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Hoornstra: Shohei Ohtani takes center stage among 2023’s storylines to watch in MLB

Baseball is Shohei Ohtani’s world and we’re all just living in it.

At least, that’s how it feels in the afterglow of the World Baseball Classic, which ended when Ohtani struck out teammate Mike Trout with a wicked slider to lift Japan past the U.S. to the WBC championship.

If he isn’t the best all-around player ever to wear a baseball uniform, Ohtani is at least the closest thing since Babe Ruth. Back-to-back seasons of dominance at the plate and on the mound have earned him that much.

But until he wins a championship and signs a highly anticipated free agent contract, some will be waiting for the other shoe to drop on Ohtani’s career. Aside from his raw talent, those questions will make Ohtani the face of baseball for at least the next year.

You’d think it would have made him the focus of the league’s preseason marketing campaign. But, alas, we begin our look at the most intriguing storylines of 2023 with …

The rules

Major League Baseball really wants you to know it’s speeding up the game, banning extreme infield shifts, and making it easier to steal bases. The new rules are the focal point of a newly released ad campaign (featuring Bryan Cranston watching baseball on television, defining the target demographic perfectly). The tagline ― “Three New Rules. More Great Action.” ― feels a bit self-congratulatory on the league’s part. But the rules appear to be delivering on their promise.

With the pitch timer in place, the average time of a spring training game is down nearly half an hour compared to last year. Pitch timer violations are down in general, and it’s been a month since one decided the outcome of a game. Batting average on balls in play is on the rise, likely because of the ban on infield shifts, and so are stolen bases. Don’t accuse MLB of false advertising.

Meanwhile, the league is asking umpires to more rigorously enforce the foreign substance checks that went into effect in 2021. Whether they work or not, at least the hand checks have begun in spring training, when pitchers have more time to adjust. Two years ago, at least one pitcher suffered an injury that he attributed to his inability to grip the baseball after the sticky-substance enforcement went into effect. We can only hope that doesn’t happen again.

Ohtani watch

The MVP of the World Baseball Classic (and the runner-up to Aaron Judge in last year’s AL MVP race) is entering his first contract year stateside. That’s a scary thought. Ohtani’s last two seasons are already unparalleled in major league history and, barring injury, he can look ahead to signing the largest contract in North American sports history.

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