These rules have been approved by both the Competition Committee and the Playing Rules Committee. Data will be collected and analyzed from MiLB play to determine potential MLB applicability down the road. The press release from MLB had a hard sell, saying that these rule changes were “consistent with the preferences of our fans,” but we’re not entirely sure how many fans were calling for larger bases, robot umps and a ban on fielder shifts.
Here’s a list of the rule changes at each level:
- 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-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-A (PICKOFF LIMITATION, PITCH TIMER, AND ABS):
- ALL LOW-A LEAGUES: 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: 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: 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.
As noted, some of these measures were implemented in the Atlantic League and the Arizona Fall League, but not necessarily to acclaim from players and managers. Frank Viola, serving in 2019 as High Point Rockers pitching coach, was pretty blunt: “It’s horrendous. “It’s just a shame that these kids have to be the guinea pigs for something that will never, ever exist on the major league level . . . You know that the players’ union is the strongest union around. You tell them that a lefty can’t make a pickoff move to first base and they’re going to laugh at you and say, ‘That’s not a game anymore, you’re inventing stuff.’” The TrackMan technology was deemed pretty horrendous in 2018 and 2019; let’s see if it’s ready for prime time in 2021.
Edited to remove snarky comment about the day of the week. It just seems like it should be Friday, but that perhaps is wishful thinking.
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