The well publicized use of the minors to test out potential rule and technology changes for baseball has been in place for a while now, but official enforcement begins today. Teams were given the first ten days – nine games – to adjust to the rules until they would really be enforced at various levels of minor league baseball. Haven’t been able to keep up with all of the new rules? It’s not easy. Here is a quick rundown.
EXPANDED PITCH CLOCK – Pitch clocks came into existence in the minors in 2015 as a way to speed up the game. Problem is that enforcing them was sporadic – seemingly optional – until now. There would be the occasional automatic ball called on a pitcher or an automatic strike called on a batter. There would also be warnings that they were going to be used on a more consistent basis, but this time they really, really mean it.
The rules for the clock have been tweaked. Each new at-bat starts with :30 on the clock. The subsequent pitches have shorter time limits. With no runners on base, the clock begins at :14 and the batter then has :05 to be in the box and “attentive” to the pitcher. The pitcher must release the ball within the :14 limit. Batters are limited to one “time out” per at-bat where they can step out of the box. If the batter is not ready on time or steps out for a second time, an automatic strike will be called. If the pitcher fails to deliver a pitch during the allotted time, an automatic ball is called. With runners on base, the clock begins with :19 at Triple-A and :18 at all other levels.
CHANGES TO THE BASES AND BASEPATHS – (not in effect until the second half) – Baseball looks ready to bring speed and baserunning back in vogue. Their first change is that they will move second base. They will also increase the base size from 15″ to 18″, which is officially designed to cut down on injuries on close plays on the bases, especially at first base where players sometimes collide. The changes in the location of second base and the size of the bases will mean that the distance between first and second and second and third will be 13.5″ shorter than it has been for over 100 years. That means going from home to third or first to third will be just over 2′ less than it has been. Think of all of the close plays on stolen bases and runners going first to third.
The rule was used in the Triple-A West in the second half of last season with no fanfare. Many fans were unaware of the change. The result is that while the number of attempts to steal stayed pretty constant, the success rate went up.
NEW PICKOFF RULE – To go along with the emphasis on aggressive baserunning and stealing bases, Minor League Baseball has a new pickoff rule, which will officially be enforced beginning today. The pitcher is allowed two free attempts to either throw to first or step off the rubber to freeze a runner on first. On the third attempt, if the runner is not picked off, the play is ruled a balk and the runner is allowed to take second base. If the third move is a simple step off, it also goes down as a balk. Will runners use the rule to get a larger lead after two attempts? Will more runners look to steal?
Will these rules shorten game times? The pickoff rule and a slightly longer pitch clock were used in the Low-A West Division last season and the same pitch clock was used in the Arizona Fall League and games in each level were shorter by approximately 20 minutes each.
LIMITING THE SHIFT – Last season, Double-A put in a rule that required a minimum of four defensive players to be on the infield, which eliminated a player playing in short right field. This season the rule expands to High-A and Low-A leagues and adds another wrinkle where there must be two defensive players on either side of second base when the pitch is thrown. If the rule is broken, the pitch is automatically ruled a ball. However, if the ball is put into play by the hitter, the offensive team can take take a page from the NFL and decline the penalty and take the play.
ROBO UMPS – Automation came to ball and strike calls in the Low-A Southeast League in 2021 and will expand to Triple-A in every Triple-A West game beginning on May 17, but will only be used in the Triple-A East in games played at Charlotte all season long. With the system, the home plate umpire is notified whether the pitch was a ball or strike and makes the call. The system is able to recalibrate the strike zone based on each hitter’s height. The rule will change in the Southeast League this season with it moving to a challenge system. In that setting, the umpire will continue to make the call, but if a team wants to challenge the call of either a ball or strike, they can do so and the system will be the arbiter of the previous pitch. Each team will have three challenges and if they correctly challenge the call, they can carry over their challenge, but will lose it if they are wrong.
The bottom line is that baseball is taking their most aggressive approach to cutting game times this season than they ever have. The offseason will mean a lot of data to crunch for officials around baseball and the analysis could bring changes to Major League Baseball perhaps as early as 2023.