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Robot umpires and other rule changes: Coming soon to an MLB stadium near you!

Baseball’s experimentation with new rules in the minor leagues keeps making life harder on pitchers.

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MLB: Game One-Baltimore Orioles at New York Yankees
Bigger bases and fewer pickoff throws could be the way of the future.
Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

They say necessity is the mother of invention, and when you’re attempting to play professional baseball in the middle of a global pandemic, sometimes old rules have to go out the window. The COVID-19-shortened 2020 season saw Major League Baseball roll out a number of innovations: seven-inning doubleheaders, expanded rosters, the automatic extra-innings baserunner, the universal DH.

Though the pandemic still rages, the 2021 baseball season, which kicks off next week, looks to be a return to normal of sorts—162 games, an on-time start, no more 16-team-playoff shenanigans. But there are quite a few 2020 rule changes carrying over into 2021. And one of those changes is . . . well, more rule changes.

For a while now, Major League Baseball has used the minors as a test site for experimental rules, and a couple weeks ago, MLB announced that it would be testing out a bunch more at various levels of the minors this season. (As if minor leaguers’ lives weren’t tough enough, what with a steep hill to the big leagues, miserly pay, last year’s canceled season, a fair number of affiliates getting cut, and on top of that, having to see their stats messed around with by random rule changes. But I digress.)

When the 2021 minor league season kicks off on May 4, the planned rule changes will include:

  • Triple A: larger bases (they’ll go from 15-inch to 18-inch squares) that are covered with a less-slippery surface.
  • Double A: cutting down on the shift. Infielders will have to keep both feet on the infield dirt before the ball is put in play, and at some point in the season, MLB may eliminate the shift entirely by requiring that infielders stay two-to-a-side on each side of second base.
  • High A: a new step-off rule. Pitchers will have to step off the rubber prior to making a pickoff throw, or else get charged with a balk.
  • Low-A: a smorgasbord of experimental rule changes. All pitchers will be limited to two pickoff throws per batter while there is a runner on base. The Southeast league will roll out “robot umps,” a.k.a. electronic strike zone technology or the automated ball-strike system (ABS). The West will enforce a pitch timer between pitches, between innings, and between pitchers.

Reactions to these proposed changes have been mixed. Some are jazzed about the step-off rule, which may increase stolen bases and reduce lefty pitchers’ unfair advantage in throwing to first. More small ball could be a great thing for the game, as 2020 Orioles fans should know. Few fans seem upset about larger bases, either, a change being promoted by MLB primarily as a way to reduce collisions between baserunners chugging at full speed down the line and infielders who may or may not have left them a path to the bag. This has some plausibility—though it doesn’t hurt that a not-so-unintended consequence of a basepath that’s three inches shorter all around the diamond will be more infield singles and more stolen bases.

The threatened extermination of the shift, though, is getting people a little hot under the collar. And I see their point, though not because I like the shift. Let me quote Fox Sports’ Ben Verlander here:

I hate it. To be clear: I despise this rule. Now, I wouldn’t necessarily say I love the shift, but I also don’t hate it.

This is baseball. You get eight defenders in the field, and their one and only job is to make sure they defend the baseball so that the other team doesn’t score runs.

If a pitcher is allowed to look at a scouting report and see that I can’t hit a slider (which I couldn’t), that pitcher will throw me 90% sliders (which they did). When a defense sees that a batter hits the ball in one area 90% of the time, why shouldn’t they be allowed to put extra defenders there?

What the younger Verlander is getting at is exactly what rankles about most of these changes: they dumb the game down. The pickoff throw is strategy, and so is the shift. You can make good arguments for and against the shift (and, golly, think of all the Chris Davis singles it’s eaten up), or for stopping a pitcher from throwing over to first ten times in one at bat. When it comes to robot umps, I feel that human error and judgment makes the game interesting, but I also acknowledge that the electronic strike zone will be with us eventually. I have less of a problem with this stuff per se.

What I dislike is MLB crassly and obviously tipping the scale against pitching and defense. Pitchers, it’s fair to say, have had a rough couple of seasons. In 2019, the ball was juiced, though MLB lamely kept trying to deny it, and all-time home run records were eclipsed. Then, in 2020, with the stop-start of the COVID-19-shortened season, pitcher injuries skyrocketed.

As a baseball fan, I dislike being patronized by profit-maxing executives like Theo Epstein telling us that the League’s goal here is to be “thoughtful and intentional about progressing toward the very best version of baseball,” when what we’re really seeing is smart people trying to put subtle glosses on the equation: MORE OFFENSE! SHORTER GAMES! = MORE FANS! AND MORE $$! We are listening to our fans,” says Michael Hill, MLB Senior Vice President of On-Field Operations, the implication being, I guess, that good pitching and defense are not worth turning on the TV for?

As The Athletic’s Evan Drellich put it, “There is no world in which Rob Manfred wants to be known as the commissioner who tried and tried to inject new life into baseball, to save it from the drag of strikeouts and walks and front-office scheming, but never could.” The “three true outcomes” may be boring, and small ball in need of a revival. But when MLB’s best idea so far is to penalize strategy, burden defenses, and make life rougher on pitchers, fans might be forgiven for being a little underwhelmed.