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MLB announces experimental rules for the minors for 2021

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MLB is going to try out some new rules in the minors this season.

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Major League Baseball’s Competition Committee today announced several experimental rules that will be tried out in the minors this season. These rules are getting a minor league tryout before a decision will be made on whether or not to adopt them at the major league level. All of them are aimed at increasing the amount of action on the field.

The Triple-A level will experiment with larger bases this season. Bases will be 18 inches square instead of only 15 inches square. The Competition Committee hopes that increasing the size of the bases will reduce collisions and increase stolen bases and infield hits.

The Double-A level will experiment at ending infield shifts. To start the season, at least four players must have two feet completely on the infield dirt. (Correction: Or on the infield grass when an infielder is playing in.) In the second half of the season, MLB retains the right to force two players to be on each side of second base.

It’s not clear from the press release when they must have their feet on the dirt, but I’d assume they mean when the pitcher is on the rubber. The press release also doesn’t say what the penalty is for failing to adhere to this rule. I’m guessing that the umpire would stop play until the team is in compliance. (Clarification: Jayson Stark explains that it’s when the ball is released and the penalty is an automatic ball.)

The A-levels will experiment with rules to limit pickoff attempts. At the High-A level, pitchers will be required to step off the rubber before throwing to a base. Pitchers who do not step off the rubber will be charged with a balk.

At all low-A levels, pitchers will be limited to two “pickoffs” or “step-offs” per plate appearance. A pitcher can throw to a base a third time, but if the third pickoff throw does not result in an out, a balk will be charged. (So a runner couldn’t take a 30-foot lead after two unsuccessful pickoffs.)

MLB reserves the right to limit pitchers to one pickoff throw a plate appearance later in the season.

Finally, the Low-A Southeast (the former Florida State League) will also be testing the Automated Ball-Strike System (ABS), known colloquially as robot umpires. The Low-A West (The former California League) will add three on-field timers to enforce the time between pitches, pitching changes and innings. This is basically an expansion of the “pitch clock” that has been used at the Double-A and Triple-A levels the past few seasons. How much those rules will be expanded and what the penalty for violations will be isn’t spelled out yet.

Raúl Ibañez, MLB’s Senior Vice President of On-Field Operations, explained that “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.”

MLB consultant Theo Epstein added that “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.”

Here’s the official wording of all the rules changes.

It will be difficult to determine how things will work at the major league-level from how they work in the minors, which is a different competitive environment. But as long as MLB proceeds with great caution, then it’s a good idea to see how the game can be improved with tweaks to the rules and experimentation at the minor league level.

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