MLB testing new rules in minors: Big bases, shift bans, robot umps and more

Vinnie Duber
·3 min read
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MLB to test experimental rule changes in minor leagues originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

The Major League Baseball of the future might be getting a soft launch in the minor leagues of the present.

The league announced Thursday it will be experimenting with all sorts of rule changes in the minor leagues this season, testing out certain tweaks and potentially laying the ground work for big changes to come to the majors down the road.

We've seen this kind of thing happen in the very recent past, with the minor leagues serving as a testing ground for changes such as the new extra-inning rules that debuted last season, where each half inning after the ninth begins with a runner on second base.

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In 2021, each level of the minor leagues will see a different experimental rule change. Unsurprisingly, they deal with attempting to correct some of the ever-present complaints about modern baseball: chiefly, that the game takes too long and moves too slowly.

Additionally, there seems to be an emphasis on attempting to create more action, both off the bat and on the base paths, a response to the evolution of the "three true outcomes" style that sees batters attempt to swing for the fences or head to first base via a walk, not caring about piling up strikeouts.

In Triple-A, the bases themselves will be bigger, expanding from 15 square inches to 18 square inches, as baseball tries to increase the number of stolen bases. Likewise, the number of infield hits could increase with a slightly shorter distance between the bases.

In Double-A, a new rule will require that four infielders be positioned on the infield dirt (or on the infield grass) at all times, effectively eliminating the increasingly common extreme shifts that see three infielders on one side of second base, with one of those usually playing in the shallow outfield, playing the percentages that the hitter will line out or ground out to that spot in the outfield and taking away would-be base hits. The league also suggested the possibility that the second half of the season will require two infielders to be on either side of second base, which would effectively ban shifts altogether.

In Class A, a variety of experimental rule changes will be tested, including increased use of automated strike zones — or "robot umps" — the requiring of pitchers to step off the rubber before throwing to a base, a limit on the number of pickoff attempts a pitcher can make during a plate appearance and timers to enforce the duration between pitches and inning breaks.

While every fan will have a different opinion on each of these issues and the league's experimentation to solve them, baseball is showing a willingness to tweak a game that's a century and a half old in hopes of drawing in a new audience. It will never be a sport that moves as quickly as basketball, football or hockey, but there's obviously room to move things along and create more action and "wow" moments that will capture the attention of all age groups and interests.

Already, the game is pumping up its young personalities, players like Tim Anderson, Javy Báez and Fernando Tatís Jr., among so many others, who play with a flair and style that those outside baseball's entrenched audience can latch onto. Rule tweaks that some fans might see as extreme could have a similar effect — and could keep organizations on their feet when constructing rosters, adding increased competition to the game.

Time will tell if these experiments work out the way the league hopes and if the changes ever make their way to the majors. But if you want a look into baseball's possible future, just take a gander at what's going on in the minor leagues this season.

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