Alex Cora’s season-long suspension in 2020 turned the Red Sox manager into a spectator. There were numerous times when he didn’t enjoy what he saw.
“I lived it last year, just watching from afar. There’s certain days that it’s tough to watch,” said Cora. “I’ve just got to be honest — strikeouts, walks, and homers. … In the regular season, it was tough to watch.”
Cora is far from the only one to reach such a conclusion. A growing chorus of both fans and industry insiders has become exasperated by the prevalence of the “three true outcomes” — homers, strikeouts, and walks — that produce slow-motion contests.
A record 36.1 percent of plate appearances in the compressed 2020 season ended in one of the three true outcomes, up from a 35.1 percent rate in 2019, a 29.1 percent rate in 2000, and a 25.6 percent rate in 1980. The infrequency of balls put in play robs the game of some of its most exciting elements, including base stealing and standout defensive plays.
Major League Baseball doesn’t have the answers to how to fix the lengthening gap between balls put in play and action on the field. But it’s interested in experimenting with possible ways to improve the flow of the game, leading MLB’s owner competition committee to come up with a list of principles to guide explorations of potential rules changes.
“We started with the question of, what is the best form of baseball? What is the most exciting form of baseball? What’s the most joyful form of baseball? And how does our game today compare to that ideal?” said MLB executive VP of baseball operations Morgan Sword. “You get a lot of different answers when you talk to people about that question, but there were areas of strong consensus about at least the direction that we should be moving in, which is: More action; more athleticism; less three true outcomes hitting, more singles, doubles, triples, stolen base attempts, defensive action; a faster pace with less time between pitches; more opportunities for players to showcase athleticism. Those general thoughts match up really well with fan preferences.”
Former Red Sox GM and Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, ex-Marlins GM Michael Hill, and longtime big leaguer Raul Ibañez were part of a group from the league’s office that both brainstormed ideas and sought — input from other voices in the game, including managers — to identify ways to increase action.
The result was the announcement by MLB on Thursday of rules that will be implemented in Minor League Baseball — whose oversight was taken over by MLB this offseason — for the 2021 season. The altered rules, according to Sword, weren’t intended to be “earth-shattering,” given that the league didn’t want to be “disruptive to the clubs’ primary goal, which is getting these guys to the big leagues.”
Nonetheless, the minors will feature experimental rules, some adopted from experiments in the independent Atlantic League that took place in 2019:
▪ In Triple-A, a larger base (18 inches by 18 inches, rather than the current 15 by 15) will be employed, a measure the Competition Committee believes could reduce collisions and that could have a modest impact on steals.
▪ In Double-A, teams will be required to have four players on the infield dirt, meaning shifts against lefties placing an infielder in shallow right field will go by the wayside. It’s possible that, in the second half, MLB will require teams to place two infielders on each side of second base, thus opening hitting lanes for pull hitters — thus in theory turning more balls in play into hits. But it’s worth noting that in a year when the Atlantic League experimented with restrictions on defensive shifts, the league’s .308 batting average on balls in play (contact that didn’t result in a homer) actually went down from the previous year (.319).
▪ In High-A, pitchers will be required to step off the rubber before attempting to throw to a base. The Atlantic League experimented with the step-off rule in the second half of the 2019 season. It resulted in a massive jump in stolen base attempts (up from 1.02 to 1.73 per game, a 70 percent increase) and success (increased from 75.5 percent to 80.9 percent). The improved success rate was even more pronounced against lefties, who had to make the most extreme adjustment to the rule, going from 71.1 percent in the first half to 81.1 percent in the second half.
▪ Across the Low-A leagues, pitchers will have two “step offs” or pickoff attempts per plate appearance with a runner on base. If the pitcher attempts a third and the runner returns safely to the base, the attempt will be ruled a balk.
▪ The Low-A Southeast League (formerly the Florida State League) will use an automated strike zone using the Hawk-Eye technology that is now used for Statcast data at big league parks.
▪ The Low-A West League will introduce a number of on-field times and pace-of-play regulations.
The introduction of different rules at different levels represents an effort by MLB to avoid derailing player development.
“Certainly there’s no science to this, but our general thought was that the closer you get to the major leagues, the less artistic license you have with messing around with the rules,” said Sword. “In Triple-A, for example, those guys are back and forth to the major leagues all year. It would be inviting problems to have a different game they were playing in Triple-A and the major leagues, so we chose what’s probably the least disruptive test — bigger bases — for Triple-A.”
Even so, there will be some pushback against the experiments. Some took issue with the substance of the rule changes. Others objected to the implementation, with agent Lonnie Murray of Sports Management Partners (speaking at the SABR Analytics Conference) suggesting that she viewed the introduction of new rules on the cusp of spring training as “completely disruptive.”
It remains to be seen if or when any of the experimental rules trickle up to the big leagues — something that hasn’t happened with other minor league experiments such as the pitch clock employed in the upper levels.
Nonetheless, the game appears to be at an inflection point, with people in the industry trying to identify ways to increase the appeal of the sport. As such, the minor league experiments announced on Thursday aren’t likely to be the last.
“There’s literally hundreds of wacky rule changes that were discussed,” said Sword, who noted that both the shape of the strike zone and composition of the ball were also discussed. “We ended up in a pretty reasonable place — nothing too crazy — but you can get really far out there thinking about baseball rules.”