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How rule changes are giving longtime MLB losers a chance in the playoffs

Major League Baseball made an unprecedented change to its rules before the 2023 season in hopes that batters would, please, just hit the ball and strike out less.

The radical move, which limits where defenders can play, was meant to reward hitters who simply put the ball in play, instead of aiming for a home run — and striking out. 

Since its implementation, a handful of long-struggling teams, like the Arizona Diamondbacks, Texas Rangers and Miami Marlins, took advantage to boost their offense and make the playoffs, much to the celebration of their fans. 

Other teams, however, have refused to trade their big swings for more humble base hits, effectively increasing strikeout rates for the league as a whole.

The Diamondbacks host the Philadelphia Phillies at 8:07 p.m. ET Saturday in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series with the best-of-seven series tied, 2-2.

The Rangers visit the Houston Astros for Game 6 of the American League Championship Series with the hosts leading, 3-2.

Before this season, MLB teams were allowed to position defenders in precise spots that, to the naked eye, looked oddly out of balance — typically three of four infielders on one side of the field, with at least one in the outfield, usually right field.

By placing an extra defender in the outfield, he would have a valuable fraction of a second more reaction time to reach a well-struck ball.

This so-called shift defense proved highly effective in 21st-century play, prompting teams to swing for more home runs as the most efficient way to score, since stringing together multiple base hits was increasingly difficult with plummeting batting averages. 

Batters hit for a .243 batting average in 2022, the lowest since the 1968 season’s .237. That famous “Year of the Pitcher,” highlighted by Bob Gibson’s microscopic 1.12 ERA, also led to a radical rule change as the mound was lowered from 15 to 10 inches high for the 1969 season.

The MLB batting average climbed to .264 in 1977 and generally remained in the .260s for about the next three decades. But at the turn of the century, the emphasis turned to home runs.

Along the way, strikeouts — due to that all-or-nothing approach — became a necessary ill for long-ball-driven batters.

“Yes, the game does look better and, more importantly, feels better.”

said MLB historian John Thorn

So for the first time this past season, shift defenses were banned, and all four infield defenders now had to have their feet on infield dirt, with two men on each side of second base. This formalized what was long the tradition in baseball and has helped lead to a renaissance of sorts. 

The sport recorded significant attendance gains in 2023 after trending downward for years, though that’s largely credited to a new pitch clock that forced hurlers to initiate faster action, which led to shorter games.  

There were 70.7 million tickets sold to MLB regular 2023 season games with an average of 29,114 per date. MLB hadn’t topped 70 million in overall sales and 29,000 per date since 2017.

“Without stacked infields and infielders playing as deep as outfielders — as if they were rovers in softball — yes, the game does look better and, more importantly, feels better,” MLB historian John Thorn told NBC News.

In addition to more action on the diamond, MLB hitters had an increased batting average of .248 this season compared to .243 in 2022.

The more telling metric, however, is the advanced measure known as batting average on balls in play, or BABIP — the rate of base hits when a hitter simply puts the ball into play and doesn’t strike out. That number went up more significantly, from .290 in 2022 to .297 this year.

The Rangers, Diamondbacks and Marlins lowered their strikeout rates in 2023 while dramatically boosting their batting averages and BABIP, even beyond the MLB-wide spikes of 5 and 7 points.

The Rangers posted some of the most dramatic improvements in the game with a .263 batting average and .310 BABIP this season, compared to .239 and .287, respectively, in 2022. The Rangers lowered their strikeout rate to 22.5% from 24% last year.

“I think it’s a well-built team,” Rangers catcher Jonah Heim said earlier this season. “We’re going to put the ball in play, we’re not going to strike out much, we’re going to take our walks, and I think that’s a good recipe. When you’ve got traffic on the bases and people who put the ball in play and hit it hard, good things are going to happen.”

Texas manager Bruce Bochy, in his first year at the helm after winning three world titles with the San Francisco Giants, insisted his hitters haven’t made any concerted efforts to decrease strikeouts. Nor has Bochy even paid much attention to data.

But he can’t deny the effect shift-less baseball has had on some of his players, particularly star shortstop Corey Seager, who enjoyed a banner season hitting the ball through now-mandated balanced defenses.

“When the rules change happened, Corey was mentioned as someone the shift took a lot of hits away from, so I’m sure it has impacted us,” said Bochy, who led his team in 2023 to its first winning season since 2016.

“You guys have done that [examined data], I’m sure, but there’s no question it has certainly helped a lot of our hitters. I know other teams would say it,” he said.

A beer vendor walks through the stands during the seventh inning of a baseball game between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Milwaukee Brewers on April 11, 2023, in Phoenix.Ross D. Franklin / AP

As for the Diamondbacks, the team hit at a .250 batting average with a .293 BABIP, striking out 20.4% of the time. Those are all major improvements from the .230 clip, .272 BABIP and 22.2% strikeout rate from 2022.

Arizona’s 84-78 regular season looks even more impressive in comparison to its 110 losses of 2021.

“The game has been shifting for several years: Swing as hard as you can, get lift on the ball [and hit home runs],” Arizona CEO Derrick Hall told NBC News this season. “But our team has a different approach because of the composition of our roster.”

The Diamondbacks executive admitted to being the recipient of good fortune with 2023 rules changes that play directly into Arizona’s skill set. The Diamondbacks stole 166 bases this year, second most in all of baseball, up from 104 last year, seizing upon new rules that sparked more running.

“We do have players that are young, speedy and athletic and they have a different style of play,” Hall said. “I think you just have to adjust accordingly to the roster that you have. We just happen to have players who work well in this style of play and we’re taking advantage of the newer rules, stealing more, going first to third.”

The Miami Marlins this year lowered their strikeout rate by nearly 3 percentage points (down to 21.3% from 24%) while boosting batting average and BABIP by 29 and 24 points, respectively. Miami, not including the Covid-truncated 2020 season, hadn’t had a winning record since 2009.

Marlins first baseman Garrett Cooper gave credit to manager Skip Schumaker and compared the team’s batting average leader, Luis Arraez, to Tony Gwynn, one of the game’s most renowned hitters of the late 20th century, who struck out just 4.2% of the time.

“I don’t think there is one pinpoint thing you can put it on. Skip and the coaching staff, it starts there. They create a different environment and a different feel and vibe that maybe we haven’t had in the last few years,” Cooper said. “You can’t say enough about Luis Arraez and the comparisons [to Gwynn] are unparallel in today’s game.”

Despite MLB’s open invitation to put the ball in play for more base hits, the percentage of swing-for-the-fences home run swings has not decreased and strikeout rates have actually crept up, from 22.4% in 2022 to 22.7% this year.

There may not be any rule change or solution for strikeouts, though, as pitchers grow bigger and throw harder. The average four-seam fastball in 2023 clocked in at 94.1 mph, according to FanGraphs data, in a mark that would’ve been considered elite a generation ago. 

Home runs are still the game’s most powerful weapon, as the dominant Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers both belted the most round-trippers and won 104 and 100 games, respectively. 

But the long ball wasn’t everything, as the power-hungry New York Yankees and Mets both finished in the upper third of MLB in home runs hit but finished far out of the playoffs. The Yankees had baseball’s second-worst team batting average (.227) and the Mets sixth from worst  (.238).

“I think there’s an evolutionary process and we’re going to see more teams reaping the benefits [of decreasing strikeouts] that go well beyond four outlying teams,” said baseball historian Bill Chuck, co-author of “In Scoring Position: 40 Years of a Baseball Love Affair.” “I think this is the future.”