When minor league baseball begins in May, there will be some changes with new rules. It’s Major League Baseball’s attempt to look at new rules on the farm to see if they want to bring them to the big leagues.
MLB said it would “closely monitor and analyze the impact of each rule change throughout the 2021 season and report to clubs on their effects for further analysis. Consistent with the preferences of our fans, the rule changes being tested are designed to increase action on the basepaths, create more balls in play, improve the pace and length of games and reduce player injuries.”
We will see different experimental rules at the various levels. Here is the rundown:
Triple-A (larger bases): To reduce player injuries and collisions, the size of first, second and third base will be increased from 15 inches square to 18 inches square. The competition committee also expects the shorter distances between bases created by increased size to have a modest impact on the success rate of stolen base attempts and the frequency with which a batter-runner reaches base on ground balls and bunt attempts.
Double-A (defensive positioning): The defensive team must have a minimum of four players on the infield, each of whom must have both feet completely in front of the outer boundary of the infield dirt. Depending on the preliminary results of this experimental rule change, MLB may require two infielders to be positioned entirely on each side of second base in the second half of the Double-A season. These restrictions on defensive positioning are intended to increase the batting average on balls in play.
High Single-A (step-off rule): Pitchers are required to disengage the rubber prior to throwing to any base, with the penalty of a balk in the event the pitcher fails to comply. MLB implemented a similar rule in the second half of the Atlantic League season in 2019, which resulted in a significant increase in stolen base attempts and an improved success rate after adoption of the rule.
Low Single-A (pickoff limitation): Pitchers will be limited to a total of two step-offs or pickoffs per plate appearance while there is at least one runner on base. A pitcher may attempt a third step-off or pickoff in the same plate appearance; however, if the runner safely returns to the occupied base, the result is a balk. Depending on the preliminary results of this experimental rule change, MLB will consider reducing the limitation to a single step-off or pickoff per plate appearance with at least one runner on base.
Low-A Southeast (ABS): In addition to the limitations on step offs/pickoffs, MLB will expand testing of the automatic ball-strike system (ABS) that began in the Atlantic League and Arizona Fall League to select Low-A Southeast games to assist home plate umpires with calling balls and strikes, ensure a consistent strike zone is called and determine the optimal strike zone for the system.
Low-A West (pitch timers): In addition to the limitations on step-offs/pickoffs, following successful pace of game rules testing among Florida State League teams in 2019, on-field timers (one in the outfield, two behind home plate between the dugouts) will be implemented to enforce time limits between delivery of pitches, inning breaks and pitching changes. The on-field timer used in Low-A West will include new regulations beyond the system currently used in Triple-A and Double-A to reduce game length and improve the pace of play.
While MLB did not commit to eliminating shifting at the Double-A level, I hope this is what happens so we can take a look at it. The fans who comment here are overwhelmingly against shifts. If that is what they want, I’m open to it. I prefer to not legislate where the defenders can play, and as I’ve said numerous times, we see shifts for two main reasons: Hitters are unable to hit against the shift consistently, and the defense is simply playing where a batter predominantly hits the ball.
The batting average in MLB last year for all teams and games was .245. That was the lowest since the .244 mark from 1972. And that was the year before the start of the designated hitter in 1973. Some of that was about strikeout rates, but some of it was also about shifts. Baseball, I feel, does need more balls in play.
Another impact of shifts is we see fewer great defensive plays in the infield. A fielder showing great range with a diving stop up the middle, for instance. With defenders positioned so well in shifts, there is less need for the great play. This could bring some of that and player athleticism back into the game. It’s needed, I believe.
In January, I wrote about and we discussed the possibility of eliminating shifts here.
High-A speedsters may be stealing bases in bunches. By making the pitcher step off before making a pickoff throw they can get huge leads without concern about getting picked off.
I see no problem with experimenting with these rules on the farm. That is the place for that. Let’s see how this all looks because the game needs more action, fewer three true outcomes and more great defense.
Some may see this as MLB messing with the game. I see it as MLB being proactive in fixing a problem before it is too late.