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In the MLB Laboratory

Ed Botti

In the auto industry the Fowlerville Proving Ground is a great place to test the new gear ratios in the Challengers, Camaros, and Mustangs, and even to see how that new independent suspension system actually works under pressure in a Cadillac CT5-V and Chrysler Hemi 300.

In the rock and roll world playing live shows has proven to be the perfect way to test an audience’s reaction to new songs or rifts.

These venues serve as laboratories to test out new, innovative and even outrageous products, material, and product changes.

In Major League Baseball, that laboratory is called the Minor Leagues.

Laboratories all need scientists, and some have been called “mad scientists” due to the type of experiments and creations that come out of these labs.

Just like other famous “scientists” like Roger Smith at General Motors and Lee Iacocca of Ford and then Chrysler, not every experiment works or was needed.

Iacocca had his 4 door Mustang in 1965, Robert Smith had his diesel engine in the 80’s.

They also had help and partners.

So now fast forward to 2021 and Dr. Manfred.

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Photo by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Manfred has summoned his version of Igor (the “competition and playing rules committee”) and is in his lab cooking up new recipes and experiments.

It’s nothing new, MLB has regularly used its minor league system as an experimental lab, and why not? It is the perfect test track. This past week, they announced they are at it once again.

They will be using minor league proving grounds for a new group of rules in 2021.

With Igor by his side, Manfred claims that he will be closely monitoring, analyzing and studying the impact each of these new rule changes have on the game.

The rule changes are designed to increase the action on base paths, generate more balls put in the field of play, and course his all-time favorite experiment…improve upon the pace of play.

Just like when Igor once stole a brain from a medical examiner’s office of a woman named “Abby Normal” to be surgically implanted in the beast, Dr. Manfred wants to experiment with larger bases.

Starting in 2021 at the Triple A level, you know the level right before you become a highly paid professional, first base, second base and third base will be increased from the standard 15 inch square to a new 18 in square base.

The motivation behind this is to somehow reduce player injury and to increase the success rate of stolen bases, bunt attempts and ground balls.

Wow, talk about a slap in the face to all of the lab rats that created sabermetrics and the shortsighted view that bunting and stolen bases are a waste of time and unproductive plays. The Bill James disciples of the world must not be too happy.

The new bases will also be made of a material that is supposed to perform better in wet conditions.

I definitely like the idea of a base being made out of a different material, and one that is not slippery when wet (remember Bryce Harper in 2019). Makes perfect sense to me.

Yes folks, I actually agree with Manfred on something! Get rid of that slippery base!

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Photograph: Sean M Haffey

Quick question though for Dr. Manfred, if you are so concerned with injuries on the base paths, why take away the neighborhood play at second base? Since that infamous Ruben Tejada injury at second base by Chase Utley in the 2015 playoffs, also known as good hard-nosed baseball, the definition of a legal slide was changed to a “bona fide slide,” defined as “making contact with the ground ahead of the base, being in position to reach the base with a hand or foot and to remain on it, and sliding within reach of the base without changing his path to initiate contact with a fielder”.

But you didn’t stop there, you then eliminated the neighborhood play by allowing instant reply challenges on the play, thus middle infielders are forced to stay on the bag and runners must attempt a “bona fide slide”.

Call me crazy, but the neighborhood play worked great for about 100 years until instant replay showed up and you changed the rule, putting every middle infielders knees in jeopardy.

So, let’s now change the size of the base at the level just before some of these young men will get a chance in the Major Leagues? Sounds a little Abby Normal to me.

Not all of the rule changes are harebrained. Case in point, at the Double A level a rule change to defensive positioning will be implemented. The rule’s intent is to limit defensive shifts.

Now, that is one I can get behind. I just wonder if that was thought of by Dr. Manfred or was that one of Igor’s ideas?

The rule essentially states that “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.”

So let me get this straight, the “infielders” have to position themselves on the actual infield?

What a novel idea!

This constraint on defensive positioning is intended to enhance the batting average of balls put in play. Wow, really? I never would have imagined that.

Another slap in the face to the Bill James disciples and MLB analytical “geniuses” that have been so intent on changing OUR game.

Although with good intention, the rule falls a little bit short though, it should also mandate that two infielders have to be positioned on each side of second base.

Otherwise it is an illegal defense, just like in the NBA.

If you’re going to do it, do it right.

Defensive shifts have been around forever, the most famous would probably be the Ted Williams shift. The new blood in MLB have taken that tactic and stretched it beyond imagination. A little perspective; in 1941 they put the shift on Ted Williams, and in 2020 they put the shift on Chris Davis.

Am I the only one that sees that as a problem?

It’s a great step in the process of getting rid of the ridiculous shift fad that seems to be intoxicating every MLB back room and ordered to be applied by the field managers.

Here is the way it really works in baseball. If you do not want a right handed hitter to pull the ball with any authority, instead of putting 3 infielders left of second base and in left center field, how about just making a good pitch?

With the exception of a very few hitters, like Williams, that seemed to be the best way to get hitters out.

Another rule change, one that was already tested in the Atlantic League in 2019 has to do with pick off attempts. It will require pitchers to “disengage the rubber prior to throwing to any base, with the penalty of a balk in the event the pitcher fails to comply.”

That’s a pretty drastic change in my opinion, one that I do not think will be embraced very well by pitchers. The reason for the rule is the 2019 laboratory test showed that there was an increase to both stolen base attempts and stolen bases.

Sounds like the league is looking to really shake up the game to promote more offense. However, I think the lab results will come back pretty definitively: It is overkill. Removing the shift will infuse all the offense needed.

I have always admired how the stolen base kings of the world, players like Rickey Henderson, Vince Coleman, Lou Brock and Tim Raines worked their craft by studying the pitchers motion to try to precisely time the delivery. I also admired the pick off specialists of the league like Andy Pettitte, and the game of cat and mouse they would play with the runner.

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Photo by Keivom/News

Andy’s impressive tactic of raising his right knee up in the delivery and then throwing to first base is now in jeopardy.

Part of the finer points of the game that are overlooked and might possibly be eliminated and made extinct by Dr. Manfred and his Bunsen burner.

Dr Manfred will also test a limit of two pickoff attempts per plate appearance in all Low A level leagues.

On the third attempt, if the runner is not picked off, a balk is called and any runners on base are automatically awarded the next base.

I can only imagine how many stolen base records will be set at that level, when all you have to do is count to 2, then run.

Does that sound like a time saving initiative?

I suspect Abby Normal may have been involved in this one as well.

Not necessarily a rule change, more of an operational change to the game is robotic umpires.

This season at the Low-A Southeast level, R2 D2 will be making his professional debut. The system also known as “automated ball-strike system” (ABS) or simply “the robot umpire” will be activated.

This system has been tested in two of Manfred’s laboratories know as the Independent Atlantic League, and then at the Arizona Fall League. Its doctrine is described to “assist home plate umpires with calling balls and strikes”.

The system, known as the Hawk-Eye tracking system will be utilized to provide an audio signal to the home-plate umpire, who will then convey the ball or strike call.

Think Astro’s cheating, but used legally.

We all knew this was coming, I just wonder how taking the human element out of a game played by humans will work?

The objective, obviously, is upgraded accuracy and diminished controversy.

We will see very soon how it works out.

Delivery of pitches, inning breaks and pitching changes will now be timed at the Low A West level of the minor leagues.

Pace of play seems to be a major issue for some, and I do agree games are much longer now than they used to be, and need to be.

I have no problem with forcing the pitchers to pitch, shortening in between inning breaks, and even making the hitters stay in the batter’s box between pitches unless contact was made. But I do not like putting limits on pitching changes, as Dr Manfred has already imposed in MLB.

Requiring a pitcher to face a minimum of 3 batters is a rule that needs to go the way of New Coke, the four door mustang, and the 8 track tape.

As expected MLB and MLBPA are on different sides of this ideology.

The players association is strongly opposed to adding a clock to baseball.

MLB is using the 20 second pitch clock as a bargaining chip and has told the MLBPA that it will refrain from doing so until after the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires on December 1, 2021.

You may remember that in 2019, MLB tested the pitch clock in spring training games. If I recall correctly, it was enforced for about 2 weeks of exhibition games, then completely ignored.

A 20-second pitch clock has been in place at the Double-A and Triple-A levels since 2015. However, while the clock was effective in its first year of application, (reducing game times by 12 minutes from the previous year), game times have increased since. Players got wise and found loop holes such as restarting the clock by stepping off the rubber.

The current rule will be a more hardline. It will be a 15-second pitch clock. There will be one clock in the outfield and two behind home plate, between the dugouts.

MLB’s version of the 24 second shot clock.

I have no problem with it, as long as they actually enforce it. But all that is needed is to enforce rule 6.02(a-d) that essentially keeps the batters in the box in between pitches, unless contact (fair or foul) was made, and other reasonable exceptions.

It’s already on the books, why not just enforce it?

Consider this, the night Ron Guidry stuck out 18 California Angels in a 9 inning 4-0 victory, the game lasted 2:07.

No shot clock. No 3 batter minimum. No gimmicks. Get the ball, throw the ball. Get in the box, stay in the box.

It’s really not that complicated.

Just like any other laboratory experiment, the results must be isolated from outside factors and influences. MLB has scattered the changes throughout the various levels and leagues. By doing so, the effects of each rule can be accurately measured and assessed independently.

It’s unambiguously clear what the overall end game is: More on field action, more scoring, less down time in a more time friendly manner.

Who can argue with that? But in this case, do the means justify the ends? Especially when the solutions already exist.

MLB also announced that they will continue its partnership with the Independent Atlantic League, which means the Atlantic League is securely embedded as MLB’s primary Laboratory.

One of his other experiments was in 2019 when Dr. Manfred tried to get the Atlantic League to move the mound back 2 ½ feet. The move was postponed and never implemented.

It is unknown at this point whether that move will return in 2021, but it was one that left some pitchers indicating they would leave the league if it was implemented.

Can’t say I blame them. As a pitcher, you spend your entire life throwing from 60 feet six inches, and all of a sudden they move it back? That would be like raising the basket 1 foot in the NBA.

All of this, in additional to MLB rules such as a runner on second base to start an extra inning and 7 inning double headers!

As Igor once stated “Wait Master, it might be dangerous. . . you go, first.”

I still have to wonder, did Manfred ever play this game, and does he even like it?


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