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Baseball’s latest attempts to change with the times

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Colorado Rockies news and analysis for Tuesday, March 16, 2021

THIS IS A GUEST ROCKPILE BY TRAVIS ROWLAND (@TravRowland)

Baseball has long been known as America’s pastime, but has declined in popularity compared to other sports in recent years, seeing football take its crown as America’s game and basketball surge in popularity. E-sports has increased in popularity as a generation has grown up watching other people play video games on YouTube and Twitch, leading to an entirely new industry that would’ve seemed unfathomable as recently as 20 years ago. In an effort to stay relevant and hopefully increase popularity and viewership, Major League Baseball has implemented rule changes and is testing out more this season in the minor leagues.

The COVID-19 shortened 60-game season in 2020 allowed for the implementation of some new rules in an effort to fit more games into fewer days and keep games from getting too long. In 2021, MLB will use its reformed minor league system to test out rule changes at its various levels. With the changes, the league is looking to increase player safety, create more excitement, shorten games, and grab the interest of casual fans. Below is a breakdown of the new rules being tested in various levels of Minor League Baseball.

Larger Bases — Triple-A

In an effort to reduce collisions, the size of the bases at baseball’s highest minor league will be increased from 15 square inches to 18 square inches. The increased size will also have the effect of making the distance between the bases slightly closer, potentially resulting in an increase in successful stolen bases. My initial thought when reading the rule change is the logistics of moving the hole in which the base is located on the field, but I am sure the grounds crews at these facilities are more than capable of making these adjustments. This rule seems like the most likely to be implemented in the majors in the near future and it is hard to see anyone getting too worked up about it.

Defensive Positioning — Double-A

This rule change has garnered quite a bit of attention and seems likely to be the one, if implemented, that could have the greatest impact on the way the game is played. At the Double-A level this season, defensive teams are required to have a minimum of four players on the infield (not including the pitcher and catcher), all of whom must have both feet completely in front of the outer boundary of the infield dirt. This would eliminate the second baseman playing in shallow right field, but would still allow teams to shift where the infielders are positioned on the infield dirt. However, depending on preliminary results of this rule change, MLB may require two infielders to be positioned entirely on each side of second base, eliminating the shift completely. Proponents of this rule change say that the game was more exciting before the shift as more balls in play resulted in hits and that the shift has led to more hitters swinging for the fences, resulting in more of the three true outcomes (home runs, strike outs, and walks) and fewer balls being put into play. This one will be worth monitoring as it could have an enormous impact on the game if ever implemented at the major league level.

The presumptive argument for implementing any rules against the shift is that it would encourage more action as more balls would theoretically land safely instead of in the glove of a waiting defender. One stat to look at to determine the impact the shift is having since gaining popularity is BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play), which measures hits per at bat on balls in play (not strikeouts or home runs). BABIP, however, has stayed very steady over the years, hovering around .300 league-wide and the shift hasn’t caused a severe drop, with the exception of a .292 mark in the shortened 2020 season according to Baseball Reference. My thought would be that more hitters are swinging for the fences, attempting to hit the ball over the shift rather than around it, resulting in fewer balls in play. The hope would then be that any rules preventing a shift would lead to a different approach from hitters, more balls put into play, and more excitement for the casual fan.

Step off rule — High-A

This rule will require to disengage the rubber prior to throwing to any base and would result in a balk in the event the pitcher fails to comply. This will allow baserunners a slight advantage and would likely result in increased steal attempts and successful stolen bases.

Pickoff Limitation — Low-A

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. The pitcher may attempt a third, but if unsuccessful, the result is a balk. This rule will have a very large impact on the way runners are held on base and would likely result in a much higher stolen base rate as the pitchers would have very limited tools in being able to hold runners close to the base. While pickoff attempts are very largely disliked by fans (hence the onslaught of “boos” whenever more than one is attempted), they are key to the game in many situations and this rule would very much change at the highest level that if implemented.

Automatic Ball-Strike System (ABS)— Low-A Southeast

In an effort to remove human error, the Low-A Southeast league will continue testing the “ABS” that began in the Atlantic League in 2019 to ensure a consistent strike zone is called. This is a rule that has been largely called for on this site over the years as there’s not much more frustrating to a fan than umpires continually missing calls on balls and strikes. It would be hard to see much of a fight brought against this rule change from anyone outside of the Umpire’s Union.

On-field timers — Low-A West

On-field timers will be used to enforce time limits between delivery of pitches, inning breaks, and pitching changes. The best way to increase the pace of the game and decrease the overall time of a game is to eliminate dead time between the action. MLB will continue to look at various ways to ensure that the time between pitches, innings, and pitching changes is kept to a minimum. If these times can be sped up, it will definitely go a long way to garner the interest in the casual fan without fundamentally changing the game that we love.

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