2023 MLB Rule Changes: Bigger Bases, Fewer Pickoff Attempts, and How the Padres are Adjusting

Baseball is expecting a significant spike in stolen bases this season

In 1987, Cardinals speedster Vince Coleman stole 109 bases. It was his 3rd straight season with triple-digit steals. It was also the last time anyone reached the century mark.

Since then, the stolen base has become less and less important in Major League Baseball. Last year, only four entire TEAMS stole more than 109 bags. In 2023, thanks to a pair of very large rules changes, it appears the stolen base is going to experience a renaissance.

The first change is, MLB made the bags bigger, from 15 square inches to 18 square inches, which cuts 4 ½ inches off the distance between bases. The other change is a crackdown on pickoff attempts. Pitchers can now only throw over twice per plate appearance. That means, if a guy throws over twice, the runner knows he can go on the first motion he sees.

Combine those two things and the running game suddenly becomes a whole lot more intriguing, introducing a potential brand new strategy.

“I think you’re going to start to see, at least when the season starts, more baserunners trying to induce more pickoffs, even if they’re not going, to get themselves in a better position to go ahead and force the running game a little bit more,” says Padres Manager Bob Melvin.

During Spring Training we already started to see a difference.

There were 795 steals in 454 games, an average of 1.75 per game. During last year’s regular season there were 2,487 steals in 2,430 games, just 1.02 per outing. Simple math tells us that’s about a 75% increase in stolen bases, and that number might jump even more when the real thing starts.

“I think there are some teams that are maybe being coy about what they’re doing in Spring then maybe roll out some different looks during the season,” says Melvin. “You see a 3-0 pickoff at 2nd base then a slide step, it’s just kind of crazy stuff.”

Do not think for a second the Padres are not squarely in that group of teams.

“Yeah. Oh, yeah. We’ve done it a couple of times this year,” says Melvin. “Our stolen base numbers are really good this Spring. So, it may come up.”

Skipper is absolutely right. In Cactus League play the Padres stole 30 bags and were only caught 4 times. Compare that to last season where, over 162 games, they only swiped 49 bases and were caught 22 times. So, yeah, something is different.

But which is the larger factor, the bigger bags or the crackdown on pickoffs?

“You know, I don’t know. I really don’t,” says Melvin. “I haven’t heard a runner say they feel like it just feels like (the base) is a lot closer but … our stolen base numbers are good. Actually, our stolen base against is pretty good, too, this Spring.”

That’s the other side of this coin. Pitchers and catchers will have to adjust to how they control the running game with quick pitches, slide steps, varying tempo, etc. It also helps if you have a catcher with a howitzer attached to his body to cut down potential base stealers.

Padres backstop Luis Campusano’s pop time (the time it takes for a catcher to take the ball out of his glove and get it to 2nd base) is 1.89 seconds. That’s the 3rd-fastest in the entire game and a looming threat to stymie steals. But, he says that’s more of a group effort.

“We all do our parts. I just try to make the best throw I can. If not, just make a better throw next time,” says Campusano. This year he will very likely have ample opportunity to make good throws.

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