MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred is tasked with keeping a group of owners happy in their millions of dollars of profits, keeping the players happy with their millions of dollars, and making sure that the sport doesn’t lose its audience to the more fast paced sports like basketball or the quick burn of the NFL season.  He even has to contend with professional video game leagues. He has to do all of this while balancing one thing that almost every sport doesn’t have: tradition.

Tradition has kept the game of baseball more or less the same since its inception. Sure, the players have gotten bigger and better, but the game still moves at a natural pace, it still has the mound 60 feet, 6 inches away from the plate. The bases are still 90 feet apart. Games don’t have a time limit. Sure, the sport has made changes during its history, but the the core of the game has remained the same. And, when changes are proposed, there is a large segment of the fan base and media that will fight to keep the game the same.

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Manfred seems to be a realist when it comes to looking at the game. Strikeouts are at an all-time high. While home runs are up, the single is disappearing into infield shifts. Games take too long. With a lagging fan base and a year without a single fan in the stands because of the pandemic, Manfred has to take measures to make the game more palatable to the younger and casual fan base and keep the traditional fan engaged so that people want to spend a day at the ballpark once pandemic restrictions are lifted.

The Commissioner has already demonstrated that he isn’t afraid to play with the long standing rules of the sport. Last season, he instituted a three batter minimum rule for a relief pitcher, rather than allowing managers to make changes on a batter to batter basis. The game survived. For the return from Covid, MLB instituted 7 inning double headers (staying for 2021), a universal designated hitter (not staying as of now), and a runner on second base during extra innings (staying). The game survived.

Over the years, Manfred has used the Minor Leagues to experiment with rule changes before instituting them at the Major League level. For 2021, he has given all  levels different rules, allowing for an evaluation each change on the game. With a new collective bargaining process about to start, these new rules could have a major change in the sport in the relatively near future. And, despite the cries of tradition, the game will be much better because of the new rules.

Limits To Defensive Shifts

Perhaps the biggest change in the past 30 years has been the proliferation of defensive shifts. Popularized by Joe Maddon during his tenure as the Tampa Bay Rays Manager, there are few teams that don’t employ shifts during the game. The concept is sound as teams use data to predict where players will hit the ball. The success of defensive shifts can’t be denied. Teams are getting more outs. The sport’s offense is suffering because of that.

MLB will experiment at the Double-A level this season, placing a limit on defensive shifts. For 2021, “the defensive team must 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.” During the first half of the season, teams can put infielders on any side of second base as long as they remain on the dirt. But, interestingly enough, MLB announced that depending on the success of the first half, they reserve the right to enforce that there must be two defenders on each side of second base.

This seems like a rule that will be in the Major Leagues within the next three years. While one could argue that the shift is an essential part of strategy and that talented Major Leaguers should adjust their approach at the plate, the impact of limiting shifts will help raise batting averages on balls put in play. It will return the game to having more runners on base and being less reliant on home runs to score. It would be shocking if the shift stays in the game as it is the second biggest hindrance to offense.

Larger Bases

At the Triple-A level, MLB will be using 18 inch squares for bases rather than the tradition 15 inch squares. The thought is that the extra size will reduce collisions and injuries while also promoting more successful stolen base attempts because of the slightly shorter distances. The official rule also stated that it hopes to increase the success of ground ball and bunt attempts.

Again, the intention is to increase offense that isn’t reliant on the home run. This change will be interesting to follow as 3 extra inches doesn’t seem like much, but even if it slightly increases the extra base hit or entices more running, there’s an improvement to the flow of the game. But, the flaw in the plan is that teams don’t bunt and they don’t run often as those strategies are proven to be inefficient and cost teams outs.

Step-Off Rule

MLB will be using the High-A level to tweak a rule that the Independent League used in 2019. The change is that pitchers will have to disengage with the rubber before throwing to any base. If not, a balk will be issued. The Independent League noted that it saw a significant rise in stolen base attempts as pitchers were not permitted to use traditional pick off moves. This allowed for bigger leads and better jumps as base runners now had to simply watch for the pitcher’s back foot to disengage with the rubber.

You should be seeing the theme by now. Each rule is being designed to allow for more base runners, more small ball offense—not just bunting, but more singles and doubles—and for running. Eliminating the traditional pickoff moves essentially allows base runners free reign, rather than being controlled by threat of a pick off.

Pick Off Limits, Pitch Timer, And…Robot Umpires

The Low-A level will see an experimental rule with limiting the number of pick off attempts per batter. At the start of the season, pitchers will only be allowed to attempt two “step offs” or “pick offs” per plate appearance. And, there is a chance they experiment with just one attempt per batter. Obviously, this is to allow for a fast pace, more fluid base running, and more action on the base paths.

Another pace of play rule change is being implemented at the Low-A West level with a pitch timer being enforced. The timer will not only limit time in between pitchers, but with pitching changes, and inning breaks. The game has to find ways to shave off time. The clock is one way that could really improve the pace of play.

And, the most controversial one is being experimented with at the Low-A Southeast level where the strike zone will be called by a “robot umpire”. Home plate umpires will have the technology aid in the calls. The goal is to have a standard strike zone, taking one big part of the humanity of the game. Part of the tradition of the sport is the arguing between umpires, players, managers, and fans. Part of the lore is bad calls or adjusting to each individual umpire. But, does all of that outweigh the idea of knowing, exactly, what a strike is in each ballpark? Probably not.

So, What Happens At The MLB Level?

For this year, MLB is continuing the base runner during extra innings and 7 inning double headers. But, the future of the rules will be playing out the in the Minor Leagues. The game will be better off if most of these rules are implemented.

Banning the shift may take some strategy out of the game, but it will return the game to a more balanced state. And, one could make the argument that the strategy returns to the pitcher-batter conflict as now the pitcher can’t rely on an overloaded side of the infield to get outs. This seems like the most likely rule to be implemented, as soon as 2022.

The step-off rules help with pace of play, but the impact on running and seeing small ball seems negligible. Teams don’t like to risk outs. That rule change doesn’t seem to outweigh the risk of losing outs. However, Major League Baseball will likely limit pick off moves rather the give the base runner a complete advantage by making the pitcher step off. While maybe not immediate, it seems a like a rule that will, in some form, be implemented.

The biggest and most immediate change should be a pitch clock. That would have the biggest impact on pace of play while not hurting the strategy that goes into a Major League Baseball game. All of the other rules impact the actual strategy of the game and would have minimal impact of the pace of play. But, speeding things along always helps.

While the other rule changes and use of Robot Umpires could positively impact the game, they are more nuanced conversations. That will likely take years of research, analysis, and experimentation.

The tradition of baseball is being attacked. Finally.

Rob Manfred is going about these possible changes the correct way. He’s measuring their effectiveness during live games, not in theory. But, he isn’t doing at the expense of a Major League Baseball season. He’s battling a long history of hesitancy to change, but if the game wants to be a bit more relevant to a younger audience, it needs to accentuate its excitement of crisply played game that has singles, has good, aggressive base running, and flows quickly. Looking at the new rules in live game situations is the only way to have a game with all of those positives.

Gary Armida
Gary Armida

Orioles Analyst

First and foremost, a Father. After that, I am a writer and teacher who not only started my own company and published an i-magazine as well as a newsletter, but have been published by USA Today, Operation Sports, Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Digest, Gotham Baseball Magazine, and numerous other publications. As an educator, I have 20 years of classroom experience and am utilizing that experience in my current position as department coordinator. Wrote the book The Teacher And The Admin (https://theteacherandtheadmin.com/the-book/) and operate that website which is dedicated to making education better for kids.

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