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New Rules Give A’s An Opportunity To “Moneyball”

Oakland Athletics v Los Angeles Angels
With runners on base, Paul has just enough time to throw 4 “and 20” Blackburns.
Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

If you watched the movie, you learned that “Moneyball” is about how the A’s took a grouchy manager, and a GM who looks like Brad Pitt, and won 20 games in a row because they drafted some really good players a few years ago.

But in the book version that the movie inspired, Michael Lewis told the tale of how a shrewd organization, full of brains and short on funds, exploited undervalued commodities and overlooked opportunities, to maximize production.

I am working on a third version, told exclusively through interpretive dance, in which the main message is that I really can’t dance. But let’s focus today on the book’s message: a team can benefit from tapping into advantages that don’t cost as much money to exploit.

2023 is “The Year Of The Rule Changes” with some of MLB’s most radical shifts (and by that I mean no more shifts) since they lowered the mound in 1968. And in many cases, the 2023 A’s might be able to steal (and by that I really do mean steal) a few wins by using the new rules more diabolically than their opponents do.

Exploiting the “2 Pickoffs” Rule

This rule limits pickoffs and step off to two per batter or the third failed attempt results in a balk. It will be interesting to see whether this improves base stealing a little or a great deal, but in one way the impact of the rule is being overstated.

When the alternative to another pickoff try is a successful steal of 2B, the threat of a “balk” isn’t that monumental considering that it just means the equivalent of the successful steal you are trying to prevent.

But now consider when there are runners at 1B and 3B. Now a failed 3rd pickoff attempt not only advances the runner from 1B to 2B, it also allows the runner on 3B to score. Oops. The A’s, whose lineup will struggle more than most to advance runners all the way around the bases, should run “Billy Ball style” when they have runners at the corners.

Exploiting the Pitch Clock

Paul Blackburn, quoted in today’s SF Chronicle, made a salient point about how pitchers and hitters might use the pitch clock against one another. While we tend to focus on the primary rule — pitchers must throw within 15 seconds of getting the ball with the bases empty, within 20 seconds with a runner on base — the actual rule is more nuanced than this.

The batter must be in the box and “ready to hit” with 8 seconds left on the clock, meaning that Mark Canha either must trust his batting gloves to fit properly for two pitches in a row or he has to refine “speed adjusting” them.

Blackburn foresees pitchers using that “8 seconds left” mark strategically. “I feel like you’re going to see a lot of guys kind of quick-pitch around that 9 second mark,” he told the Chronicle’s Mark Kawahara. “And then you’re going to see guys that maybe do a couple quick pitches and all of a sudden come set and hold the ball until the clock gets to 1. You’re going to see a lot more cat-and-mouse like that around the league than I think people anticipate.

The A’s job here is to be the cat.

Shifty Business

There isn’t a lot of room for creativity here, not unless you want to put your LFer in short RF and gamble on a 2 outfielder alignment. But here you can lean on certain skill sets in building a roster and hopefully the A’s have done this.

On the hitting side, we re-enter the “era of the LH batter,” whose prowess has been declining steadily since analytics turned infielders into “rovers”. League batting average hit rock bottom in 2022 with a .243 figure, but should rise again thanks in large part to giving LH batters just 2 infielders they have to clear on the diamond’s right side.

Fly ball heavy hitters won’t reap as many benefits, and we are still waiting for the first strikeout that snuck through the right side hole. But nonetheless, with even many non-sluggers facing shifts in recent years the new rules figure to benefit most LH batters, which in the A’s case include Seth Brown and Tony Kemp, along with the newly added Ryan Noda, Jace Peterson, and JJ Bleday.

Look for Oakland’s front office to begin targeting LH batters just as recently they have emphasized base stealing prowess (see Ruiz, Esteury). Meanwhile, how will the A’s prevent hits without the ability to shift?

Enter Nick Allen, he of the sterling range and plenty of experience on the right side of the diamond thanks to stints at 2B as well as times shifting as a SS. Allen, like every SS, will now have to set up at least a few inches left of the 2B bag, but he has the range and quickness to get pretty far to the right side on grounders to the right of the bag, along with the arm to spin, throw, and get batters out who dare play pepper with the real estate near 2B.

Allen may or may not be able to hit RHP well enough to earn an every day job long term, but his skill set at SS may be even more crucial in helping the A’s convert batted balls to outs in a no-shift world.

Feel free to point out other examples of opportunity created by the new rules. The A’s, still short on talent and experience, need to become masters of exploitation in the name of “winning an unfair game”.

That first “unfair game” is at noon PST today, with JP Sears and Freddie Tarnok hurrying it up on the mound and the pull happy JJ Bleday batting clean up. Play ball!