Lakeland, Fla. — Jonathan Davis looked at his phone and saw a text message from Rajai Davis. Nice. A former Tigers’ speedster named Davis reaching out to a potentially new Tigers’ speedster named Davis.
“He texted me the other day and said, ‘Did you see the new rules?’” said Jonathan Davis, the veteran outfielder who is in camp as a non-roster invitee. “I hadn’t. He said, ‘You need to check them out.’ I checked them out and he was right.”
Rajai Davis is probably a little envious. He stole 415 bases in his big-league career when the bases were still a full 90 feet apart and pitchers could hold the ball as long as they wanted to and step off the mound or throw over as many times as they needed to.
Starting this year, Major League Baseball has adopted bases that are 18 square inches, three inches bigger than before. That cuts the distance between bases by 4.5 inches. On top of that, pitchers have 20 seconds between pitches to throw the ball when there are runners on and will be limited to two disengagements from the mound (step-offs or throwovers) per at-bat.
On the third disengagement, the runner will advance a base unless he’s picked off.
Pretty big advantage, it would seem, for players like Jonathan Davis, whose sprint speed is in the top 30 percentile in baseball. Davis, who has played 171 total games in parts of five seasons in the big leagues (Blue Jays, Yankees and Brewers), has stolen 18 bases and been caught three times in the big leagues.
He’s stolen 133 bases and been caught 41 times in the minor leagues.
And that’s under the old rules.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a green light,” said another Tigers’ speedster, Akil Baddoo. “But it’s more like an auto-light. I’m ready to go. I’m still not trying to cheat myself too much because they can still throw over. I experienced (these rules) in Triple A last year and I liked it.
“I was able to take advantage of my legs more.”
Baddoo stole seven bases in 30 games at Toledo. He swiped nine and was caught six times with the Tigers.
These new rules — the pitch clock, the shorter distance and the limited pickoff attempts — have added another layer to Tigers’ manager AJ Hinch’s spring preparations. There have been strategy sessions on both side of the issue — ways for both pitchers and base runners to deal with and possibly exploit the changes.
“The pickoff thing is real,” manager AJ Hinch said. “You think of only having two disengagements; we’re used to seeing pitchers step off and refresh the signs, step off and take a deep breath, step off because a runner fake-breaks. All those count now. There are 30 teams that are going to manipulate that to the point of putting pressure on the pitchers to stay on the rubber.
“There will be no more blind pickoffs for no reason. That nervous-twitch throwover to first base costs you something now. We’re going to have to put as much on our pitchers as we can during spring training.”
Runners will seemingly have a big advantage once pitchers use up the two disengagements. Or will they?
“It’s going to be different, no question on that,” said lefty Matthew Boyd, who has 13 pickoffs in his career, five in 2019. “But I believe there’s ways you can use it to your advantage. In terms of how I approach the limited number of pickoffs per at-bat, we’ve had some conversations with AJ and (pitching coach Chris) Fetter. We’re going to find a strategy and that strategy will reveal itself as we go through it.”
In other words, the strategies are proprietary information at this point.
“With everything, there’s something you can use to your advantage,” Boyd said. “You just have to find it.”
Davis said he didn’t think it was necessarily an automatic green light when pitchers use up their throwovers, but it would increase his aggressiveness.
“It depends on the game situation,” he said. “You never know. But it would definitely be a huge possibility for me to take off. But they know that, too. My job is to prepare before the game because a lot of times I could go before (the two throwovers). It’s going to be dictated by the knowledge I have going into the game.”
That is fact. Any base runner worth his salt knows that if a pitcher takes 1.4 seconds or longer to the plate, it doesn’t matter how many times he can throw over — that base is going to get stolen.
“We got a good taste of this at the alternate site (in 2020 when these rules were being tested out),” Tigers catcher Eric Haase said. “It didn’t make as big a difference as they think it’s going to. Honestly, if pitchers are going to 1.5 to the plate, those bases should be stolen anyway.
“But honestly, no one has really been running. A lot of guys just stopped running.”
A pitcher’s best friend will be the slide-step delivery. Haase said most of the pitchers he’s talked to have said they will use the slide step on every pitch with men on base. But not every pitcher is comfortable using the slide step.
“They should always have it; this is the big leagues,” Hinch said. “We’re not great at it. But the best way to avoid putting guys in scoring position when a runner is on first is if you are 1.3 or under (to the plate). I don’t care what the rules are, you can stop the stolen base.”
The most worrisome situation for pitchers and catchers under the new rules will be when there are runners at first and third. Even under the old rules, the threat to steal at first base put extraordinary pressure on the defense when there was a runner at third.
Now that runner at first will likely play all kind of games to bait the pitcher into using up his step-offs and throwovers and bring into play the violation, which of course would force in a run.
“Yeah, I’m already panicking about it,” Hinch said with a chuckle. “We know the teams that will be super aggressive about it with the fake-breaks and things like that. If you don’t put yourself in the vulnerable position of being out of picks with runners at first and third, and you are 1.3 to the plate, you stop that mess.
“Not everyone can do it. Some guys are physically unable to move that fast and still throw strikes. It’s something we will continue to address and work on.”
It begins with getting acclimated to the pitch timer. The Tigers have set up clocks by each of the eight bullpen plates on the backfields at TigerTown. They have 15 seconds between pitches with bases empty and 20 seconds with men on base.
“Right now, it’s more of a casual reminder,” Hinch said. “We’re talking them through it. We will be diving pretty deep into it the next couple of days. We have some presentations for them. We wanted the first bullpens to be with the clock, but obviously we’re not stressing about it too much.”
But by this time next week when the pitchers are throwing live bullpens, against hitters, they will be expected to stay on the clock.
“We will practice with it, educate them, practice with it again and then implement it in live BP before we start playing games,” Hinch said. “I’m expecting violations in practice and I’m expecting violations in the games. No change every really gets perfectly rolled out and that’s OK.
“I’m not going to lose my temper or my mind over early camp violations. But we need to get acclimated as quickly as possible.”