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MLB announces (some terrible) experimental rules for the minor league season

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Some of these deserve to be relegated to the dustbin of history before they’re even tried

Chicago White Sox v Philadelphia Phillies

While the calendar has flipped over to the 2021, much of baseball-dom remains in flux. As MLB gears up for a full suite of 162 games amidst continuing progress against the pandemic, there’s still a lot we don’t know about the upcoming season, including how teams will manage innings in the wake of the shortened 2020 campaign, and the potential effects of the new deadened baseball. And yet, MLB is continuing to futz, nonetheless, announcing a suite of experimental rulesets for various levels of the minor leagues.

While a few of these changes are benign or approaching overdue, some are, candidly, abominable. You can access the full list, sans my cranky commentary, here: https://www.milb.com/tulsa/news/mlb-experimental-playing-rules-2021, among other places. With that said, let’s go through these one by one.

Triple-A: Larger Bases — Innocuous

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 groundballs and bunt attempts.

There’s an outstanding question here as to why MLB really cares about A) stolen bases or B) rewarding infield hits, but that question aside, this seems pretty inconsequential. at least in theory. I’m more (yet still very minorly) concerned about the net effect this change will have in translating Triple-A BABIPs and stolen base rates to the majors than I am about this change eventually coming to MLB.

Double-A: Infield Positioning Restrictions — Awful

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.

There are so many issues here that it’s hard to keep them all in focus. The first is primarily one of execution: when does the “must stay in the infield dirt” restriction lapse? Is it during the pitch? After? Is it going to be reviewable? How is MLB going to prevent fielders just backpedaling or otherwise moving towards the optimal position during or after the pitch? Just by the sheer hope that the public embarrassment of doing so acts as a sufficient deterrent?

The “stick” in this equation is apparently that if this restriction doesn’t achieve its goal, MLB will deploy the tactical nuke of outright banning most shifts by the Double-A midseason mark. Want to see fielders get running starts during the pitch to put themselves into optimal position that’s not allowed pre-pitch? Me neither, but we’re hurtling in this direction. I also can’t wait for the first manager ejected for arguing that the other team’s shortstop had an eighth of a centimeter of his left cleat on the wrong side of the second-base bag. Fun!

I’m also not sure what happens when Double-A hitters now have different incentives between “do the stuff that is not futzed with at the major league level” and “do the stuff that results in slightly better average results at this level only.” It probably won’t matter, but you know MLB doesn’t care.

High-A: Worse pickoffs — Why?

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.

Again, I don’t know why MLB cares, but moreso, this seems like a tremendously bad way to go about fixing a non-problem. Yeah, I get it, stolen bases are exciting or something. You know what is the opposite of exciting? The pitcher worrying so much about the runner on first that the game slows to a crawl.

Look at this change, as written. All it does is make pickoffs worse. But it doesn’t change the value of a stolen base. So pitchers will just step off a bunch until the runner starts taking an acceptably slim lead, and stolen base situations will more closely resemble the climactic “battle” of the Dr. Strange movie, where a wizard trolls a cosmic entity into not devouring everything. If only someone put Rob Manfred in an irksome time loop with a snarky Britishman forced to do an American accent instead.

In the end, this is probably not too consequential, as it doesn’t really change OBP or slugging league-wide. It’s just unpleasant. And I guess the ethos with these changes is definitely “annoy people needlessly.”

Low-A: Pickoff limits - something out of a fever dream

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.

This one is so awful that I kind of want to have a contest about what the worst correctly-predicted consequence of this rule will be. It’s fundamentally a free base for any baserunner that can harangue the pitcher into throwing over twice. And we all know that Low-A pitchers definitely don’t have anything else to focus on other than making effective use of their pickoff throws or steps off to shorten baserunner leads. Baseball, is after all, the great cat and mouse game between the pitcher and the runner on first with second base open, the batter is just there to say encouraging things to the baserunner in the hopes that he too, one day, may be allowed to dance around in the pitcher’s peripheral vision.

Come on, son.

Also, the “stick” of “y’all better not use two pickoffs per PA or we’ll only give you one” is about the most mean-spirited thing in these rules I can think of.

If you think stolen bases are too infrequent and inconsequential to be meaningful now, imagine how watered down they’ll be when basically any single or walk is a de facto double. Woo.

Low-A (Southeast): Electronic strike zone - finally

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.

This is like the opposite of a poison pill, a potentially-overdue positive development in a morass of garbage. Imagine how annoyed I’ll be if, in some future, Manfred and company make implementing the electronic strike zone contingent on accepting some of these other experimental changes. Ugh.

Low-A (West): Pace of play stuff - sure

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.

No issues with this, though I do wonder what the point of these changes in a primarily instructional league is. If you want to test this, test it in the majors, where it actually matters. The ability of kids to hustle in accordance with timers doesn’t say much about whether veterans will agree to comply with the rules in the majors, and how game integrity might be affected by whatever penalties are theoretically levied to punish noncompliance. Does anyone really want a division race decided by a game where a key moment resulted because a player took too long to get on the field or something? Gross.

The press release itself, too, is just ugh.

“We are listening to our fans. This effort is an important step towards bringing to life rules changes aimed at creating more action and improving the pace of play,” said Michael Hill, MLB Senior Vice President of On-Field Operations.

Yes, this is what fans complain about. Not enough stolen bases. Not MLB going after people who tweet baseball GIFs, the ridiculous blackout restrictions, national broadcasters that seemingly abhor baseball, and so on and so forth. Definitely the lack of stolen bases and infielders starting on the grass. Not owners who condemn their teams to half-decades or more of mediocrity, or force their Front Offices to cut competitive windows short by tightening purse strings, but 90 seconds instead of 80 seconds between innings.

“These experimental rules are designed to put more balls in play, create more excitement on the basepaths and increase the impact of speed and athleticism on the field,” said Raúl Ibañez, MLB Senior Vice President of On-Field Operations.

Ah yes, the excitement of more step offs, and batters taking free bases because the pitcher didn’t succeed with three pickoff throws. Also, the irony of Raul Ibañez shilling for this, when he spent his career as a fairly immobile left fielder who mostly made a living by hitting balls hard in the air (300+ career homers) is not lost on me.

“The game on the field is constantly evolving, and MLB must be thoughtful and intentional about progressing toward the very best version of baseball – a version that is true to its essence and has enough consistent action and athleticism on display to entertain fans of all ages,” said Theo Epstein, Consultant to MLB. “These rules experiments will provide valuable insight into various ways to create a playing environment that encourages the most entertaining version of the game. What we learn in the Minor Leagues this year will be essential in helping all parties chart the right path forward for baseball.”

Well, this is certainly not a thoughtful way to progress towards the best version of baseball. I’m guessing the insight these rules experiments will provide will be to stop futzing with the game in this way, though it’s anyone’s wager as to whether MLB will be flexible enough to actually acknowledge that. The right path forward for baseball probably doesn’t involve limiting pickoff throws or forcing fielders to stand in a certain place.

Anyway, the 2021 season begins in a few weeks, and at least they haven’t expanded the playoffs or banned the shift at the major league level yet, so we can still get at least one more season of a pretty great league and rules structure. After that, we’ll see, I guess.