The nerfs and buffs for MLB’s 2021 patch are a step in the right direction, even if the league hasn’t earned much trust.
Change is scary. For over a century, aversion to any significant change besides a changeup has been a hallmark of Major League Baseball. In many senses, the steady hand at the ship has been reasonable. Despite folks bellyaching for literally over 100 years that “Baseball is Dying”, Emma Baccellieri, Bryan Curtis, Craig Calcaterra, and many others can clarify that no, the sport is thriving as usual in the macro, even if folks have been scribing its epitaph since the 1860s. But MLB is flush with areas ripe for improvement, and despite my distrust for its leadership and a desire to see natural, self-regulating solutions to the on-field imbalances that have arisen in the sport, I see no issue in creating new rules to encourage variety in play. Even though the recently announced slate of rule changes for the minor leagues nibble around several larger issues, I have made my peace and welcome the new angles they will bring.
To address each rule, we’ll go level by level, as each stage of the minors has a major rule that will be implemented solely, attempting to isolate the impacts of each new rule.
Triple-A: Bigger Bases
I haven’t seen a complaint about this and don’t imagine there would be much cause. It is a relatively mild adjustment, going from 15×15 inch bags to 18×18 inch pillows. This was implemented in the semi-independent Atlantic League back in 2019 without incident, and had a few theoretical positives. Player health was part of the goal, with more base meaning less risk of players stepping on one another for the same space, and that has at least logical basis despite being tough to isolate in practice. The larger bags also ever so slightly shrink the distance between bases, theoretically tilting the scales towards baserunners and groundball hitters just a touch, though as was noted on FanGraphs recently, the change is between 0.2-0.4% in terms of distance between actual bases. Unobtrusive, few negatives, good, and unlikely to play a huge role for the Tacoma Rainiers or their opponents this year.
Where this particular change could bear larger long-term fruit, as mentioned by Joe Doyle in a discussion we had recently, is a future change to the pop-up slide rule, a.k.a. the Upon Further Review, For One Nanosecond Your Cleat Hovered Over The Bag Despite Beating The Ball And Being Fully In Control Of Your Body As You Slid In Safely So You’re Out rule. I like replay review, because the frustration of the nitpicky “technically” calls and even the “HOW DID THEY NOT OVERTURN THAT” errors don’t eradicate the value of having clear recourse when an ump just thoroughly boots a safe/out call. Is it too much to give umps jurisdiction to determine “intent” or “body control” in situations where sliding players momentarily disengage the bag? Perhaps! But I’d be curious if the larger bag gives players a big more to lock onto and makes it clearer cut.
Double-A: Only SOME Shifts… for now
This was and is the toughest sell, but I’ve been sold (or sold out, depending on your opinion). Double-A’s current rules will NOT ban shifting three defenders (or even four) to one side of the infield for now, though MLB will have the right to add that limitation midseason. The current regulation simply requires that “All teams must have at least four players on the infield during play, which is defined as having both feet ‘completely in front of the outer boundary of the infield dirt.’” The Arkansas Travelers will be the guinea pigs for one of the most hotly debated rules on this list.
The growth of the shift is a triumph of advanced analysis, convincing the sport that had done things predominantly one way for most of its history that it would actually be easier to turn hits into outs with unique defensive positioning for every hitter, and that the data we have allows us to find likeliest projections based on prior outcomes. But, as Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus, Travis Sawchik of FiveThirtyEight, and Sam Miller then of ESPN (among others) have uncovered, shifts have led to unexpected problems and solutions. Namely, two characteristics have unfolded: the desired reduction in line drives and groundballs turning into base hits, and a less-desired increase in both walks and home runs as pitchers seemingly struggle pitching comfortably with the shift and hitters (especially the sorts of lefty sluggers most apt to receive dramatic shifts) more often attempt to go over the shift instead of around it. Plus, as Sawchik notes, not only are hitters producing better results when they put the ball in the air against the shift compared to bunting, the decline in pitchers who lean on sinkers and contact-heavy repertoires only exacerbates the likelihood of shifted plate appearances yielding a three true outcome result: walk, homer, or strikeout.
Does keeping all the infielders in the infield change that dramatically? My guess is no, but I don’t really care. This rule means a few more line drives becoming base hits, and I am content with that. My apologies to the Travis Shaw/Ty France style second basemen who may be shunted back to the corner infield for good in such a world, I will accept some extra athleticism valued in defense, and I like the compromise of starting on the infield dirt as opposed to outright demarcating a 50/50 split on either side of second base. Still, just as the three seconds in the key rule for defenders in basketball helps ensure defenders have mild limitations on positioning for the health of the offensive flow of the game, I am unconcerned that some limits on shifting kneecaps strategizing, and encourages a more balls-in-play-heavy style of play.
High-A: Step-Off Pickoff required
It hurts my heart, but as a mostly baseball watcher and less frequent baseball player, this is a rule I begrudgingly approve of, even as I suspect it will have the greatest impact of any listed rule, immediately. As a player, my quick spin pickoff move was one of my greatest assets, and a skill I spent plenty of time refining. No more. A step-off move is typically a pace breaker for the pitcher, or a reset of the pitch call, and next to never a serious attempt at securing an out beyond a quick lefty flick. Now, lefties at the High-A level (newly the Everett AquaSox in the M’s system) will have no ability to do the classic leg lift, 45 degree angle pickoff move that forces baserunners to hold (or risk breaking on first movement). I expect a base stealing bonanza, as unfolded in the Atlantic League under its test run. Baseball America reported that in 2019, steals went from 0.7 steals per team per game to 1.3 following the rule’s introduction. If the goal is to introduce more movement, that’s an unmitigated success. If it is to make nibbling adjustments that may yield positive results without creating a sizable change, this is not that. I am, however, in favor.
Steals are fun, exciting, and reward players with athleticism, speed, and good instincts, as well as punishing pitchers with poor command and catchers and defenders with subpar defensive skills and technique. The type of player most pushed out of the game in recent years has been the high-contact, defensively sharp, low-power and/or lower-OBP speedster. For many, that is not an issue. The sport ebbs and flows, and we do not need to relive the 80s just for nostalgia’s sake. But I am a believer that it is interesting to watch different styles clash, and see different pathways to success. Right now, with home runs, walks, and strikeouts so prevalent, the value of moving from first base to second has never been lower, particularly given the risk. But if making that dash becomes a higher percentage play, it lifts the value too of a sprayed single, as that is suddenly a much easier avenue to run production.
That is, ultimately, what wins me over with this more dramatic change, and others like it. Much as players and fans might want teams to value different aesthetics or styles of play simply because they appeal to us, or even approach some common sense of “appeal”. Teams are trying to win, preferably at the lowest cost possible. We’ve seen plenty of evidence teams are loathe to spend money just to improve, much less put together a diversity of aesthetic. To foster a natural variability in MLB, it is worth legislating incentives to balanced styles, and I am willing to accept any fears of “unnatural” adjustments. The game has adjusted plenty in the past 150 years, with a vastly wider talent pool, improved training and resources, and massive financial infusions. As Ben Lindbergh noted in his recent piece suggesting ANOTHER major change in the league’s rules, while all players have gotten stronger, faster, and larger, the most significant modern shift is that pitchers simply throw immensely harder than they once did.
The rationale for moving the mound back is simple: Modern pitchers are much taller and throw far harder than 19th-century pitchers. Thus, their pitches are being released closer to home plate and flying faster toward their targets, which means that today’s hitters have less time to react. Four years ago, 29-year-old Buster Posey—then baseball’s best-hitting catcher—remarked on an influx of flamethrowing pitchers capable of touching triple digits. “I’m about ready to move the mound back a little bit,” he joked. Posey was responding to a significant increase in average pitch speeds even in the fairly short time since his 2009 big league debut. From 2008 to 2020—the period covered by MLB’s PITCHf/x and Statcast pitch-tracking systems—the average speeds of four-seam fastballs, all fastballs combined, all breaking balls combined, and all off-speed pitches combined all rose by roughly 1.5 to 2 miles per hour.
That’s just the latest spurt of speed increases. Pitch data recorded by Baseball Info Solutions video scouts from 2002 to 2007 shows an uptick of another 1-2 mph over that span for most pitch types. And while the public pitch-velo trail goes cold there, information from a Reds scouting database analyzed by The Ringer in 2019 suggests that speeds rose substantially over the preceding decade, too. Those leaked Reds records don’t begin until almost a century after the rubber took up station at 60 feet, 6 inches, which means we can only speculate about the full extent of the speed increase since 1893—a period that encompasses a great growth of athletic talent, fueled by a massive expansion in the pool of potential pitchers, increasingly rigorous approaches to scouting and player development, and an explosion in the financial incentive to pursue playing baseball professionally.
Ultimately, this is what MLB and baseball writ large will have to address: how do you continue to balance the sport when one segment of its players are outpacing another?
Online video gamers are familiar with the concepts of “nerfing” and “buffing”, which no doubt predate the web but are commonly employed by game developers who create and manage competitive online video games, ranging in style and substance from shooters like “Call of Duty” to turn-based strategy games like “Civilization”, or of course multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games like “League of Legends”. “Nerfing” is a weakening of something – a skill, an item, a rule, or some sort of power that has become overpowered and therefore overpopularized, causing imbalance within the competitive nature of the game. “Buffing” is its inverse, strengthening something that has become overlooked or discarded, to incentivize its viability once more.
In this case, pitching has obviously and thoroughly outclassed hitting, with more sophisticated physical and developmental advances on the pitching side yielding a generation of super bullpens, unheard of depth of velocity, and exceptional breaking balls. The talent pool is so deep that the league should be strongly pushing expansion for at least a pair of new clubs, but in the meantime, hitters have understandably responded with an all-or-nothing approach, reasoning that walks and home runs can prop up scoring without requiring two or three straight hits off 98 mph. The incentive is to perform and score, and three true outcome baseball is the best way to survive. “Buffing” stealing bases and “nerfing” pitchers, then, is a start, and one I can get behind.
It’s an imprecise process, but one that can both create a better experience for players and viewers as well as engender trust in those same parties that those in charge of the game they love are receptive and aware of the health and sentiments around what they are overseeing. While MLB is flush with some of the most exciting young talents it has had in years, it’s hard to say anyone feels much trust in the people at the top. Savvy balancing of the sport’s rules has many repercussions prior to a chance to build trust by encouraging a balanced, exciting product, but it cannot hurt.
Low-A: Max two pickoff attempts…sorta (All), 15-second pitch clock (West only), Robot Strike Zone (East)
If you’ve persevered through my last diatribe, your reward is a far shorter final section. The two pickoff rule feels drastic, except that it reads to me as surprisingly clever. After a pair of pickoff throws, the pitcher may still make a pickoff attempt. If they successfully pick off the runner, all is well and the runner slinks back to the dugout, cowed. If they fail to get the runner out, however, it is an automatic balk and the runner gains second base. This, to me, falls between something that would be consequential less than once per game and something that is an exciting subplot when it does. The tension would be immense, and even the slight pure extra mental strain a runner could place on a pitcher, knowing they can get that extra step is tantalizing. Yet in the same breath, an extra half step or so is all this really yields. I suspect this is a less consequential change than it feels at first glance, and any gains it has feed right into the step-off change I’m in favor of in High-A.
The other two are hard to protest, for one reason or another. The pitch clock will impact the Modesto Nuts, the Seattle Mariners Low-A affiliate now after years in High-A. The minors have had a pitch clock already and its been utterly undisruptive, with the only result being the obvious shortening of games via reduced dead air time. Trust me, baseball will still have plenty of time for leisure and nonsense with 10-20 minutes chopped off every game, and it will feel more full for it.
As for the electronic strike zone, which will not impact any games the M’s affiliates play this year, all I can say is that it needs as many games of refinement as it can get. It will change what is considered “normal” and what is not, with implications more akin to changes in foul rules in the NBA in regards to hand-checking, or the NFL’s long shift towards penalizing pass defenders accelerating the growth of passing offenses. Electronic strike zones share little specifically with those rules, but their impact will be sizable, noticeable, and ultimately, after an adjustment period, our new normal. It will still be baseball, as will the sport with all of these changes, and the permutations it takes are fodder for endless tweaking and improvement. But I take the positive view: the fact that so many of us care at all is a good reminder that this sport has many years behind it, and many more to go. These rules make the future look a little more exciting.