Baseball fans tired of line drives dying in the glove of a fielder positioned halfway to the next area code, take heart: The first step toward banning the shift will be taken this spring.
Major League Baseball on Thursday announced a bevy of experimental rule changes that will be test-driven in the minor leagues this year, with the most notable coming at Class AA – that teams will be required to “have a minimum of four players on the infield, each of whom must have both feet completely in front of the outer boundary of the infield dirt.”
MLB also noted that, based on first-half data, it may require teams to position two infielders on either side of second base during the second half of the season.
There’s little secret to the motivation behind this and a bevy of other experiments: On-field action has diminished as home runs, strikeouts and walks are prevalent due to hitters’ approaches.
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Yet those approaches are partially a result of a massive drop in batting average, due in part to less success on balls in play as teams utilize data to optimally position infielders – some playing as deep as the right-center field gap.
Leaguewide batting average has fallen from .270 in 2000 to .245 last season. In the past two full seasons, it was at .248 in 2018 and .252 in 2019.
While minor-league experimentation does not automatically ensure a rules change at the major league level, myriad rule changes came after trial periods in the minor leagues – from instant replay to various pandemic-season workarounds in 2020, such as placing a runner on second to start extra innings.
It’s also notable that the experiment will take place at Class AA, where most teams place their top prospects, as opposed to deeper in the minor leagues.
“We are listening to our fans. This effort is an important step towards bringing to life rules changes aimed at creating more action and improving the pace of play,” said Michael Hill, MLB’s senior vice president of on-field operations and the former GM of the Miami Marlins.
Rules experiments will occur at every level of the minor leagues, which are now unilaterally controlled by MLB. At Class AAA, they will introduce a larger base (18 inches square instead of 15) for safety reasons and also to enhance the success rate of stolen bases – perhaps baseball’s ultimate play of inches.
Other experiments will continue, such as a pitch clock (Low-A West) a limit on pickoffs (all low-A leagues), a “step-off” rule that requires pitchers to fully disengage with the runner before a pickoff attempt (high A) and the automatic, or “robot,” ball-strike system (Low-A Southeast).
This will mark the first year many of these experiments – such as the “robot ump” – are tested in affiliated ball. MLB trotted out several experiments in 2019 in the independent Atlantic League.
Yet it’s clear what the overall impetus is: More action – preferably in a more condensed time frame.
“MLB must be thoughtful and intentional about progressing toward the very best version of baseball – a version that is true to its essence and has enough consistent action and athleticism on display to entertain fans of all ages,” said Theo Epstein, former Cubs and Red Sox GM and now an MLB consultant. “These rules experiments will provide valuable insight into various ways to create a playing environment that encourages the most entertaining version of the game.
“What we learn in the Minor Leagues this year will be essential in helping all parties chart the right path forward for baseball.”