NEW YORK — So what do the Rays think of the game-shaping rule changes announced Friday for next season, such as eliminating defensive shifts and putting a clock on pitchers?
It depends which players you ask.
And what position they play or have with the team.
“I think every lefty (hitter) in the in the league is thanking the Lord,” said second baseman Brandon Lowe, who just happens to be one of those lefty hitters. “I think that’s going to be a huge help for any lefty because you can hit the ball as hard as you want to, it’s a little bit easier to throw from that side of the infield.”
Pete Fairbanks, a reliever who doesn’t like to be rushed, doesn’t see the need to speed up the pitching process.
“I think it’s an interesting thing to put a timer in a game that is by nature untimed,” Fairbanks said. “And I’ll leave it at that.”
But Fairbanks didn’t stop there, raising one of myriad questions players, coaches and executives will have going into next season: How is this all going to really work? (There are also rules limiting pickoff throws and increasing the size of bases.)
Fairbanks wondered, or example, about the potential of a clock violation (for which a ball is called) playing a key role in the outcome of a playoff game.
“I think it would be a shame if something were to be decided by that,” he said, then added: “I think that that falls on us as the people who are subject to said rules to make sure that it doesn’t.”
The premise of the pitch clock rule is at least universally understood: to improve pace of play by limiting pauses in the action and reduce overall time of games.
“I’m a big fan,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “I say that not knowing exactly how it goes. But I know that when we get a pitcher from Triple A (where it has been used), the pace and the tempo which he throws at, we appreciate.”
Aside from the moral issue of the league telling teams how they can and can’t play, the ban on shifting — requiring four infielders to be in front of the outfield grass (so no more 3 ½- or four-man outfields), and two on each side of second base when a pitch is made — will create the most debate on its impact on play.
But maybe not as big as you’d think on the Rays.
Pioneers in the shifting revolution in the late 2000s, the Rays have, well, shifted back to more standard alignments. They rank 23rd of the 30 teams in percentage of plate appearances shifted (three infielders on one side of the infield), per baseballsavant.com, at 27 percent. They do it 42 percent of the time vs. lefty hitters, ranking 28th, and 19.4 percent vs. right-handers, ranking 15th.
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“The emphasis was from the fans, they want to see more offense,” Cash said. “I can understand that perspective that (the shift ban) is going to maybe allow for more offense. So we’ll put our heads together at the end of the season once I totally have an understanding of all the rules and try to make the best decisions to be really competitive within them.”
Does he see it as good or bad for the Rays, given their premium on run prevention?
“It’s going to help Brandon Lowe, might not help our pitchers as much,” he said “But every left-handed hitter and every pitcher is probably going to feel the same way.”
General manager Peter Bendix said data, philosophies and game strategy are homogenized enough that impact of the change may be absorbed equally. “I don’t think it’s something where one team is going to be disproportionately affected in any sort of way,” he said. “Now, we just have different restrictions to work with.”
In theory, the Rays should be able to handle it well given their preference to have athletic rangy defenders.
“Personally, I do like it,” said infielder Taylor Walls, who is one of those. “I think that it puts a lot more opportunity into the defensive players’ hands rather than just someone being able to tell a guy where to go, where a majority of the ground balls are hit.
“I think it’s going to put a bigger aspect on range, on just really the defensive utility that each player has. Nowadays you can get away with maybe not being as versatile defensively, just being a very more offensive-dominant player. I think that it’s just going to amplify the defensive aspect of the game. You’re going to have a lot more balls that are going to get in holes now. You’re going to need more guys that are going to be able to try to get those balls.”
There is also some initial curiosity of how teams will try to beat the new rules. One idea to defend lefty hitters that already is floating around the Internet is having the shortstop — similar to football teams putting a receiver in motion — be ready to break over to the first base side as soon as the pitch is thrown.
“I’m honestly pretty interested to see how it kind of all pans out,” Lowe said. “Looking at how many outs our lefties do hit into the shift it seems like we have a few (more) hits next year.
“I’m kind of looking forward to seeing how teams adjust to it. There’s going to be some way to get around it or some way to hack it. … There’s going to be something figured out, whether it’s a shortstop in a sprinter stance to get over there, but someone’s going to get creative.”
With Ryan Thompson on the injured list, reliever Brooks Raley appears to be the only unvaccinated Ray who won’t be allowed to play in Toronto this week due to Canada’s mandate. … Harold Ramirez, now sporting brighter blue hair in cornrows, is set to play for Colombia in the spring World Baseball Classic. … Manuel Margot is hoping to quickly grow back his beard after shaving it last week so the medical staff could get a look at a skin issue on his left cheek: “My wife said I look too young.” …Tuesday, all nine hitters in the worldly Rays’ lineup were foreign born. Also of note, of the 15 players they used that day, none was homegrown (drafted or signed originally as a Ray). … Per The Athletic, Tampa Bay ace Shane McClanahan is fourth in the new stat — jWAR, for joint WAR (wins above replacement) — that will be used to rank the top 100 pre-arbitration players to distribute the $50 million bonus pool that is part of the new labor deal. McClanahan, whose salary is $711,400, could also get a bonus of $2.5 million to $1 million for a top-five finish in the AL Cy Young voting.
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