Major League Baseball announced that it would test a variety of experimental rules across different levels of the minor leagues during the 2021 season. Ranging from banning some forms of the defensive shift and using larger bases to implementing electronic strike zones and experimenting with 15-second pitch clocks, the new rules will all be studied for potential adoption in the major leagues.
The announcement comes on the heels of an offseason in which the league made a number of hires, including former Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein, in hopes of improving the sport’s on-field product by increasing game action and speeding up pace of play.
Which of the new rules do we most look forward to seeing in action? Which of the new rules could we do without? Just how many of these rules could really be used in MLB some day? And when exactly should fans plan on seeing robot umps in action at major league stadiums? We asked ESPN MLB experts Bradford Doolittle, Jesse Rogers and David Schoenfield to weigh in on Thursday’s announcement that could have major implications on the future of the sport.
Which experimental rule are you most intrigued by?
Doolittle: The infield positioning part is the one that I’ll be watching, because you’ll be able to see the effect in changes to balls-in-play rates. Of course, we also have to keep in mind that average on balls-in-play has less been an issue than the quantity of balls in play. The success rate will have to really go up in order for incentives to realign in a way that encourages hitters to return to more of a balanced, higher-contact approach.
Schoenfield: Is it a cop-out to say all of them? I agree with Brad that the infield positioning rule will be intriguing — in Double-A, all four infielders will have to play on the dirt, although it doesn’t expressly forbid shifting, say, three infielders to the right side of the infield for a left-handed batter (at least until the second half of the season, when MLB can enforce that two infielders must play on each side of second base).
But I think the most important rule is the pitch clock. We need to speed up the game. Go watch a video of an old World Series game from the 1970s. The game moves along at a much better pace because the pitchers are generally working much faster. The minor leagues have already used a pitch clock, so this is doubling down on a rule that has already worked. I think this rule will help hitters and cut down on strikeouts. Pitchers can’t as easily throw a 97-mph fastball, walk around the mound for 25 seconds, take a deep breath or two, stare in for the sign and then 35 seconds later throw another 97-mph fastball. Let’s get the pitch clock to the majors.
Rogers: I’m not so much intrigued by the infield positioning as much as I’m just in favor of it. I’m hoping it will have a dramatic impact on the game. When we start seeing smiles from left-handed hitters for the first time in years, we’ll know it has made a difference.
Sure, a few pitchers will be hurt, but if the goal is more action, more baserunners and more scoring, without the ball leaving the yard, then banning the shift as it is now is the answer.
Which do you like least?
Doolittle: While I’m most interested in the infield alignment restrictions, I’m still not a fan of making that change. I feel like teams should align their defenses however they see fit, as they’ve always done. The way to encourage more contact hitting is to lessen the incentive to play for the home run, and deadening the ball is the best way to do that. Since we’re getting a new ball this season, we might see some of that begin to happen, but I’ll believe it when I see it.
Rogers: I don’t hate any of them, but making the bases bigger? No, thanks. Enough with trying to legislate injuries out of the game. They’re part of it. And at least banning shift would make the game look like it did for 100 years. Essentially shortening the distance between the bases is more drastic than anything else they might do.
Schoenfield: I don’t like the idea of telling teams where they can position their fielders, but other sports have rules on where and how you can play defense, so this isn’t an unprecedented thing. But I’m really against the idea of robot umpires — even though I realize it’s inevitable. The whole idea of the strike zone was never to have this “perfect” zone for balls and strikes. You merely need to create a way to keep the game moving and encourage batters to swing.
No pitcher — not even Greg Maddux — can throw a pitch to a precise spot with perfect execution pitch after pitch. No batter — well, maybe Barry Bonds or Ted Williams — can know exactly where a pitch is going to end up. So whether a pitcher gets the call on a pitch right on the edge or the batter gets the call is basically just luck in either direction. Plus, is the technology ready to handle the different strike zone between Jose Altuve versus Aaron Judge? Can it read the microscopic difference on whether the ball catches the corner? Be careful what you wish for here.
Which do you think we could actually see in MLB?
Rogers: There are a couple, at least. The modified alteration of the shift could make for a good compromise. Yes, you can have three or more infielders on one side of the diamond but they have to be on the dirt. And automated zones are a question of when not if.
Doolittle: My guess we’ll eventually see all of them. MLB has a way of making sure its initiatives come to fruition, no matter what anybody else thinks.
Schoenfield: Yep, I think there is a good chance they all reach the majors within five years, maybe three. I like the idea of the bigger bases to help faster players. Maybe that will get more speed back into the game and action on the bases. Although I’m still blown away by the fact that I just learned that the bases aren’t actually 90 feet apart. That’s right, the distance from home plate to the edge of first base is currently 88 feet, 9 inches; in will move to 88 feet, 6 inches in the Triple-A experiment.
How much would banning or limiting shifts help hitters?
Doolittle: It’s uncertain. The kind of hitters who can be successfully shifted aren’t the kind of hitters who are going to start trying to go gap to gap, by and large, so this will help them. They are still trying to hit the ball over the fence, so it might not change the approach of many hitters. But clearly a pull hitter who hits the ball hard is going to get a few more singles.
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Rogers: There’s disagreement within the game on this. Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell doesn’t think it’s the big difference maker, but it’s hard to predict how things would play out until we see it. Pitchers will potentially change their sequencing, while hitters might have a newfound confidence with effects that can’t be quantified. I say it will help a lot.
Schoenfield: I think it will make a notable difference, especially helping left-handed hitters (against whom more shifts are deployed). The batting average on balls in play in 2020 was .292, the lowest since a .285 mark in 1992. (The BABIP suddenly went from .285 in 1992 to .294 in 1993 to .300 in 1994. That’s another discussion, but the ball obviously changed in 1993, along with players using more PEDs.) Anyway, the BABIP was also .298 in 2019, not far off the historical norms of the past two decades. BUT … what would it be without the shift? Players are generally hitting the ball harder these days (when they actually make contact), so who knows what will happen to BABIP if defensive alignments are limited.
When will we see an electronic strike zone implemented in the majors?
Doolittle: Would not be surprised to see it baked into the CBA and introduced by next season. I guess if there are major problems with the 2021 minor league implementation, that might push things back. But like it or not, this is not going away.
Rogers: I think after seeing it at all levels of the minors for a full season — and working out the kinks there — we’ll get it in the majors. So perhaps by 2023 or ’24.
Schoenfield: While I would prefer to see a rule more like tennis — maybe a team gets three challenges per game on balls and strikes, to overrule the obvious bad calls — I know that’s not going to happen. I think 2022 is a little optimistic. I think we’re still a few years away.