For the third time in the last four seasons, the Baltimore Orioles began the season at Fenway Park to take on the Boston Red Sox. On this Opening Day, the O's, led by a spectacular performance from Adley Rutschman, came out victorious in a 10-9 slugfest. Despite the issues with the pitching staff and a couple of defensive misplays, the performance left Orioles fans feeling optimistic for the season ahead.
Led by Rutschman, everyone in the Orioles lineup got on base except for Austin Hays and the team drew an impressive nine walks and stole five bases. Each of the three infielders left of first base had multi-hit games and Ramon Urias hit a key 2-run homer in the fourth inning off of Corey Kluber.
All in all, the first game of 2023 saw impressive offensive performances for both sides but was also the regular season debut of several controversial rule changes that came into play throughout the game. Rafael Devers became the first player in MLB history to strikeout via a pitch clock violation in the seventh inning and the combination of larger bases and the limitations on the pitchers' ability to hold runners allowed the O's to steal five bases without a single throw by Red Sox catcher Reese McGuire. The O's utilized the rule changes to their full benefit on Thursday and should continue to do so as the season progresses.
Starting with the most controversial rule change, the implementation of a pitch clock. Some pitchers will benefit more than others from the pitch clock as rhythm is a key factor for pitchers and hitters. On the 40-man roster, the Orioles currently have three of the 23 pitchers who took 15 seconds or less between pitches with the bases empty last season. In other words, those three pitchers are already accustomed to working within the parameters of the pitch clock and will not need to adjust much as they already work at a quick tempo.
Those three pitchers are Cole Irvin, Keegan Akin, and Spenser Watkins. Irvin had the fourth quickest tempo in the majors last season and the quickest of any starting pitcher. He did slow things down a bit with runners on base but that is to be expected as a lefty who has a direct view of a baserunner on first base. Akin had the seventh fastest tempo in baseball last year at 14.4 seconds between pitches with the bases empty. The new pitch clock worked in his favor Thursday as he worked a scoreless inning with two strikeouts.
Along with the time between pitches, the pitch clock also directly impacts how often a pitcher can step off the rubber and throw over to a base occupied by a baserunner. This, combined with the larger bases, should see an increase in stolen base attempts across Major League Baseball. As I mentioned earlier, the O's were 5-for-5 in stolen base attempts Thursday. This included two stolen bases from last year's American League leader in the category, Jorge Mateo.
Simply put, Mateo should be a threat to steal every time he reaches base as this was already a major strength for him. Last season, Mateo ranked in the 99th percentile for sprint speed over all of Major League Baseball and he has a knack for getting good jumps and stealing the extra base.
Along with Mateo, Adam Frazier and Cedric Mullins also had a stolen base each on Thursday. Frazier's stolen base was particular 2023-esque as he got a terrific jump off of Ryan Brasier after he threw over to first base. With the new rules, pitchers can only step off the rubber or throw over to a base twice before it is an automatic balk.
This means that pitchers have to be strategic with their throws and one throw over gives the runner a huge advantage. In 2022, Frazier had 11 stolen bases but was in the 37th percentile for sprint speed so his smart baserunning has helped him even when pure speed hasn't. Similar to Mateo, Mullins has relied on his speed to steal bases throughout his career as he had 34 stolen bases and ranked in the 80th percentile in sprint speed in 2022.
Along with Mateo and Mullins, Gunnar Henderson and Ryan McKenna were two of the fastest baserunners in baseball last season and the new rules should benefit both of them. Both Henderson and McKenna had sprint speeds of at least 29 feet per second, whereas the fastest sprint speed overall was Corbin Carroll at 30.7 feet per second. Most people do not think of Henderson as a speedster but his youth and athleticism plays a large role in this figure. Overall, the Orioles have shown a willingness to play small ball in recent years more than most other teams and this willingness should play to their advantage as stolen bases should become more frequent across the sport.
The final rule change that will make a major difference in the sport this season is the outlaw of overshifts. According to the new rules, teams are no longer allowed to have more than two players on either side of second base and must have four players on the infield dirt at all times. All 30 teams frequently utilized the shift before this season which caused the change. The Orioles have one of the most athletic infields in baseball and this athleticism should work in their favor as each player will have to rely more on their range and speed to make plays.
Of course, Ramon Urias won the Gold Glove last year at third base due to his league-best Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved. Urias nearly made a Gold Glove caliber play at third base on Thursday but was beat out by the legs of Justin Turner on an RBI single in the ninth inning. As mentioned earlier, Jorge Mateo is one of the fastest and most athletic players in baseball and this should play to his advantage as he leads the Orioles infield in 2023.
Ultimately, 2023 is a huge season for the Mike Elias-Brandon Hyde regime as there are high expectations from day one of the season for the first time in their tenures and these new rules will change the playing field for all teams. For the reasons mentioned in this article, the Orioles should greatly benefit from the changes as they can rely on their quick tempo, speedy baserunners, and athletic infield more than most other teams in baseball.