MLB on Thursday dropped a list of rule modifications that it will test in the minor leagues this season. The ones that fans know (and hate) the most are banning the shift (in Double-A), robot umpires (in Low-A Southeast, aka the old Florida State League) and pitch clocks (in all of Low Single-A).
But baseball will also test modifications to the running game to see whether stolen bases can increase and more “action” can be injected into the sport. These changes are more important than speed-up rules or lasers calling balls and strikes.
The entire list:
A variety of experimental playing rules, which have been approved by the Competition Committee and the Playing Rules Committee, will be tested at various levels of the Minor Leagues during the upcoming 2021 season. pic.twitter.com/1aQMbgWHqp
— MLB Communications (@MLB_PR) March 11, 2021
Naturally, the “Fire Rob Manfred” replies on Twitter were immediate as fans strained their online vocal cords to rage at . . . things. But few of them went any deeper than that.
And while this reaction won’t get far below the surface, either, it will be more than “I hate everything.” A level-by-level breakdown of the changes and whether they’re good or bad:
Triple-A changes: Good
The size of first, second and third base is expanding from 15 square inches to 18 square inches. The idea is to increase safety by reducing collisions. Baseball is also hoping that larger bases will result in more stolen bases and more runners beating out plays. In a game of inches, altering the dimensions of the bases will be consequential, but it won’t drastically alter the game as much as other changes in this list (see below) will.
Double-A changes: Bad
Bad isn’t a strong enough word; awful is a more apt description. Double-A is the “ban the shift” league (potentially) this year. At first, teams will be required to have four players stand on the dirt portion of the infield at all times — no more “rovers” in right field. If the results of that experiment go a certain way (i.e., if not enough additional hits go through the infield), then teams may be required in the second half of the season to keep two infielders on each side of second base at all times.
The two-a-side idea is too extreme. It unduly penalizes teams that do good (or, nowadays, routine) scouting. There’s a reason MLB teams produce spray charts; they want to optimize defensive positioning and enhance run prevention. Prohibiting that exercise would return infield play to what it was just 10 years ago (yay for nostalgia), but why come down that hard on teams that play smart percentage baseball and bottle up batters who aren’t asked — or who don’t want to — shorten up and hit the ball the other way?
One other thing that wasn’t addressed in MLB’s release: Forcing teams to have four players on the dirt would eliminate four-man outfields. Teams today are willing to trade singles to the vacant left side for better coverage in the gaps and lines against left-handed sluggers.
Bottom line: MLB shouldn’t take away any of these options in pursuit of “the very best version of baseball,” as new MLB executive Theo Epstein put it. The very best version of baseball is the one where teams organically adjust their strategies to gain edges. Baseball’s rules need to allow those adjustments to take place with minimal limits.
Single-A changes: Good and bad
This is where the running game experiments will take place. Pitchers at High-A will need to step off the rubber before they can attempt a pickoff throw to any base, including first. Pitchers in low-A leagues will be limited to two step-offs or pickoff throws per plate appearance. If they make a third step-off or pickoff attempt, then they’ll need to pick off the runner right there, or else a balk will be called if the runner gets back safely. The limit might shrink to one step-off/pickoff attempt based on early results (i.e., not enough steals).
It’s not clear whether a pitcher will be charged with a step-off if he breaks contact with the rubber when he and the catcher can’t get together on signs. Can a pitcher make it look like a signs problem so he can get an extra step-off or two?
One effect of the step-off mandate will be the end of “balk” moves. Many right-handers have learned how to bend their back leg while still on the rubber before spinning and firing to first base, a move that’s considered a balk because it deceives the runner. Left-handers, of course, are famous for not stepping directly toward first base but also not far enough toward home to trigger a balk call. Eliminating this gray area is fairer to the runner, so that’s a plus.
But will these changes (and the larger bases in Triple-A) encourage MLB teams to steal more often in the future? How much does the stolen-base success rate need to go up in the minors to convince MLB analytics departments? From 70 percent to 85 percent, say?
As for the other Single-A experiments . . .
Robot umps (official name: Automatic Ball-Strike System) will be used in Low-A Southeast, aka the former Florida State League. This move is just the next step toward implementation in the majors; consider it a season to work out bugs. Have fun arguing balls and strikes with the eye in the sky when a pitch barely nicks a corner, fellas.
Pitch and break clocks are coming to Low-A West, aka the former California League. Double-A and Triple-A leagues already have clocks, but MLB says the Low-A system will be more expansive. Expect some players to complain about feeling rushed, but this change is the most benign of the bunch.