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Minor leagues to have experimental rule changes this season

Could these rules be coming to Major League Baseball someday?

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Syracuse Mets v Lehigh Valley IronPigs Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred has seemingly entertained every proposal to change the game, but this year, he will actually experiment with some of those rules in minor league games. On Wednesday, MLB announced several experimental rule changes in the minors, with the expectation that if successful, some could be incorporated into the big leagues. Here’s a rundown of some of the changes:

Larger bases (Triple-A only)

The size of first, second, and third base will be increased from 15 inches square to 18 inches square. The Competition Committee thinks this could lead to greater success on steals and more runners beating out infield hits. Baseball is also looking to reduce injuries and collisions, such as baserunners accidentally (or intentionally) spiking first basemen as they run by.

With the increase being just a few inches, I am skeptical it will have much of an effect, but I do like where their head is at. Baseball should be looking to incentivize stolen bases and putting the ball in play, although I do wonder if we really want to incentivize weak contact. The increase is visually noticeable, but it remains to be seen whether it will have an impact on baserunning.

Limits on defensive shifts (Double-A only)

Baseball will seek to limit the efficacy of extreme defensive shifts in Double-A by requiring that all four infielders must be inside the outer boundary of infield dirt. This would ban the practice some MLB teams have taken where an infielder effectively play shallow right field against certain left-handed hitters. A violation would result in the hitting team either getting an automatic ball, or if, the ball is hit, the outcome of that hit. Depending on the preliminary results of this rule, baseball may also require two infielders be positioned on each side of second base, effectively banning defensive shifts.

This is the kind of heavy-handed approach I greatly disfavor. If everyone knows where the batter is going to hit the ball, why shouldn’t they position themselves accordingly? Imagine if the NFL said that on obvious running downs, you could only have four defenders within five yards of the line of scrimmage, in order to increase the running game?

I get that baseball has a problem with batting averages plummeting, but the game tends to cyclical. If hitters are getting out too much because they’re hitting the ball too much on one side of the field - guess what? There’s a whole other half of the field to hit it too! No one ever shifted on Tony Gwynn. I get it, not everyone has that kind of Hall of Fame contact, but teams should look to diversify their offense a bit to not only have power hitters who hit .190, but lighter-hitting players who can put the ball in play and hit a bit for average. Banning the shift just seems to go back to rewarding the pull-happy power hitters.

Requiring pitchers to step off (High-A only)

Pitchers would be required to “disengage” from the rubber on any throw, which will affect lefties who are accustomed to throwing over to first while their foot is still on the rubber. They implemented this rule in the Atlantic League, and it took some getting used to for lefties.

The rule disproportionately impacts left-handers, who have designed their deliveries around deceptive leg lifts. Now, the moment a lefty’s right foot moves, baserunners are clear to take off. Rewiring those deliveries for pitchers who have never used a slide step is more than a quick adjustment....

“Unless there’s a new pickoff move that guys can do or a hidden ball trick or something, I think it will be tough to control the running game,” Ducks catcher Nick Garland said.

Stolen bases went from 1.03 per-game in 2018 to 1.07 in 2019. Baseball should do more to incentivize stolen bases, which can be an exciting play. The adoption of the slide step by most pitchers in the 90s helped discourage what had been the high point of stolen bases in the 80s. But baseball has gone too far in the other direction, with the stolen base rate in 2019 at the lowest point since 1971. Taking away one advantage pitchers had in keeping runners honest can bring back a bit of balance.

Limiting pickoffs (Low-A only)

Pitchers will get two pick-off attempts or step-offs per plate appearances while there is at least one runner on. If a pitcher attempts a third pick-off and the runner gets back safely, it is a balk, and the runner can advance to the next base. MLB will also consider limiting this to one pick-off attempt.

Fans don’t care for endless pick-off attempts, but the number of attempts is way down from the 90s, which makes sense as there are far fewer stolen bases.

There were 0.07 pickoffs per team game in 2019, which is where we’ve seen them plateau in recent years. Overall, they’ve gone down — there were 0.08 per team game in 2015 and 0.09 per team game in 2012. The last time there were 0.1 per team game or more was in 1997.

That’s pickoffs — not the attempts. Pickoff throw tracking goes back to 1995. The 14,971 pickoff throws by pitchers in 2019 were the fewest in any season in that span. The highest total in that span was in 1998, when there were 23,781 pickoff throws by pitchers.

This is probably more about increasing stolen bases, but it seems like such an artificial way to goose those numbers. I don’t object to this nearly as much as limiting shifts, and I’ll be curious to see what the true effect is on play, and whether pitchers can make the adjustment.

Robot umpires (Low-A Southeast League only)

The Low-A Southeast League, where the Royals’ affiliate in Columbia, South Carolina will play, will have the “Automatic Ball-Strike System”, a robotic strike zone, rather than a home plate umpire. This was used in the Atlantic League, and was supposed to be implemented in the Florida State League last summer before the pandemic canceled the season. With the Atlantic League, there were still some kinks to be worked out.

Atlantic League pitchers are finding that they get high strike calls much more often now than they did with human umpires. In fact, they were getting so many that the league modified the zone, adjusting it down by a few inches because following the textbook definition of a strike was found to lead to nearly unhittable high strikes....

“There are some pitchers that will never be able to work (to an automated strike zone). I was never an up-and-down pitcher. I was in-and-out. If in the first three innings I established that down and away pitch, by the fourth inning I got a half inch (off the plate). TrackMan won’t give that to you,” High Point pitching coach Frank Viola said.

MLB is saying this is an improved version of that system. Jayson Stark points out that the Atlantic League ABS would sometimes call breaking balls that nicked the strike zone but weren’t actually hittable. This system would eliminate that by not having a three-dimensional zone. There will probably be more issues to work out, but that’s why this is experimental. Ultimately, having an automatic strike zone is a huge improvement over the very subjective whims of human umpires, but it is important to get it right.

Pitch clock (Low-A West only)

The Low-A West league will play with a 15-second pitch clock to enforce time limits between delivery of pitches, as well as time limits on pitching changes and time between innings. There has been a pitch clock in the minors for years, and MLB players even had them in spring training in 2019. But that was a 20-second clock, and pitchers found they could re-set the clock by stepping off the rubber. This will be more aggressively enforced, and if a pitcher fails to deliver a pitch in 15 seconds, it will be a ball. The hitter will also be required to be “attentive” to the pitcher with 8 seconds left on the clock, or else the pitch will be called a strike.

As for this experiment, YES, YES, A THOUSAND TIMES YES! It is well past time for this to be implemented at the big league level, and I imagine it will be an issue in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement. The results were a bit mixed in reducing overall game times in the minors, but some of that was due to pitchers figuring out how to game the old system, something they won’t be able to do with a stricter rule. Besides, it is not the overall length in game time that is a concern, it is the dead time between pitches, and this will help keep the line moving.

What do you think of these experimental rules?