Minor League Baseball gets new rules heaped onto its list of changes

The drastic realignment of affiliates and pandemic-adjusted scheduling already ensured that the return of Minor League Baseball would look a lot different from the way we remembered it.

Major League Baseball figures it may as well explore the studio space by altering the rule book in various ways at the different levels. The league announced on Thursday that whenever farm teams are able to take the field again, each level will be doing so with a unique wrinkle in play.

Pulling from the press release for the sake of precision:

Triple-A (large bases):

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 (defensive positioning):

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 (“step off” rule):

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 (pickoff limitation, automatic ball strike):

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.

And for the 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.

All of these are radical to some degree, but I think they’d be more drastic if they occurred in the context of a White Sox game, where we have more inherent knowledge of which hitters get the second baseman standing in mid-right field, or which players seem like they should steal more bases (an answer for both is Yoán Moncada). I’m sure Gavin Sheets probably wouldn’t mind going back to Birmingham with all the infielders standing on dirt, but we don’t have the same visual library of hits taken away. OK, he’d probably mind going back to Birmingham. No offense to Birmingham, it’s more that he performed there.

Likewise, it wasn’t all that long ago that Micah Johnson stole 80 bases between the two A-ball levels, and Adam Engel put the Dash in Winston-Salem with 65 swipes. It seems like the really fast runners are never at a shortage of opportunities, and should James Beard or Cabera Weaver reach these levels, the limitations on pickoffs could merely act as an accelerant for somebody who was planning on accelerating early and often .

We’ve also seen the minors act as a laboratory before with pitch clocks, seven-inning doubleheaders and the runner in second in extra innings. All of these are more natural in environments where development matters more than wins, and in-person fan satisfaction drives the product more than TV ratings and ad spots.

Granted, we saw MLB try the latter two ideas, but the pandemic provided sound reasoning. COVID-19 already shortened the season to 60 games, so that established public health as a top priority to usher in lesser changes. These rules randomly dropped into a standard MLB season would present a major departure, at least for certaing groups of players. Neither solve the two biggest issues with the crawling pace of play and the number of balls in it — pitchers with amazing stuff, and geometry for left-handed hitters, both of which make the value of a lifted ball far greater than that of a grounder.

Nevertheless, it’ll give us something a little extra to watch when the White Sox’s affiliates take the field. It’ll be extra because after a year and change without the minor-league affiliates, there was already plenty of reason to pay attention.

(Photo by Amcannally)

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Jim Margalus
Jim Margalus

Writing about the White Sox for a 16th season, first here, then at South Side Sox, and now here again. Let’s talk curling.

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soxfan

The justification for the AA rule is silly at best and misleading at worst. If players cared about BABIP they could go back to the old-school, “hit em where they ain’t” mentality instead of settling for one of the TTO. If a pull hitter is willing to settle for an infield single (increasing his BABIP!) rather than having a chance at a dinger (no effect on BABIP if successful, decreasing BABIP if unsuccessful) then he could get one every time against an exaggerated shift. If the folks responsible for wins and losses cared about BABIP they have choices available to them that don’t require a rule change.

GrinnellSteve

I don’t like legislating against the shift. I think the larger bases is inspired, though. Subtle.

Buehrlesque

I agree the larger bases is the best idea of the bunch. Not sure how I feel about the shift restrictions. I might be OK with one of the “infield dirt” or “two fielders on each side of 2B,” ideas, but both together feels like overkill. Again, there’s no real harm in testing these ideas in the minors I guess.

Last edited 2 years ago by Buehrlesque
GrinnellSteve

I don’t mind that they’re thinking. I don’t mind that they’re testing. I just think the players can render the shift ineffective if they choose. To the extent that they can’t beat it, the league can tinker in other ways. Modify the ball? Alter the strike zone? Lower the mound? Raise the fences? I don’t know the answer, but I don’t think shifts are the issue that needs to be addressed.

tommytwonines

There are some interesting changes here that deserve a look. I like the idea of limiting/altering the pitcher pick-off move to first. I had considered perhaps a hash mark on the base paths limiting the leads off bases, but the proposed change is intriguing.

Root Cause

Step off and pick off are bad ideas.
More rules = more things for the refs to keep up with and more things to get wrong.

It also means more delays while they review how many times the pitcher threw to first base or if his heel was touching the rubber or forgetting how many attempts were made.

Last edited 2 years ago by Root Cause
joewho112

You think they’ll need a significant amount of review to see how many times a pitcher threw to first?

That’s nonsense. They’ll give the first base ump a counter like the home plate ump has for balls/strikes. It’s not like the first base ump has much else to monitor.

SB Nation just did a Dorktown on all the times umps got the count wrong. It was like 30-some odd times in the past 20 years. And balls/strikes are a lot easier to lose count of.

Root Cause

So you say but my experience is that the more tasks you give someone to perform, the more likely something gets overlooked. An exercise at Dorktown has nothing to do with how this addition will affect the game.

2ndly, my comments were directed more at severity than frequency.
So ok, it won’t happen often but when it does it will be an issue.

shaggy65

I could be in for larger bases and robot umps are overdue, but I HATE the rest of these.

karkovice squad

Neither solve the two biggest issues with the crawling pace of play and the number of balls in it — pitchers with amazing stuff, and geometry for left-handed hitters, both of which make the value of a lifted ball far greater than that of a grounder.

Or the 3rd: commercial breaks.

ESPN managed to get enough money out of a title sponsor for their F1 broadcasts to air them uninterrupted. I’m sure the big brain baseball MBAs could figure out a way to make up the difference in revenue from shorter ad breaks.

asinwreck

Deaden the ball and shrink the strike zone. Thank you for coming to my TED talk.

soxygen

I think we should make the game shorter but also more exciting. Maybe release a pack of wolves out onto the field in the middle innings? Sometimes. Wouldn’t want it to be too predictable, more just something that happens sometimes.

asinwreck

If the Sox switch geese for wolves, they already have a sponsorship opportunity in the park.

soxygen

I remember being at a game in St. Paul a few years back when they let a pig roam the field between innings. That was purely for entertainment, not to speed things along… but I gotta say…I really was entertained.