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MLB to experiment with rules in minors, trying to increase the action

Theo Epstein: “What we learn in the Minor Leagues this year will be essential in helping all parties chart the right path forward for baseball.”

Los Angeles Dodgers v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Photo by Matt Brown/Angels Baseball LP/Getty Images

Major League Baseball has already taken the minors under its wing and remolded the very structure of farm systems. In addition, 2021 will be a training ground for a number of pace of play rules at various minor league levels to see if they might one day be suitable for eventual adoption in the majors.

Different levels will get different rule changes.

Triple-A will use larger bases, 18 inches square instead of 15 at first, second, and third base. In addition to reducing injuries around the bag, this rule could potentially increase the possibility of stolen bases, with the bases slightly closer together.

Stolen bases figure to rise with a pair of rules in Class-A. In High-A — which for the Dodgers this year is in Great Lakes — pitchers will be required to disengage from the rubber before throwing to a base, so wave goodbye to snap pickoff moves.

In Low-A — now in Rancho Cucamonga for the Dodgers — pitchers are only allowed two pickoff attempts or stepping off the mound per batter. Pitchers can attempt a third pickoff, but if the runner makes it back to the base safely it would be ruled a balk.

Dave Roberts, who stole 243 bases in his major league career, including 118 steals in his three seasons with the Dodgers, is a fan of these rules.

“If you’re looking at trying to promote the run game, speeding up a delivery from the stretch makes it more of an advantage to the hitter in that sense. It’s going to be tougher for the pitchers,” Roberts said Thursday. “As far as trying to control the running game, it’ll be better for the potential base stealer. As I understand it, Major League Baseball wants to get a little more dynamic, and that should certainly impact that.”

In Double-A, the shift is getting a once over. All infielders will be required to have both feet fully in front of the outer edge of the infield dirt. In otherwise, no lining up in the outfield before each pitch. MLB has the discretion for the second half of the season to require two infielders to be on each side of second base.

“I’m usually in favor of allowing the game to adapt naturally,” Trevor Bauer said. “If you shift, it will take a couple years for hitters to adapt to it. There’s a lot of free hits out there. That’s generally where I fall, but I don’t have a strong opinion on it.”

The Dodgers shifted on 55.8 percent of all plate appearances in 2020, more than any other major league team, including in 77 percent of all PA of left-handed batters.

“As far as my thoughts on shift or no shift, I really don’t have any preference,” Roberts said. “We’re going to do everything we can to get a competitive advantage, within the rules. We shift as aggressive as anyone and we convert balls into play into outs.”

Last year the Dodgers ranked second in the majors in defensive efficiency, turning 72.9 percent of batted balls in play into outs.

The other rules that will be implemented in the minors are limited to a few specific Low-A leagues. The Low-A Southeast will use an automatic ball-strike system to assist home plate umpires, which was used in both the Atlantic League and Arizona Fall League in 2019. Low-A West, which includes Rancho Cucamonga, will use extra on-field timers — in addition to the pitch clocks used in Triple-A and Double-A — to “enforce time limits between delivery of pitches, inning breaks and pitching changes.”

Minor league seasons start in the first week of May.

“These rules experiments will provide valuable insight into various ways to create a playing environment that encourages the most entertaining version of the game,” said former Cubs and Red Sox executive Theo Epstein, now a consultant to MLB. “What we learn in the Minor Leagues this year will be essential in helping all parties chart the right path forward for baseball.”