Game changers

Are Manfred’s changes really what we need?


Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Increasing base sizes (from 15 inches square to 18 inches square) is one of many rule-changes that are being tested in MiLB this season. If the rules see success in the minor leagues, they could be implemented in the majors.

Evan Vaslow, Staff Reporter

With Opening Day just around the corner and Major League Baseball’s fan presence decreasing rapidly, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred is trying to draw in more fans by testing out rule changes in the minor leagues (MiLB). The Major Leagues are experiencing some rule changes too, but those are just COVID changes. 

The Major Leagues are keeping the seven-inning doubleheader games from last year, along with starting extra innings with a runner on second. With strict COVID protocols continuing this year, cancelations will be frequent. So, the seven-inning doubleheader games definitely make sense in order to preserve pitchers and not overwork players. The seven-inning games are also great for families with young kids who likely wouldn’t last through a full 18-inning doubleheader. Starting extra innings with a runner on second is also intended to keep games short, but I’m not a fan of this one. It drastically decreases the excitement of an extra innings game, which previously could provide three or four more innings of excitement, by pretty much limiting the extra play to one or two innings. When the runner-on-second rule was tested in the minor leagues, CBS Sports reported that 75% of extra inning games ended in the 10th inning (before the rule, fewer than half did), and 93% were finished by the end of the 11th (up from 73%). During a COVID season though, it seems like a necessary evil, as it will keep game times down and save players.

Triple A leagues are experimenting with larger bases by going from 15 inches square to 18 inches square. This is intended both as a safety measure and a way to increase stolen bases and infield hits. As a safety precaution, this is great; larger bases give runners more room to slide, resulting in few collisions. As a way to increase base stealing on the other hand, it doesn’t seem like the shortened distance will be very effective. The increase in base sizes only removes 0.5% of the distance between bases. With most base stealers running between 27 and 30 feet per second (according to MLB STATCAST), this six inch difference will provide an insignificant amount of extra time — less than 0.2 extra seconds — for runners to swipe a base. Fast runners might steal a bit more due to the bigger base making it easier to avoid tags, but the shortened distance doesn’t seem like it will encourage slower players to steal. The same thing goes for infield hits; the difference seems too insignificant to make that much of a difference. 

Double A leagues are experimenting with one of the most hotly debated topics in baseball: the shift. The new rules require all four infielders to be positioned on the dirt. In my opinion, this rule is the worst one MiLB is experimenting with. They’re attempting to help straight-pull lefties who often fall victim to the shift which is understandable. But, in order to do so, they’re trading in a major strategic element. The extensive use of strategy is what sets baseball apart from other sports, so taking away the shift removes some of baseball’s uniqueness. Not only is the shift itself a major strategic element, but it opens up the door for other strategy plays like bunting to beat the shift and stealing on the shift. Sure, moving infielders around takes time, but when you consider the time in between each pitch and each at-bat, the time saved by quitting shifts is negligible. The shift is a crucial part of baseball, and it needs to stay.

High A leagues are implementing a step-off rule, which requires pitchers to step off the rubber before throwing to any base. This is in an attempt to encourage base runners to get bigger leads, and hopefully steal more bases. With stolen bases on a fairly consistent decline since Rickey Henderson’s glory days in the late 1990s, trying to increase steals is a noble goal. However, the Step-Off rule takes away left-handed pitchers’ opportunity to use the so-called “Andy Pettite Move.” The “Andy Pettite Move” — where a pitcher picks off a runner without stepping off the rubber — is an exciting part of baseball and can result in huge momentum swings. A lot of pitchers still use this move, so banning it is going to force them to create, practice and learn new pickoff moves. I applaud the efforts to increase stolen bases, but the Low A leagues are implementing a better method.

All Low A leagues are limiting the number of pickoff attempts a pitcher can make during an at-bat. A pitcher can only step off or attempt a pickoff twice during an at-bat; if they make another unsuccessful attempt after those two, it’s considered a balk. As an effort to improve pace of play, this will work. Additionally, it could result in some huge leadoffs and fun stolen bases after the second step off/pickoff attempt. In addition to limiting pickoffs, the Low A West is also implementing a pitch timer. This is long overdue, with pace of play slowing to a crawl, this is a great way to keep the game moving without taking away action. 

Low A Southeast is experimenting with the biggest rule change, which could drastically change the game. Fans have been pushing for Automatic Ball-Strike (ABS) technology for a while now, and MiLB is finally delivering. The ABS tech will analyze a batter’s height and stance to generate a strike zone, then  identify where the pitch crosses the plate and relay a ball or strike call to the umpire who’ll make the call on the field. Not only does ABS reduce bad calls behind the plate, but it will save time by eliminating arguments over balls and strikes. Additionally, if “Robo Umps” expand to making all calls in a game, it will eliminate the need for lengthy replays (which slow the game). In my opinion, this is the most promising rule-change MiLB is experimenting with. It has the greatest potential to drastically improve the game, and it could get rid of hated umpires like Joe West and Angel Hernandez. 

Most of the changes seem like they’ll provide very little benefit, and some of them — limiting the shift and implementing a step-off rule — may hurt the game. With fan presence declining, changes need to be made. But, changing the rules of baseball doesn’t seem like the best solution. Instead, Manfred needs to focus on making the game more marketable by increasing fan engagement and giving players more freedom. He needs to make baseball more fun by letting players market themselves, encouraging celebrations and letting the kids play, not by banning shifts and pickoffs.