up from the 2022 regular season. Lefties are batting .270, 16 points higher than last spring training and 34 up from the regular season. Lefties when pulling the ball are batting .358, 24 points up from last spring training and 57 points higher than in the regular season. I don't think either of us -- or most of the fantasy biz as a whole -- have been far off those statistical expectations, at least as far as adjusting to the shift specifically.

However, the stolen base change has been striking this spring. We're talking about data from all games so far, and teams are seeing 0.92 successful steals and 1.13 stolen-base attempts per game this spring -- a substantial jump from both the 0.56 and 0.77 rates during last spring training and 0.51 and 0.68 in the 2022 regular season. True, while some of that is surely baserunners being more aggressive as they adjust to the new rules, which is something sure to regress to a degree during the regular season, I wonder whether we are underestimating the impact of the rule changes on that specific area? Todd Zola, our resident projections guru, did bake in a projected increase in the category, and I do like how those numbers look on our pages, but I wonder whether maybe we're even undershooting the league-wide effect.

Here's a fun one: The Cincinnati Reds were a bottom-10 team in both steals and attempts in both 2021 and 2022, but they're already 19-of-20 stealing bases through 12 games, with 10 different players getting in on the action. If that's a signal that manager David Bell considers the stolen base to be a bigger part of his overall game plan, then I think there are buying opportunities there. I'll be tracking these next 10 days to three weeks to see if the team's rate sticks. I mean, Jonathan India has two steals, which one shy of his entire 2022 total!

I'll lump the Colorado Rockies (prospect Zac Veen has seven steals!) and the Chicago White Sox (remember, they have a new manager) into the group of teams that seem to be running more, now that I'm watching more closely for these trends.

Karabell: Fair points, all. However, I do feel compelled to point out that the talented, speedy Veen is hardly the lone stolen base compiler this spring who is not likely to sniff a big-league roster later this month. Many of the young runners seem intent on proving something, which is great. Where is the next Robbie Grossman? You know, that shocking veteran who just "decides" he will suddenly run this season? Do they bother practicing this art in March?

I wonder if we have to wait a year or three for meaningful changes to stolen base attempts before adjusting fantasy angles. Also, I think it is a bad idea to fill a roster spot -- especially with our smaller rosters -- with anyone not providing at least modest power. My stolen base options have to hit home runs, too. Veen and the other runners cannot be Billy Hamilton. They must do more. So I guess I'm saying I still don't think adding more steals to the sport adjusts my draft/auction strategy.

Frankly, the biggest rule change I've been paying attention to in preparation for ESPN drafts is not an MLB rule change at all. It's ESPN changing its standard game.

Cockcroft: True, true, that is an adjustment, too. So far -- and this is the points-based ranker in me talking -- I'm noticing that second base is a lot more shallow than I anticipated, while outfield is a lot deeper than I expected. How about you?

Karabell: Outfield certainly is deeper when one need only play three of them at one time, but the bigger adjustment for me has been losing the corner infield spot. Also, I used to care about multi-eligibility options. Now, not so much. ESPN drafters really should practice before their big events because roster construction is so different now!