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A fresh start — for both the Toronto Blue Jays and the sport of baseball itself — is the theme as all 32 big-league teams take the field for Opening Day on Thursday. Here’s what’s new:
At a glance, the 2022 Blue Jays were pretty successful. They won 92 games (the franchise’s second-best total since the World Series years), returned to the playoffs after a one-year absence and, in their first full season back at the dome since their COVID-induced exile, drew the seventh-highest attendance in baseball.
But the team fell short of expectations. Listed as a top-three betting favourite to capture its first championship in three decades, Toronto finished seven games behind Aaron Judge and the Yankees in the American League East before getting swept in the first playoff round by underdog Seattle.
As they get set to open a new season Thursday at 4:10 p.m. ET in St. Louis, the Jays hope to reestablish themselves as a top World Series contender.
A big part of that hope rests on a remade outfield that reflects a new emphasis on defence. Last year’s corner outfielders, Teoscar Hernandez and Lourdes Gurriel Jr., are out. In are Daulton Varsho, an exceptional defensive player who was acquired from Arizona, and Kevin Kiermaier, a three-time Gold Glover with Tampa Bay. Bringing in Kiermaier to play centre allows the Jays to move oft-injured George Springer to lighter duty in right while Varsho takes over in left.
The new-look outfield should turn a lot more batted balls into outs and looks better equipped to patrol Toronto’s reconfigured ballpark, which now features angled fences of varying heights as part of a massive reno on the 34-year-old Rogers Centre. The project extended to the stands, where a bunch of bad seats were removed in favour of patio-style areas while the lower-level outfield stands were brought closer to the field and the new raised bullpens.
The Jays also made an effort to upgrade their pitching rotation, splurging on free-agent righty Chris Bassitt (three years, $63 million US) to be their No. 3 starter. The steady 34-year-old, who went 15-9 with the Mets last year, slots in behind Cy Young finalist Alek Manoah (Toronto’s Opening Day starter) and strikeout artist Kevin Gausman. On the bottom end, José Berríos hopes to rebound from an awful first year of his massive contract, while Yusei Kikuchi looks to prove his excellent spring was not a fluke.
Back to the batting order, the Jays signed longtime San Francisco Giants first baseman Brandon Belt to be their everyday DH. There’s talk that 39-year-old Toronto native Joey Votto might be a trade target, but the 2010 National League MVP is currently still rehabbing his surgically repaired right shoulder and will miss Cincinnati’s opener.
The cornerstones of the team remain young stars Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Bo Bichette. Guerrero, 24, regressed at the plate last season after smacking a big-league-high 48 homers and finishing second in AL MVP voting in 2021. But he remains one of the most dangerous hitters in the game and is now a Gold Glove winner at first base. Bichette, 25, closed last season on an absolute tear, batting .406 with an absurd 1.105 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and seven homers over the final month. If the gloriously coiffed shortstop can get off to a better start, he might be in the MVP conversation too. Read more about the Jays’ arrivals and other key players on new teams here.
Major League Baseball remains a thriving business, but in recent years it could no longer ignore an existential crisis. The analytics revolution led to smart people figuring out what really wins ballgames. But this optimization came at the expense of entertainment as, it turns out, deploying best practices makes for pretty boring baseball.
At bottom, the sport had two big problems it needed to solve to keep fans from tuning out. Games were taking too long and there was too little action, with seemingly every at-bat ending in a strikeout, walk or home run — that is, without the ball in play, which is when exciting stuff like doubles, triples, stolen bases and athletic defensive plays happen.
MLB is finally doing something about it this year, introducing a suite of aggressive rules changes designed to make the sport look more like it did when it was more popular.
The biggest is the pitch clock. Pitchers now have 15 seconds to deliver the ball when no one is on base and 20 seconds with runners on, while batters must be in the box and “alert” with no more than eight seconds left on the clock. The dreaded “shift” is now banned, as defences can no longer stack one side of the diamond to swallow up would-be hits. And the bases are three square inches bigger — ostensibly for safety, but with the potential side effect of increasing stolen bases now that the path is slightly shorter.
It’s the pitch clock, though, that has everybody talking, with some calling it baseball’s most impactful change in decades. MLB says the time limit shaved an average of nearly a half hour from spring-training games this year. Perhaps more importantly, the flow is noticeably better, with much less downtime between pitches. The clock is a hit with fans and, after some early challenges in adapting to it, players seem to like it too. In time, we might even find that the clock helps correct the overreliance on power pitching that has turned the sport into such a slog, as less recovery time between throws should favour the hitters. Read more about the rules changes and their possible impact here.