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.

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.

Quick Thoughts

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.

21 Responses

  1. James Phillips

    I think it’s only 4.5 inches if second is split equally. I think they are trying a number of different things to increase stolen base attempts, hopefully not having to do something like the SIngle-A rule.

  2. MK

    In the early 1860’s the 1st, 2nd and third basemen. Had to stand within three feet of their base and the shortstop(rover could position themselves wherever. Outfielders could be in or out but had the be in the center of their field. Are they slowly heading back there? A few weeks ago my granddaughter Louisville University softball team played the Gators in Florida. Florida played 90% of the game with 2 outfielders and 5 infielders. It was interesting and successful. I hope they are not legislating out these kind of innovations.

  3. Doc

    If the anchoring post is still positioned in the center of the base, then first base is also a bit closer to home plate.

    I don’t care for the bigger bases, but the other rule changes are interesting.

    • Doug Gray

      I’m guessing that it’s not, otherwise parts of first and third will be in foul territory.

      But….. I’ve been wrong before.

      • Old Big Ed

        I think I’ve seen some games at some level (maybe softball), whereby the first base bag was a rectangle with half of it in foul territory. It had the intent of eliminating the feet of the fielder and runner getting tangled.

        A pdf that downloads from the MLB website indicates that the 90 feet is measured from the back point of the plate to the back right side of the first base bag, making it actually only 88’9″ to the first base bag with a 15″ bag. Third base is similarly aligned. The second base bag is placed on the midpoint of the two 90′ lines that run from 1B and 3B to second base, such that the second base bag actually has a few inches that are outside the 90′ square.

        I think the 18 inch bases are a bit goofy — a solution looking for a problem.

        If they would eliminate the runners box towards first base, I’d be all in on that rule change.

      • MK

        Those are typically two colored. The part in fair territory white, foul territory orange.

  4. Billy

    I kind of like the rule to limit the number of pickoff attempts. I still think we’ll need to see something far more drastic to get stolen bases to make a big comeback, but I think the concept itself is pretty cool. Would have been really interesting to see that strategy play out back in the days of Rickey Henderson and Vince Coleman. I would prefer to see the baserunner credited with a steal than the pitcher charged with a balk if the runner returns safely on the final pickoff attempt though.

  5. Lars Benders

    “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.”
    It’s not clear Doug, but I’m assuming this includes the pitcher and catcher?

    • Old Big Ed

      I assume that it means the four regular infielders. The catcher is in foul territory by rule, and the pitcher of course is on the mound. By allowing the pitcher to count as a one of the four, then the rule would have no effect, because the shortstop could still run out to medium right field.

      I don’t like any illegal defense rule in baseball. In the long run, shifts will put a premium on hitters who can use the entire field, and young hitters will learn to do so.

      • Billy

        Can someone with more scouting insight answer this for me? I see this argument thrown around a lot, that in the long run hitters will adjust and use the whole field as a way to counteract the shift. Is it that easy? Make some changes in how hitters are developed, and you’ll end up with guys hitting the ball with authority all over the field? Or does the increased velocity and spin of today’s game make that too challenging to pursue as a goal? Is it conceivable that no such change in hitter profiles will be coming because it is just too difficult to do in today’s game? I think the answer to that question would significantly affect my attitude toward regulating defensive shifts.

      • Doug Gray

        No, it’s not that easy. If every pitcher still threw 86 MPH, sure, I’d buy the argument that “hey man, adjust”. But everyone’s throwing 96 today. Adjusting isn’t just something you can “do” because you want to. Those hit it the other way swings used to work because you could slow the bat down a little bit and not get the bat knocked out of your hands. That isn’t working at 96.

        Baseball’s got a problem right now: Pitchers are too good. Banning the shift isn’t going to fix that. But banning the shift is going to lead to a few more hits and in a game where there is less contact and fewer hits that ever before, that kind of matters. Contact rates won’t change, but that extra hit means an extra at-bat you get to see with someone on base, where hitters tend to perform better than when the bases are empty as a whole. That is another small increase that favors the offense in an era that needs to favor the batters a little more.

      • Old Big Ed

        Doug, it’s not about “slowing the bat down a little bit.” It’s about taking a shorter but equally firm swing. They can do that, just like a golfer does with a nine-iron instead of a driver. They won’t hit for as much power, but they can still drive the ball. They can also learn some inside-out skills, ala Derek Jeter.

        And left-handed hitters all need to learn to bunt. The defense is giving many of these guys a single if they can bunt the ball past the pitcher down the third base line. If they can do it successfully 40% of the time, then they need to do it. Sooner or later, the defense has to “de-shift” as an adjustment, which in turn opens the field back up.

        If what the hitters are doing isn’t working, then they need to change what they’re doing, just like everybody in every other line of business does. Hitters don’t have a God-given right to swing the way they did when they were in Single A ball.

        If pitchers are getting too good, which I generally think is true, then the “solution” will ultimately be to move the mound/rubber back by about 18 inches. There is nothing sacrosanct about 60′ 6″, any more than there was about the height of the 1968 pitcher’s mound. The plate itself is 17 inches long, so it would pretty much the difference from measuring the 60′ 6” from the front of the plate instead of the back of the plate.

      • Doug Gray

        Derek Jeter was a freak in terms of hitting talent. There’s a reason he’s in the Hall of Fame. Most guys can’t be like Derek Jeter.

        I think the issue with moving the mound back is arm injuries first and foremost. But there’s also speculation that doing so will just make offspeed pitches better because they have more time to allow spin and gravity do it’s work. I don’t think there’s an easy “solution”. Me? I’d experiment with shrinking the strikezone a little bit. Then lowering the mound a little bit. If neither of those work….. I just throw my hands in the air.

      • Old Big Ed

        And furthermore . . .

        The modern game has involved into a young man’s game, because young guys can have better eyesight and can hit fastballs better than older guys. Joey Votto’s bat is not nearly as fast as it was 10 years ago, and Ronald Acuna isn’t fazed by fastballs.

        This has the practical effect of shortening careers, because age 35+ players are becoming less useful by the year. (Yeah, there are exceptions like Nelson Cruz.) With the bargain-for six-year reserve clause, fewer and fewer hitters will ever really cash in like they have done before the pitching revolution. I’m guessing that MLB management has a better grip on this reality than does Tony Clark.

        So, if they really want to solve the “pitchers are too good” issue, they are going to have to move the mound/rubber back.

        So, for those who oppose

      • MK

        Doug I would argue it is easier to go the opposite way against a hard thrower as hitters get around a little late. Personally I know teams played me the opposite way against hard throwers.

  6. Optimist

    Yes the pitchers are better, and the average speed has increased noticeably, but I wonder if it’s also a change in managing them. The 200 ip/year starter is almost gone, and we may be at 6 man rotations very soon. No more knuckleballers, and very few durable and effective soft throwers. I understand moving the mound back incrementally is harder to do than all these other moves, but giving the hitters the few extra 100ths of a second to react would likely be very noticeable, and would pair nicely with the deadened ball coming into play.

    Doubtful this happens, but another option is limiting the roster to 11 pitchers, or even 10, and forcing the adjustments to durability or knucklers. Eliminating the Loogy was a minor step that way, but very minor. Still, the injuries and callups would surely increase.

  7. Tom

    I like almost all the rules proposed. I think they could possibly keep the shift if the fielders had to be on the dirt. I like that step.

    The clocks don’t do much for me under most circumstances, especially if they adopt all the other pick off rules.

    The automatic strike calling system is a little soul-less. How about using it but only for 2 challenges a game called by the pitcher? Instead of eye rolls back to the rubber, the pitcher can point to the computer judge guy to get an instant overrule. Strike three!

  8. ClevelandRedsFan

    When teams started implementing the shift, the hitters did adjust – just not in the way the fans wanted. Hitters didn’t adjust to hitting the ball opposite field, they adjusted by hitting more fly balls and getting the ball in the air more. Launch angle has increased since the shift started taking place.

    Buster Posey just talked about this. Here’s his quote:
    “I think you have to get rid of the shift, I feel very strongly about that,” Posey said on KNBR. “I just think that if a guy like Brandon Belt is at the plate and he hits a rocket that short hops the right fielder and the second baseman or third baseman is standing there and he’s out. He’s thinking alright “What’s the value in hitting the ball even remotely closely to the ground now? I’ve got to get the ball in the air.

    “It’s easier said than done to just punch something to the left side. These guys are throwing 100 and they’re throwing it in spots that make it hard to do that. I always think about Brandon Crawford. If you’ve got Brandon Crawford playing a traditional position at shortstop, and a hard ground ball is hit up the middle, he’s got an opportunity now to make a diving play and show off his arm, but instead he’s already standing there, so it’s a routine ground ball and it’s not exciting.”

    Doug, as usual, is right. It’s not that easy to just hit the opposite way. When trying, the success rate isn’t that high and the reward of a single isn’t that great. Guys would rather try to hit the ball hard in the air and hope for more doubles and homeruns than try to punch it the other way for a better chance at a single.

    Also, teams adjusted to the shift. Defensive wizards at shortstop like Omar Vizquel and Ozzie Smith are a thing of the past. Teams can now plunk a low-contact, 20+ HR guy into the shortstop position, “hide” him in the shift, and ask him to swing for the fences. 2B used to be a shortstop with a weaker arm. Now it’s another power position. This is further leading to the 3 true outcomes of walk, strikeout, HR.

    Omar and Ozzie each played 24 and 19 years in the bigs respectively. Omar had an OPS of .688 and Ozzie at .666 (yikes). In today’s game, these guys likely wouldn’t play past their arbitration years and at best would be defensive replacements.

    So both hitters and teams have adjusted to the shift. The only problem is their adjustments have made the game slower, less athletic, and more boring. MLB is doing the right thing in trying to limit the shift.

    • Old Big Ed

      Two points.

      1. A lot of what you say about power, harder swings, and efforts to hit the ball in the air is a reaction to the baseball’s become harder and harder over the years, with lower seams. Not all of that is attributable to shifts. A softer baseball would vastly reduce dubious homers hit by iffy infielders, for example. Hitters all swing from the heels now, because the easy home run rewards it. If that iffy infielder could only generate a warning track fly ball with that same swing, then the aggressive swinging would be less rewarded. Alternate swing types – shorter but equally firm swings that allow the hitter to let the pitch travel just a bit more – will be more valuable. So, with an allegedly softer ball this year, there ought to be fewer home runs and (as adjustments are made) more balls in play.

      2. Posey’s point, at heart, is that fielders shouldn’t position themselves where they expect the ball to be hit. Posey is inventing the notion that Brandon Crawford’s range means less with the shift. Whether he stands at the traditional shortstop position, up the middle, or in the hole, Crawford still has X-feet to cover, depending on how hard the ball is hit. There is no point defensively to having infielders position so closely together that their ranges overlap, because otherwise the team would leave a hole somewhere else. (This reminds me of the old-timers saying that DiMaggio never had to dive for a ball. Uh, no matter how good he was, there would always be a fly ball that could land two feet further than he could reach in stride.)

      I believe that there is a legitimate argument that an adjustment needs to be made for pitchers’ having become permanently harder throwers. The simplest and cleanest way to do that is to move the mound back, not to require defenders to play somewhere other than where they think the ball is most likely to be hit. I grant that it would change breaking pitches a bit.

  9. MK

    Not sure there are exact specifications for the size of the dirt in an infield. Don’t even think there is a rule that there has to be dirt. Old Riverfront didn’t and took a few year to even paint where it would be. Concepción asked for that so he knew where to play.

  10. Colorado Red

    I do not like the new rules at all.
    If a hitter cannot adjust too bad.
    If a pitcher cannot hit the corners too bad.
    Always more rule to help the offense.
    Sorry Doug, but I do not agree with you.
    PS, hard to think about baseball with 2′ of snow on the ground.