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Answering a Shift Question and An Unsung Impact of the Pitch Clock

Inquiring minds ponder the impact of the shift rule and pitch clock rule on Astros’ players

MLB: Spring Training-Houston Astros at Washington Nationals
Ryan Pressly pitches in his first outing of the spring.
Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

Today’s article will address two topics related to the impact of the MLB rules change. First, will the timer clock reduce the effectiveness of some relievers? Second, a TCB reader asks if eliminating the infield shift will reduce the number of double plays the Astros turn.

PItch Clock

Most of the discussion about the impact of the pitch clock has focused on the pace of play. That’s not surprising since that’s the purpose of the rule. Setting aside, however one feels about the aesthetics of the pitch clock rule, an under-the-radar issue is whether the rule will impact the effectiveness of some pitchers.

As an initial point, it’s unclear whether the rule change will have a greater effect on pitcher or hitter performance. Astros hitter Kyle Tucker contends that the rule gives an unwarranted advantage to pitchers:

“These pitchers are the best pitchers in the world, and you’re giving them more of an advantage, and you have to rush in the box; it takes away some of the thought process that goes into hitting. Think it could be maybe a little longer.”

On the other hand, Astros closer Ryan Pressly has notably taken more time between pitches, and counts himself as “not a fan” of the pitch clock.

We can’t resolve the question as to whether it hurts pitchers or hitters more. But we do have evidence that pitchers who take more time between pitches tend to have higher velocity. This is particularly true for relief pitchers who throw max effort, and can use the “rest” between pitches to uncoil higher velocity fastballs.

A 2017 Five Thirty-Eight article (Rob Arthur) found that for “every additional second they spend (up to 20 seconds), pitchers throw about .02 miles per hour harder.” He speculated that analytics oriented front offices may be encouraging pitchers to take advantage of the time. In this passage, the author cites former Astros’ analyst Mike Fast to make the point that even small changes in velocity add to effectiveness;

“Such a small difference in fastball velocity might seem too insignificant to chase. But every mile per hour matters: According to a 2010 study by Mike Fast (now employed in the Houston Astros’ front office), a single tick of fastball velocity is worth 0.3 runs per nine innings for a starter, and even more (0.45 runs per mph) for relievers. With players desperate for any advantage, a 0.1- or 0.2-mile per-hour bump is certainly worth the wait.”

It will be interesting to track velocity changes by pitchers (albeit, the timing effect may seem imperceptible on an individual basis). Some pitchers’ velocities may be affected by the pitch clock more than others. Both age and the peculiarities of each pitcher’s delivery may affect the distribution of this impact. Also, maybe there will be a tendency to rely more on breaking and off-speed pitches. This trend has been ongoing in recent years, even without a pitch clock.

Question About Shift Rule and Double Plays

A TCB reader emailed a question to the editor: “how much (will) the new rules ...reduce the number of double plays— especially for the Astros. The banning of the shift and the advantaging of base runners has to reduce double plays. How badly will the Astros emphasis on ground ball pitching be hurt?”

There are several parts to unpacking this question.

I’ll start with the part I can’t answer. The reader raises the astute point that the rules aimed at increasing stolen bases will affect the number of double plays. That is probably true. More steals of second base mean fewer double-play situations. In addition, those same rule changes may initially allow the runner to get a bigger jump, making it easier to beat the double play. At this point, I can’t begin to guess about the impact. It could have a minor or major impact on the number of double plays. I think we will have to wait and see how teams respond to stolen base incentives. I suspect pitchers will develop tactical changes to manage the higher steal proclivity.

The linkage between the infield shift and double plays is a more interesting question. In my view, the relationship involves two opposing effects. The shift lets the defenders get to more groundballs, which provides more opportunities for a double play. On the other hand, the players’ positioning in the shift frequently makes the double play more difficult to turn. I have previously pointed out that the Astros' defense may suffer the most with the elimination of the shift—-the 2022 Astros posted 35 runs saved above average due to the shift (second best in the majors). But this is not necessarily due to a lot of double plays. The Astros are middle of the pack (16th) in the number of double plays turned.

I performed a simple test of the relationship between shifts and double plays. I compared the 30 teams’ “double plays per 9” and “percentage of plate appearances with a shift.” For the latter term, I looked at both total shifts and only shifts against LHB. The correlation result is shown below. The Astros lead the majors in percent of LH plate appearances with a shift (82%).

Correlation: DPs vs. Shift Percentage

LHB Shift -.27

The LH shift percentage is inversely correlated with double plays per 9. When I test it versus all shifts, I get a similar negative correlation (-.32). This suggests that infield shifts may reduce the number of double plays. Although other factors could affect the degree of correlation, my preliminary conclusion is that banning the shift is unlikely to reduce the number of double plays (and may indeed increase DPs).

Of course, this is based on teams in general and not specifically the Astros. The Astros have done a good job at making the longer throws necessary to turn the double play in the shift. But, still, the Astros are just average in terms of the number of DPs turned.

A final part of this question is “How badly will the Astros' emphasis on ground ball pitching be hurt?”

The premise of this question is not exactly right. Although Framber Valdez has the highest GB % in baseball, I would disagree that the Astros emphasize groundball pitching. The Astros pitching staff was No. 16 in groundball percent (42.7%). Replacing Verlander with Hunter Brown could move the staff percentage slightly in the groundball direction. But in general, the staff is pretty balanced between fly ball and groundball pitchers. In fact, the excellent defensive performance of the Astros’ outfield is particularly important, given the extreme fly ball pitchers like Garcia, Urquidy, and Javier. The high GB% pitchers may be more susceptible to the elimination of the shift. The pitchers with a GB% >46% and a GB%<40% are shown below.

High GB%: Brown, Valdez, Montero, McCullers, Abreu, Pressly.

Low GB%: Stanek, Garcia, Maton, Urquidy, Neris, Javier.

I hope this answer is helpful!

MLB: Spring Training-New York Mets at Houston Astros
Minor leaguer Dixon Machado leaps to complete a double play in the spring training game against the Mets.
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports