Thursday evening saw Major League Baseball announce several rules changes for the 2021 Minor League Baseball season. The rule changes are not the same for every level, so things could get a little confusing for players who are promoted/demoted to another level during the season. Let’s take a look at what’s changing when the season begins.
Triple-A Rule Changes
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.
Double-A Rule Changes
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 Rule Changes
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 Rule Changes
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.
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.
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.
I’m a big fan of the new Double-A rule. A line drive that makes it 180 feet into the outfield shouldn’t be fielded by the shortstop. Call me crazy if you want to.
The Triple-A change doesn’t make much sense to me. The distance between the bags is now 6 inches shorter? I’m assuming that first and third base are still 90 feet from home plate instead of being 89 feet and 9 inches. So you are really only talking about shortening the distance for baserunners from first to second and second to third (and I guess first to third, home, second to home) by incredibly small amounts. I just don’t really see how this changes anything.
I like the idea of at least *trying* an electronic strikezone. I am interested to know what system they will be using, though. This was supposed to happen in the Florida State League in 2020, but the season never happened. When it was tried in the Atlantic League, and then later in the Arizona Fall League they were using the Trackman system. That is not the system that they use in the Major Leagues anymore. If that’s the system they will be using, I guess I have to ask why? It doesn’t make sense to test something out without the same technology you’ll be using in the Major Leagues if you actually like the idea enough to put it in play there.