Thu, Mar 11, 2021
By Jim Vassallo (Veri.bet Writer)
Major League Baseball (MLB), at the direction of Commissioner Rob Manfred, will test experimental rules in the minors this season. The experiments will be rolled out across various levels of the minors and include larger bases, limits on defensive shifts, a 15-second pitch clock, and more.
The changes were announced today with the anticipation that the Minor League season will begin in May after missing all of the 2020 season. The goal is to test these changes in the minors with the hopes that they can be implemented in one form or another in the Majors in the near future.
Before the announcement of the rules changes, the league hired former Chicago Cubs President Theo Epstein as a consultant. His job will be to improve the on-field product of Major League Baseball in the hopes of bringing in new fans.
The most involved rule change will occur at Double-A, where four infielders will be required to have both of their feet on the infield dirt. This is a direct change to the defensive shifts employed by many teams where an infielder positions themselves in short right field. Should this change work, the second part of the season could lead to an additional change that would require two infielders to be stationed on either side of the bag at second base.
When announcing the rules experiments, the league wasn’t shy about its reasoning: getting rid of the shift is being done to hopefully increase the batting average of balls hit into play.
An automated ball-strike (ABS) system will be used in the low-A Southeast League, formerly the Florida State League. This system will not be used in every game played but will be utilized in an effort to discover the optimal strike zone. The ABS system was used in 2019 in the independent Atlantic League and the Arizona Fall League.
A 15-second pitch clock will be instituted for the 2021 season in the other low-A league, the West. The players’ association and MLB have discussed the use of a pitch clock at the Major League level and those discussions will likely increase with the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) expiring on December 1, 2021.
Changes to the pickoff rules will be tested this season across all low-A levels of the Minor Leagues. Pitchers will only be permitted to step off the rubber or attempt a pickoff two times per at-bat. If they do either of these a third time and fail to pick the runner off, a balk will be called by the umpiring crew, advancing the runners one base apiece.
In high-A, pitchers will be required to step off the rubber before throwing to first base with a runner aboard. This will undoubtedly limit the near-balk moves employed by left-handed pitchers and increase stolen base rates. The Atlantic League implemented this rule change in 2019, resulting in a 70 percent increase in stolen base attempts.
At the Triple-A level, bases will be three inches longer on all four sides. Increasing the size of the bases means that the distance between home plate and first base will decrease. The distance between first base and second and second base and third will also decrease.
There’s no guarantee that these changes will make their way to the Major Leagues anytime soon, but don’t be surprised if one or more of them appear at a ballpark near you for the 2022 season.