Minor League Baseball will experiment with new rules in 2021 designed to increase action on the bases, the number of balls in play and the pace of games.
At the Double A level, a defensive team must have a minimum of four players on the infield with both feet completely on the dirt. So you won't see a second baseman playing shallow right field against a pull-heavy left-handed hitter.
Depending on the results, there could be an addendum to the rule that two infielders must be positioned on either side of second base. That would mean no over-shifting.
Major League Baseball will have its eyes on the new rules to gauge their effectiveness.
"Really, I'm anxious to see how it's going to work out, and I would love to see us get away from defensive shifting," Phillies manager Joe Girardi said. "I think it leads to more strikeouts actually because left-handed hitters get shifted a lot and they try to beat the shift by hitting it over the shift. When that happens, it leads to less action in our game and that's what we're all dying for, more action. I am curious to see how it works out."
Usage of the shift has surged and changed the sport. Take a look at the league-wide increase over the last four seasons. This is the percentage of plate appearances in which a hitter faced a shift with nobody on base.
- 2017: 12.1%
- 2018: 17.4%
- 2019: 25.6%
- 2020: 34.1%
It's even more dramatic against left-handed hitters. In 2017, a left-handed hitter faced a shift 22.1% of the time. In 2020, that number was 50.8%.
Absent a rule change, that trend is not reversing. Teams have too much information. Perhaps over time, hitters can refine their bat-to-ball skills to beat the shift more often, but that's no overnight thing and it feels especially unlikely in the near future given the modern obsession with power and the differences in the way hitting is taught now.
It was interesting to hear Zack Wheeler, who induced the highest rate of groundball double plays in all of baseball last season, say he'd be fine with the shift being banned in the majors eventually.
"I haven't really been a fan of the shift so I couldn't care less what happens, honestly," he said Friday. "Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I love it when it's there, I hate it when they're out of position. I'm sure it'll be a couple years, if anything, before it would be up here."
Wheeler does not think it would be a huge adjustment if MLB mandates teams must put two infielders on either side of second base.
"A lot of the times, a guy is up the middle," he said. "Yeah, the shortstop does go to the second base side sometimes, but a lot of times they're just right up the middle, so they'd just be right on the other side of the bag anyway."
Other rules Minor League Baseball will experiment with in 2021:
- At Triple A, the size of bases will increase from 15 inches square to 18 inches square. This is designed to reduce collisions, and the hypothesis is it will lead to more stolen bases because the runner will be closer to the base when sliding.
- At High A, with a man on base, pitchers must disengage the rubber prior to throwing to any base or a balk will be called. According to MiLB, the Atlantic League used this rule in 2019 and it led to a spike in stolen bases.
- At Low A, pitchers will be limited to two step-offs or pickoff attempts per plate appearance. A pitcher can attempt a third step-off or pickoff but will be called for a balk if the runner returns to the bag safely.
- The Low A Southeast League will expand testing of the Automatic Ball-Strike System.