Relocation, expansion, a new pitch, and less obvious impacts of new rules
Leading off …
The prospect of the Las Vegas A's seems like a near certainty at this point.
Oakland mayor Sheng Thao said Wednesday night that talks broke off with the club about building a new home. While there are still funding and legislative hurdles to work through according to The Nevada Independent, the A's announced they have an agreement to buy land in Las Vegas for a new stadium.
There are strong arguments against taxpayers funding stadiums for billionaire owners - some studies have shown the economic impact falls short of promised benefits. But there will be an enormous emotional loss for those in the community who followed the club.
The A's, Major League Baseball's most nomadic club, are on the cusp of calling a fourth city home following stays in Philadelphia (1901-54), Kansas City (1955-67), and Oakland (1968-).
Their departure will also mark the loss of a third major league sports franchise in three years for the East Bay, with the NFL's Raiders moving to Las Vegas and the NBA's Warriors heading across the bay to a new arena in San Francisco.
The move by the A's has significant implications for the next MLB shake-up - expansion.
No 2: The path to 32 teams clears
The commissioner's office has been waiting for stadium decisions from the A's and Tampa Bay Rays before considering adding two new franchises. The Rays' status is getting closer to a resolution after announcing in January a plan to build a new stadium in St. Petersburg.
MLB hasn't added any new teams since the Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks in 1998. The American and National Leagues played with eight clubs each from 1901-60 before growing throughout the second half of the century to their current sizes.
Expansion comes with several benefits: it makes scheduling easier with an even number of teams in both leagues, and there no longer needs to be constantly rotating interleague play. And if you're not moving into new markets, you're not growing as a business. There are nearly 70 million more people in the United States and Canada today than the last time MLB expanded. There's also been U.S. population migration to the south and west.
As for watering down the talent level, baseball ought to be able to stock rosters and expand to new markets. The game is becoming increasingly international, evident from the growth of, and competition at, the World Baseball Classic.
Removing Las Vegas as an expansion destination opens other new markets such as Montreal (with 4.3 million people in its metro area, the largest region without an MLB club in Canada and the U.S.), Nashville, Charlotte, Portland, and Salt Lake City. I believe Monterrey, Mexico, would be an ideal fit someday for an MLB club.
No. 3: Redrawing baseball's map
A move to 32 teams would require some degree of realignment.
I have long favored a more radical geographic-based realignment to create more rivalries and reduce travel, which could have performance benefits for players and cost savings for owners.
The following vision for MLB's new map is based upon my proposal from 2021 using fan rivalry polling (to protect top rivalries) combined with dramatic geographic realignment. I updated my recommendation to include the Las Vegas A's and an eight-division model that MLB likely prefers to manufacture more playoff races:
No. 4: From new places to a new pitch
The wide adoption of a new pitch type is rare in baseball, but a new one arrived a few years ago and is spreading quickly throughout the sport.
The new pitch is called the sweeper. It's a big-bending horizontal-moving breaking ball that looks different than breaking balls that move more vertically, such as curveballs and hybrid sliders.
Pitching became more vertically oriented in recent years when high fastballs were paired with vertical breaking balls to change hitters' eye levels. The sweeper gives pitchers a different shape to add to the mix and can be coupled with two-seam fastballs that break toward the pitcher's arm side.
While pitchers have previously thrown horizontal curveballs, there's never been a label for them. They've also never been thrown this often - at least for as long as the available technology has tracked pitches.
Sweepers have increased from 326 thrown in 2015 - when Adam Ottavino was the only pitcher throwing anything with a movement profile similar to a sweeper - to 18,601 last year.
The sweeper's usage has grown thanks to modern pitch design, with high-speed cameras and pitch-tracking tech shortening the timetable of learning a new pitch.
And the pitch is spreading for good reason, as batters are hitting just .203 against the sweeper in 2023 after a .194 mark last year. Batters are hitting .272 against four-seam fastballs, .212 against sliders, and .225 against curveballs this season.
The Minnesota Twins are throwing the highest percentage of sweepers in baseball. The sweeper represents 9.8% of all pitches this campaign by the Twins, who are second behind the Rays for the best overall ERA (2.69) and are enjoying the greatest ERA improvement year over year.
Led by Drew Rasmussen and Jeffrey Springs, Tampa Bay is another top sweeper producer. Springs allowed one run in 16 innings this season before getting injured.
"If you're having to respect two different breaking pitches, or Rasmussen's three, it just gives you a little bit of margin for error on shapes of breaking balls," Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder told theScore. "Using those (multiple breaking balls) in concert with one another has definitely produced results."
No. 5: With 10% of the season in the books, what's going as expected with the new rules?
The reduction of game times by nearly a half hour due to the pitch timer has been well-documented this season. The spate of new rules introduced this year seems widely popular with everyone aside from pitchers.
Pitchers have received more pitch clock violations (144) than batters (60) through the first 279 team games. However, infractions are relatively rare, as there have been nearly 78,000 pitches this season. That's about 2.4 violations per 1,000 pitches thrown, according to data collected by Baseball Reference through Wednesday's contests.
Steals and steal percentages are still way up as expected because of the limits pitchers can throw over to bases to hold runners. The success rate is at a near-record level of 80.6% through Wednesday, up more than five percentage points over last season.
No. 6: The one surprise? The shift ban effects
The batting average on ground balls is up to .246 from .241 last year, but the batting average on ground balls by left-handed batters is down - .225 this season versus .226 in 2022. All the gains have come from right-handed hitters, who have improved to .260 from .250. Many of the complaints about shifts concerned plugging the hole between the first and second basemen with defenders stationed in short right field, so it's a bit of a head-scratcher that left-handed batters haven't seen any improvement yet. It's still early.
No. 7: Fernando Tatis Jr. is back. Can he stay healthy?
Tatis returned from his 80-game PED suspension Thursday night. He might just remind us that he's the most skilled baseball player not named Shohei Ohtani - if he can stay on the field.
A number of players have struggled to return from shoulder surgeries in recent years, such as Michael Brantley and Cody Bellinger, to name a few. But Tatis obliterated Triple-A pitching this month, hitting seven homers in eight games and regularly posting elite exit velocities above 110 mph. His shoulder and wrist appear healthy.
Sports injury expert Will Carroll provided insight on Tatis' shoulder in his newsletter, sharing what he learned from several sources about the injury and the surgery to repair it:
The labrum was essentially untouched, and the rest of the surgery was termed "a clean up." The rehab was simple and quick, with no real biomechanical changes inside the shoulder. Having talked with two people with knowledge of the surgery and the rehab, I'm loath to even call this a "tightening up" inside the shoulder, though there was some work on the shoulder capsule.
If the Padres can get 500-plus plate appearances from Tatis, he could be the difference between an NL West title and something less.
No. 8: New sticky situations
MLB is doing the right thing in enforcing its foreign substance ban to create a level playing field and reduce the record strikeout levels that have plagued the game in recent years. League-wide mph/rpm ratios have ticked up again since the league started pushing its ban in the summer of 2021.
Sticky substances create more spin. More spin equals more movement. And more movement creates more swing and miss.
Policing the issue is another matter, and there might be too much gray area that needs clarity.
For instance, Twins manager Rocco Baldelli was ejected from Saturday's game, incensed after the umpiring crew allowed Yankees starting pitcher Domingo German to continue throwing with sticky hands after a warning. Umpires eventually forced German to wash his hands (welcome to 2023 baseball), and his spin rates fell afterward.
Rosin plus another substance, like sunscreen, can create a spin edge - and rosin mixtures are considered foreign substances. (We've experimented to verify this).
Umpires tossed Mets starter Max Scherzer from Wednesday's game for having a sticky substance on his hands and glove. Unlike the German situation, the umpires believed Scherzer's hands became even stickier an inning after telling him to wash his hands. Scherzer claims he was only using rosin but is not appealing his 10-game suspension.
There ought to be clarity on how many warnings and how much leeway pitchers are given.
And perhaps Statcast's real-time spin rates can be made available to the umpires to aid their decisions. It can be compared to a player's baseline taken with clean hands in the spring. A pitcher's mph/rpm signature is difficult to change without sticky stuff.
No. 9: Bad news for the AL East, Tampa Bay has help on the way
Losing Springs to Tommy John surgery is a big deal for the Rays, but Tampa Bay is as well equipped as any team to deal with pitching injuries.
Taj Bradley, the club's top pitching prospect, was excellent in his second start Tuesday. Tyler Glasnow is progressing in his return from an oblique injury and projects to rejoin the rotation in mid-May. The Rays are the best club in baseball with more help on the way.
Stat of the week
7.47 | Oakland's ERA through the season's first 18 games, which is the fifth worst all time, trailing only the 1955 Kansas City Athletics (7.49), 1998 Colorado Rockies (7.54), 1994 Minnesota Twins (7.66), and 1951 St. Louis Browns (7.94 ERA).
The A's recalled top pitching prospect Mason Miller for their 19th game of the season Wednesday. Miller, a 2021 third-round pick, was remarkable in his brief minor-league career, regularly hitting 100 mph and striking out 53 in 28 2/3 innings. He limited the Cubs to two runs over 4 1/3 innings, although Oakland's bullpen followed by allowing 10 more runs.
He said it
"The level of stickiness on his hand was much worse than it was even in the initial inspection that had taken place two innings prior … this was the stickiest that it has been since I've been inspecting hands, which now goes back three seasons." - Umpire Dan Bellino on Scherzer's ejection.
You don't see that every day
"I came here, went to the (road TV) booth, and people almost tackled me and pushed me into this booth." - SNY broadcaster Ron Darling upon learning visiting TV crews cannot use the visitors' booth in Oakland because a possum is inhabiting the space.
The A's need a new home. Ideally, for A's fans, it would be in the Bay Area.
Starting Lineup is a bi-weekly collection of reporting, observations, and insights from the Major League Baseball beat.
Travis Sawchik is theScore's senior baseball writer.
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