Minor League Baseball Testing Rule Changes in 2021
When the Minor League Baseball season begins next week, some rules will look a little different. Major League Baseball recently introduced new rules for the Minors and partner independent leagues for the upcoming season. MLB is testing these new rules in the lower levels of baseball to see what changes can be made at the Major League level in the future. Here is a look at what the new rules are and how they might impact the game.
Triple-A: Larger Bases
A 3-inch larger base will be used in all Triple-A leagues. The new 18-inch square bases should help prevent injuries caused by collisions and small bases. Additionally, the Triple-A bases will be made of a new material that is made to perform better in wet conditions. The primary advantage of larger bases is to reduce injuries. Perhaps, games will also be slightly more exciting with larger bases. The distance between all the bases will be shorter, so more stolen bases and infield and bunt hits will be possible. The new bases are being tested at the Triple-A level, which probably means they are close to big league ready. There appears to be little downside to larger bases. Since they help eliminate serious injuries, there is no reason larger bases will not be in MLB soon.
Double-A: Defensive Positioning Restrictions
At the Double-A level, all four infielders will be required to have both feet in front of the outer infield dirt boundary when the pitch is delivered. There are no restrictions for which side of the infield players must be on. Essentially, teams can still shift, but the traditional shift with an infielder playing in the shallow outfield will not be allowed. This new rule will help bring down shifting and increase batting average for hitters. I enjoy the strategic side of baseball, and I believe taking away shifts hurts baseball. Hitters should learn to adapt to shifts. However, if MLB does implement defensive positioning restrictions, this method of limiting infielders to the infield dirt is better than the alternative of limiting how many players can play on each side of the infield.
High-A: Step Off Rule
In High-A, pitchers will be required to completely step off the rubber before attempting a pick off to any base. This will prevent left-handed pitchers from being able to make quick moves to pick off runners at first. The goal of the step off rule is to increase stolen bases and increase offensive action. I liked the unique advantage of left-handed pitchers and their pick off moves. Runners will now be able to take larger leads at first base, which will lead to more stolen bases. Also, pitchers will be forced to worry more about runners, which might lead to advantages for hitters at the plate. I prefer low-scoring baseball games, but most fans and MLB want to see more runs. This is a relatively easy way to accomplish the goal of more offense in a baseball game.
Low-A: Pickoff Attempt Limit
Pitchers will be limited to two pickoff attempts or step offs per plate appearance. This rule is very similar to the High-A step off rule, and they have similar goals. Along with increasing offense, MLB wants to speed up the game. Pickoff attempts can take up a lot of time between pitches. With limited attempts, pitchers will have to be very selective of when they can try to pick a runner off. This will lead to larger leads, especially after the pitcher has made two pickoff attempts. On the third pickoff attempt, if the runner is not out, the move is ruled a balk, and the runner will be awarded the next base. If MLB wants to increase stolen bases and offense, I prefer the High-A rule as it will produce similar results without changing as much. Depending on first half results, MLB is also considering limiting the pickoff attempts to one in the second half of the Low-A season.
Low-A West: Pitch Clock
The idea of a pitch clock is not new. A 20-second version of the clock has been quietly used in the higher levels of the Minors for the past few years. This new pitch clock will be 15 seconds, which is significantly shorter than the 20-second clock. I do not like the idea of unnecessarily speeding up the game, and I believe there should be no clock in baseball. However, the pitch clock helps speed up games slightly, and I have not seen any issues in games I have watched with a pitch clock. I like the idea of having a pitch clock in the Minors, because pitchers will learn to pitch quicker. Even if a formal pitch clock is never implemented in the Majors, pitchers will have become accustomed to working faster on the mound in the Minors. 15-seconds might be a bit aggressive, but it will certainly be interesting to see what game times look like in the Low-A West this year.
Low-A Southeast: Robo-Umps
Robo umps will be used to call balls and strikes in the Low-A Southeast this year. While an umpire will still be behind the plate, balls and strikes will be called automatically using a tracking system. An audio signal will be made to the umpire from the tracking system. MLB hopes to increase accuracy of called balls and strikes with automated umpires. I prefer the human element and personalized strike zones of real umpires, so I hope robo-umps never make it to MLB. However, MLB has tested robo-umps in the Arizona Fall League and Atlantic League recently. If the system is successful in a full-season affiliated league this year, robo-umps might be making their Major League debut soon.
Atlantic League: Double Hook DH
In the Atlantic League, an independent partner league of MLB, the designated hitter (DH) spot will only be in effect while the starting pitcher remains in the game. Once the starting pitcher is removed, a team will lose their DH. This rule is essentially a compromise between American and National League rules. It is possible the Double Hook DH will be implemented for just the National League or even both leagues in the future. Pitchers will rarely hit with this rule because starters will have a DH hitting for them and relievers will rarely hit (as is currently the case in National League baseball). There are some aspects of this rule I like. The injury risk of pitchers hitting and running the bases will be eliminated. Late game strategy like pinch-hitting and double switching will still be necessary. I have trouble seeing other aspects of this rule working at a Major League level. The DH spot would probably get, on average, two plate appearances per game with this rule. I do not see teams giving large contracts to players and DHs to hit twice per game. I also do not see the advantages of encouraging starting pitchers to work deeper into games. In the time of the “opener” and bullpen games, MLB clearly wants to keep the traditional starting pitcher around. They believe starting pitchers are more marketable and good for the sport. However, the Double Hook DH might lead managers to try to overwork starting pitchers to keep their DH in the game longer. That would be a problem for arm injuries and the workload of pitchers. While I like the current National League rules, the DH will eventually come to the National League. Perhaps, the Double Hook DH is a good compromise between NL and AL DH rules.
Atlantic League: Pitching Rubber Moved Back
In the second half of the 2021 season, the pitching rubber in the Atlantic League will be moved back one foot to 61 feet, 6 inches. While one foot might not seem like a big change, it is a very big change. MLB obviously wants to increase offense. Strikeout rates are increasing every year, pitching velocity is higher than ever before, and offensive numbers are lower than ever before. Moving the rubber back will allow hitters to have more time to react to every pitch. The extra reaction time will make pitches appear roughly 2 mph slower. That is a pretty big difference. Batting averages will likely increase and strikeout numbers will drop significantly. By only moving the rubber back for the second half, MLB will be able to directly compare data to the first half of the Atlantic League season. The pitching rubber has not been moved back since 1893, but MLB players might have outgrown the traditional 60 feet 6 inches since then. If basketball can continue to move the three-point line back, why can’t baseball move the pitching distance back? The results of the Atlantic League season will help determine if moving the mound back is realistic at the Major League level. If the rule were to change in MLB, there are other ways of slowly implementing a change. The immediate one-foot change in the Atlantic League appears to be so that MLB can clearly see the differences in results. Sadly, independent pitchers will suffer from this change and their pitching stats will likely suffer. This is not ideal for players looking to get picked up by MLB organizations or stay in professional baseball.