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MLB will test some experimental rules in the minor leagues in 2022

Expect many of these in big league games in 2023 and others in future years.

A pitch clock in use at a Spring Training game in 2019
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Sunday, I posted some thoughts here on some rule changes for this year in Major League Baseball. as well as some that are being considered for future seasons.

Today, MLB announced some “experimental” rules that will be used in various minor leagues in 2022. These have been approved by MLB’s Competition Committee and Playing Rules Committee, and are designed to improve the pace of play, create more action on the field, and reduce player injuries.

Here are some thoughts from executives who have helped design these changes.

Michael Hill, MLB’s Senior Vice President for On-Field Operations, said in a statement: “Given the positive results of recent years, we are continuing to prioritize the kinds of experimental rules that many baseball fans routinely discuss and want to learn more about. The testing throughout the Minors will provide us with more valuable feedback and data that can be taken into consideration.”

Raúl Ibañez, MLB’s Senior Vice President for On-Field Operations, said in a statement: “Many people in our game are just like our fans in that they want to see more athleticism and action. This next round of experiments will aim to emphasize the tremendous physical talent of our players and create an environment that lends itself to an accelerated pace of play.”

Theo Epstein, Consultant to MLB and former Cubs President of Baseball Operations, said in a statement: “This year’s set of experimental rules was informed — and we believe improved — by the feedback of players, staff, umpires and fans, as well as by analysis of the impacts of last year’s tests. We are excited to roll out the improved rule experiments to a bigger population of minor league players in an effort to ensure that any potential new regulations fulfill their objectives of creating more action, athleticism and a better style of play.”

Here are the changes to be used this year.

Pitch clocks

On-field timers will be used at all full-season affiliates to enforce regulations designed to create a crisp pace of play, with batters required to be ready to hit and pitchers required to deliver the pitch within allotted periods of time — so as you can see, this applies to BOTH hitters and pitchers to be ready to go in that time frame.

I expect pitch clocks to be used in MLB in 2023. They have been used in some minor leagues since 2015. In the first year they were used in minor league games, the average game time dropped by as much as 15 minutes.

Limiting pickoffs

With runners on base, pitchers will have additional allotted time for each pitch but will risk automatic baserunner advancement if a third pick-off attempt or step-off within the same plate appearance is made without recording an out. These rules were used in tandem in the Low-A West and in the Arizona Fall League in 2021 and led to a significant improvement in pace of play and a reduction in average game time of more than 20 minutes.

If this accomplishes those goals, I would anticipate this being used in MLB in 2023.

Larger bases

The size of first, second and third base will be increased from 15 inches square to 18 inches square at all full-season affiliates. The primary reason is to reduce player injuries. Bigger bases were used in 2021 at the Triple-A level and in the Arizona Fall League, and were associated with a decrease in the severity of base-related injuries. In addition, the reduction in distance between bases led to a modest increase in the rate of successful stolen base attempts.

I would expect these bases to be put in use in MLB in 2023.

Defensive positioning (or, limiting shifting)

In Double-A, High-A and Low-A, the defensive team must have a minimum of four players on the infield, with at least two infielders completely on either side of second base. These restrictions are intended to allow infielders to better showcase their athleticism, to help increase batting average on balls in play and to restore a more traditional set of aesthetics and outcomes on batted balls.

If the desired results are obtained, I would expect this system to be adopted in MLB in 2023. Among other things, they will have to decide how this is to be enforced (for example, an umpire might have to call time before a pitch to move a fielder who’s not positioned properly).

Automated ball-strike system (“ABS,” or the “robot umpire”)

In select games in Triple-A and in the Low-A Southeast, ABS technology will be used to call balls and strikes. ABS was used in the Atlantic League in 2019, and in select games in the Low-A Southeast and Arizona Fall League in 2021.

In Triple-A West, umpires will call balls and strikes through May 15, and the ABS system will be utilized in all games beginning May 17. In Triple-A East, ABS will be used throughout the season in all games played in Charlotte. In both leagues, the ABS strike zone will approximate the strike zone called by high-level umpires.

This system will obviously have to be tweaked quite a bit, and I expect both umpire and player feedback will be taken in. They’ll have to decide, for example, whether it is desirable to have a pitch that nicks a tiny corner of the ABS box to be called a strike.

As you can see by where and when this is going to be used, it does not appear we’ll have this system in MLB by 2023. This is almost certainly a multi-year project.

Ball-and-strike challenge system

In Low-A Southeast, MLB will test a “Challenge” system in select games, in which umpires call balls and strikes, and the pitcher, catcher, and batter have an ability to appeal the umpire’s call to the ABS system. In Challenge Games, each team will receive three appeals. Successful appeals will be retained. This is something I have previously proposed (except I had limited it to two appeals).

As you can see, this is being used in only one league. I would like to see this used in MLB eventually, but it is probably several years away.

MLB will also continue its partnership with the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball (“ALPB”), which began in 2019, and allows MLB to test experimental playing rules each season. Any further experimental playing rules for the 2022 season will be announced in the coming days.