We knew MLB’s sweeping rule changes were going to shake up baseball heading into the 2023 season. But it’s been fascinating to watch exactly how much of an adjustment players are having to make in real time during spring training. From Manny Machado becoming the first player to run afoul of the pitch clock for dilly-dallying too long before getting set in the batter’s box, to an Atlanta Braves-Boston Red Sox game ending in a tie on a clock violation, the new rules have already been an adventure. While officials are hopeful these hiccups will get worked out before things start to count for real, it’s already clear that some players and teams will need to adapt their games to the rule changes more than others.
Unfortunately, though, most of the projection systems we love to consult before the season don’t account for these changes. So we wondered, which teams might do better or worse than their projections thanks to the new rules? That’s why we created MANFRED, or the Metric for Assessing Negative or Favorable Rule-Effect Dynamics. MANFRED takes every team’s 2022 ranking in categories that will be pertinent to the new rules — pitch tempo (which obviously matters for the pitch clock), defensive-shift frequency (since the shift is now outlawed) and sprint speed (since larger bases and restrictions on pickoff throws encourage more base stealing) — and combines them into a weighted composite1 that ranks teams from those most likely to benefit under the new rules to those most likely to suffer.
Here’s a plot of every team’s MANFRED rank against its ranking in projected 2023 wins, according to our usual cocktail of predictions from Clay Davenport, Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs and Elo ratings:
There are certainly some bad teams that might be poised to improve at the margins as the new rules play to their strengths. The Colorado Rockies (No. 2 in MANFRED), Kansas City Royals (No. 3) and Arizona Diamondbacks (No. 4) all rank among the bottom 10 teams in predicted wins but sit among the top five in MANFRED. Along similar lines, the Baltimore Orioles — last year’s underdog darlings who narrowly missed the playoffs — might be a better bet than we think to follow up on their 2022 breakout, as they had above-average speed and won’t have to adjust much to not being able to shift.
But the most fascinating teams to keep an eye on will be those that are projected to be good but have either very good or very bad MANFRED scores. For example, the Cleveland Guardians and the Braves each rank among the top 10 in both projected wins and in MANFRED. In fact, Cleveland was the No. 1 MANFRED team in baseball last season; the Guardians’ pitchers took the least time between pitches, they used shifts less often than every team except one and their runners had the fastest sprint speed. The Guardians are basically a team custom-built to capitalize on MLB’s new rules.
The same can’t be said of the Houston Astros (and, to a slightly lesser extent, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Toronto Blue Jays). Don’t get us wrong — the defending champs still look plenty fearsome on paper, but they ranked dead last in MANFRED a season ago because they finished 29th in pitch tempo, 29th in shift avoidance and 22nd in sprint speed. Essentially, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred (no relation to the metric MANFRED) came along and nerfed some of the hallmarks of Houston’s playing style when it won the World Series last year.
How much will it matter? It’s tough to say, and teams like the Astros have long been great because they can always adapt to changing conditions in the game (like, say, not being able to steal signs electronically anymore). The fact that Houston didn’t sign a pitcher this past offseason because it didn’t have a general manager will probably loom larger over the team’s 2023 campaign than any hit it takes from the rule changes. But in a sport where every little edge matters, some teams gained on the rest of the league because of the new wrinkles in the rulebook, and some clearly fell behind.