Breaking Down the Good, Bad and Ugly of New MLB, MiLB Rules for 2021 Season
Before the 2021 Major League Baseball season begins, you should know that things are going to be different in both the major leagues and minor leagues.
After the coronavirus pandemic forced many changes in 2020, the 2021 season will see the return of the 162-game schedule and 10-team postseason, but not the return of the universal designated hitter. However, there will still be seven-inning doubleheaders and automatic runners on second base in extra innings.
Arguably more interesting, however, are all-new rules set to take effect in the majors and especially in the minors in 2021. These include a host of limitations for pitchers and new benefits for hitters and baserunners, plus affiliated ball's first major step toward replacing umpires with robots.
Since there's a lot to unpack here, let's break down the new rules one at a time.
MLB: In-Game Video, Now on iPads
Officially for social-distancing reasons and ostensibly because of the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal, players and coaches weren't allowed to access video replay rooms during the 2020 season.
Now, in-game video is due for a comeback in 2021, but with a twist: Video of at-bats will be made available on iPads in teams' dugouts with the opposing catcher's signs edited out.
As a way to provide hitters the means to analyze their swings during games while also protecting the opposition against having their signs stolen, this seems like a fair compromise. It should satisfy stars who spoke out against the video protocols last year, such as J.D. Martinez (here) and Javier Baez (here).
Broadly speaking, this change could help hitters curb their ever-rising strikeout rate. Depending on how visible that day's starting pitcher is in the video accessible to hitters, it could also restore the third-time-through-the-order penalty after it mysteriously vanished in 2020.
MLB: A Crackdown on Pitchers Using Foreign Substances
Access to in-game video isn't the only solid that MLB is doing for the league's hitters in 2021. After decades of relying on a sort of honor system, the league will finally be policing ball doctoring.
Specifically, the league will try to prevent pitchers from using foreign substances on the ball through such measures as compliance officers and lab inspections. Crucially, it will also be monitoring pitchers' spin rates for suspicious activity.
To wit, the league's average spin rate has risen annually since 2015. More spin generally equals more movement on a pitcher's pitches, which in turn generally makes them harder to hit. And while there are multiple ways for a pitcher to improve his spin rate, doctoring the ball is the best.
But while these changes could result in fewer strikeouts, the downsides include corresponding increases in walks and home runs. In other words, this might not curtail the league's growing reliance on the three true outcomes, or plays that don't involve the fielders in the action.
Triple-A: Larger, Less Slippery Bases
Meanwhile at the Triple-A level, something will be different about the bases in 2021.
First base, second base and third base will be larger, going from 15 inches to 18 inches per side. They're also going to be made of a material that will supposedly be less slippery in wet conditions.
Because there will be fewer than 90 feet between bases, the size difference might lead to an increase in infield hits and successful stolen base attempts. But since said difference also slightly extends the reach of fielders, such things aren't necessarily a fait accompli.
If nothing else, though, the new bases should help prevent injuries. The extra real estate gives both fielders and runners more leeway to avoid collisions. And if the bases are indeed less slippery when wet, injuries like those that afflicted Bryce Harper in 2017 and Kris Bryant in 2019 could become a thing of the past.
Double-A: Infielders Must Set Up on the Infield Dirt
If you're someone who hates infield shifts, then Double-A baseball will be just the thing for you in 2021.
That's where there will be an experiment requiring infielders to be set with both cleats on the infield dirt. Teams can still have more than two infielders on either side of second base, but this will eliminate formations such as the classic "Ted Williams shift," in which one infielder sets up in right field.
The easy criticism here is that this is a step toward stifling a form of innovation that's taken over the major leagues. Between 2015 and 2020, the percentage of pitches thrown with some sort of infield shift ballooned from 9.6 to 34.6 percent.
This, however, has reduced the role of athleticism in the equation of infield defense. To boot, the three true outcomes are more common when infielders are shifted than when they're in standard or strategic formations. As such, this backward step is a move in the right direction for baseball's entertainment value.
High-A: Pitchers Must Step off the Rubber to Attempt Pickoff Throws
Remember Andy Pettitte's pickoff move to first base? It was a good one, all right, not to mention one that many a left-hander has tried to mimic over the years.
Now, it's on its way to becoming illegal. At the High-A level in 2021, all pitchers will be required to step off the rubber before making a pickoff throw.
Because the Pettitte move always toed the line between a legal play and a balk, it's a wonder that baseball is only now experimenting with outlawing it. And while it won't apply to every pitcher, it's hypothetically a go-ahead for runners to take larger leads and attempt more steals.
Indeed, an increase in stolen base attempts is exactly what happened after the independent Atlantic League adopted this rule midway through its 2019 season. So if it eventually makes its way to the majors, the stolen base average could rebound after falling below 0.5 per game in 2019 and 2020.
Low-A: Two Pickoff Throws Per Plate Appearance
In the future, the outlawing of the Pettitte move might not be the only thing that emboldens would-be base thieves in the majors.
At the Low-A level in 2021, pitchers will be limited to just two pickoff throws per plate appearance. If both of a pitcher's pickoff attempts are unsuccessful, the task of policing runners will fall entirely to the catcher.
Because runners who survive two pickoff attempts will have license to take larger leads and attempt more steals, this will almost certainly allow for more stolen bases in the short term. But in the long term, organizations might adjust by developing more strong-armed catchers.
Regardless, this should also be a net positive for baseball's entertainment value. With pitchers no longer permitted to make throw after throw to first base, the pace of games should improve. As a bonus, instances of crowds growing restless as pitchers refuse to throw the ball to the batter should become less common.
Low-A West: 15-Second Pitch Clock
So, it's no great surprise that baseball is dipping its toes into even faster-paced waters by implementing a 15-second clock in the Low-A West League.
For reference, there were about 25 seconds between pitches in the majors in 2019. Knowing that, the 15-second clock might be a case of MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and the league's suits pushing their luck with their pace of play crusade.
Nevertheless, the slow pace between pitches is a major reason why the average MLB game now lasts three-plus hours. Pitchers who take their time also tend to throw harder, which is a factor in the league's strikeout problem. So even if its merely of the 20-second variety, there are at least two reasons why a pitch clock might eventually find its way to the majors.
Low-A Southeast: Automated Balls and Strikes
Players ticketed for the Low-A Southeast League had better lock up their clothes, boots and motorcycles, because the robot umpires are coming.
For the first time in affiliated ball, that's where there will be an automated system for calling balls and strikes in 2021. Umpires will still call balls and strikes on the field, but only after getting an audio cue prompted by Hawk-Eye pitch tracking technology.
To their credit, umpires have gotten better at calling both strikes (i.e., pitches inside the zone) and balls (i.e., pitches outside the zone) since the introduction of Statcast in 2015. But since they're still far from perfect on both fronts, the appeal of an automated zone is obvious.
Like the pickoff rules, this experiment could have lasting repercussions for the catching position. Because it would make pitch framing obsolete, teams would have every reason to ignore that talent and emphasize that their catching prospects master game-calling, blocking and throwing.