In his first season in Baltimore, Rougned Odor has frequently capitalized on his place in the field for humorous effect.
When the Orioles’ second baseman has been shifted into right field and a flyball has been hit behind him to the outfielder, he has lifted his glove as if to make a catch, at times tricking broadcast cameras about the ball’s destination. The shifted defensive position of the Orioles’ shortstop, whether it be Jorge Mateo or Gunnar Henderson, has occasionally caused him to cut in front of Odor on a groundball, and the 28-year-old has then mimicked his double-play partner’s throw to first.
Even with Major League Baseball’s announcement Friday of rule changes coming in 2023 that include limitations on infield shifts, Odor figures he’ll still find ways to have a good time on the field.
“I’m gonna be playing the same,” Odor said. “That’s how I used to play when it was no shift, and I think it’s gonna be back to normal, like how it used to be.”
MLB announced three significant changes coming to the game next season: a ban of infield shifts as they’ve come to be used, the implementation of a pitch clock and the introduction of larger bases. The rules passed in the league’s 11-man competition committee, with the four players in the group unanimously opposing the shift and clock changes, according to the MLB Players Association.
In the Orioles’ clubhouse, all changes were viewed as welcome. On both sides of the ball, Odor figures to be among the players most impacted by the shift rule, which will require all four infielders to be on the dirt with two on each side of second base. The left-handed hitter entered Friday having faced a shift in 93.8% of his plate appearances, the fourth-most frequently among batters with at least 50, according to Baseball Savant. Defensively, he’s played the second farthest from home plate of any second baseman, minimum 100 plate appearances, a byproduct of playing in shallow right field on shifts and manager Brandon Hyde’s trust in his throwing ability from there.
The leaguewide rate of shifts is 34.3%, according to Baseball Savant, an increase of more than 20% from 2016 that reflects teams’ increase of information about where opposing hitters will hit the ball. The Orioles are 28th of MLB’s 30 teams in shift percentage this season, shifting against fewer than a quarter of batters faced. In that sense, the new rules won’t have as dramatic an impact on them as they might for other teams. In fact, Hyde said the Orioles’ infield athleticism, with Mateo and Henderson shining examples, might allow the rule to play in their favor.
“It brings the athleticism and arm strength, range back, especially back to middle infielders,” Hyde said. “I think that we’re young and we’re athletic, and we have some nice middle infielders that are going to have a big range and have arms, so I think it’s gonna benefit us.
“I’m looking forward to going back to what it was before. I do like traditional baseball. Maybe I sound old school, but I do like the way it was a little bit.”
Like Odor, rookie Terrin Vavra is a left-handed hitter and has primarily played second base in his professional career. He said there will be a give and take to limiting shifts, in that some balls that wouldn’t have snuck through under previous arrangements now will even as other holes are plugged up.
“There’s going to be more action, which I think is exciting for fans,” Vavra said. “I think that it’s gonna be one of those things where it’s gonna bite you in the butt sometimes, and other times, it’s gonna work to your advantage.
“Really, truly, I think that it’s gonna have its pros and cons. I think, ultimately, hitters are gonna hit, pitchers are gonna have to pitch, and when you’re on defensive, you’re gonna have to make plays, and wherever you’re at, just try to do everything you can to get to a ball and get a guy out.”
Orioles first baseman Ryan Mountcastle, a right-handed hitter who has faced shifts in 12% of his plate appearances, noted that although the rules won’t necessarily affect him as much as his left-handed teammates, he’s looking forward to more traditional defensive formations.
“Having four guys in the outfield isn’t really baseball, I don’t think,” Mountcastle said. “It’s probably a good thing for the game.”
That feeling particularly carried through the clubhouse for the pitch clock, which will require the pitcher to begin his motion within 15 seconds of receiving the ball from the catcher with no one on base and 20 seconds with at least one runner on. The system has been tested in the minor leagues this season and resulted in a 26-minute reduction in average game time, according to MLB.
“The pace of play, the pitch clock, I’m really interested,” Hyde said. “I’m excited about that. I think it’s going to better the fan experience. I think it’s going to better the player experience on the field, I’m hoping, just by the pace of play getting up a little bit more.”
Pitchers are also limited to only two step-offs or pickoff attempts per plate appearance, with a third resulting in a balk unless the runner is actually caught. Veteran right-hander Jordan Lyles said he has concerns about the clock’s potential impact in situations with a runner on second base, when a great deal of gamesmanship can occur amid a scoring opportunity.
“I think that takes away from the game of baseball a little bit,” Lyles said. “But I’m all for it with no one on base. Let’s get this thing going.”
Vavra noted the system is an adjustment for hitters, as well. He got to experience it Triple-A, where pitchers had 14 seconds with the bases empty and 19 seconds otherwise. Batters were also required to be in the box giving their attention to the pitcher with nine seconds remaining; it will be eight seconds in the majors next year.
“At first, you were kind of, like, panicked, to be honest,” Vavra said. “You’re just like, ‘OK, I’ve gotta get in the box. Just gotta stay in the box.’ And then you realize that, OK, you do still have time to kind of step out for a brief minute and kind of reset and get back in the box, and once you kind of understand that and how much time you really truly have, it makes it a little bit more easy to kind of wrap your head around it.”
The minor league changes also resulted in an increase in stolen base attempts and success. MLB’s third upcoming change, enlarging the bases from 15 inches-by-15 inches to 18-by-18, could have a similar impact. The distance between first and second and between second and third will decrease by 4 1/2 inches with the change.
“A couple inches could be the difference between safe and out,” Mountcastle said.
For him and other first basemen, the bigger bases could also increase safety, giving runners a clearer lane to reach first without colliding into the fielder. Mountcastle pointed out he bumped into Oakland’s Tony Kemp on a play just last week.
Collectively, the changes are intended to “improve pace of play, increase action, and reduce injuries,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement, though the MLBPA countered in its own statement that the league “was unwilling to meaningfully address the areas of concern” players had regarding the pitch clock and shift ban. Regardless, they and bigger bases are coming to the majors in 2023.
“I think most rule changes in the past have kind of went smooth over time,” Lyles said. “Hopefully, two or three years from now, we won’t even be discussing next year.”