Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

Experimental Rule change Reaction


TAMPA, FL – APRIL 4: Pitcher Andy Pettitte #46 of the New York Yankees attempts a pickoff against the New York Mets in a spring training game April 4, 2012 at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida. Pettitte last pitched in 2010. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

I’m a bit late to the game on this: Luke Erickson already posted his 2 cents on this at Nationals Prospects.

MLB has taken advantage of the fact that they now rule the Minor Leagues like a Lannister and will be implementing several rule changes this season. Jayson Stark had an interesting reaction here at the Athletic, and perhaps the simplest list of the rule changes by league is at (as always; they cut right to the chase).

So, what do I think? Well before reading further I guarantee one of my “takes” isn’t going to match yours for one or more of these proposed rule changes. Baseball fan opinions all exist on a sliding scale, where one extreme is the Pure Traditionalists (who are still pissed that the league went to divisional play in 1969, to say nothing of the Wild Card, 5-man rotations, the introduction of WAR, or anything we’re about to talk about), while on the other side are the Ultra-Modern Baseball fans, who embrace and seek out analytical advantages and are always looking for disruptive ways to improve the game. You can be on the “traditionalist side” of neutral and be ok with Wild Cards, but be against the DH in the NL, and you’ll still be called an idiot by your grandpa. So, take the below with a grain of salt if you’re on the conservative side.

Here’s the new rule changes, by league, being implemented in the Minors:

AAA will Increase the Size of the Bases.

I can’t see why anyone would argue with this; we’re all used to seeing the “side base” in amateur leagues created specifically to avoid collissions and broken ankles from clumsy base runners. They claim that a 3″ square increase will somehow lead to noticeable stolen base increases … but somehow I doubt that. As we already know, stolen bases are out of favor with analytical types because simple Run-Expectancy analysis shows that the break even point for SB success rate is somewhere in the 75% range, and only elite runners can break that rate. Ricky Henderson‘s career SB success rate was 80%, to give you an idea of how hard it is to keep your rate above 75%. My Verdict: go for it.

AA will Set Limits on Shifts

The initial rule will state that all four defined infielders must have their feet on the dirt. They can still shift, and put the 3rd baseman on the other side of 2nd … but he has to be in the defined “infield.” If this doesn’t have an impact, they also opened up the possibility of even more radical shift-banning, basically legislating that two infielders must be on either side of 2B, which basically would eliminate the shifting overloading we’ve been seeing.

In the past I have defended the shift, noting that it generally gets out hard-headed lefty pull hitters who refuse to adjust and take advantage of a wide open left side of the field by simply going the other way or bunting (as Robinson Cano did quite ably in this video)… listen to the announcers in this video; they basically say “its about time! How many years have we watched this with the shift…”). EXACTLY.


I’m starting to come back around a bit. Why? Because offense is so down. Anyone who has played slow-pitch softball knows how much offensive oppression a 4th outfielder strategically deployed can do to even a skilled hitter. I think i’m now ok with some slight modifications to the shift rule, and the initial rule is a great start. you want to play 3 infielders on the right side against a Ted Williams-like pull hitter? That’s fine; but they’ve all gotta be on the dirt and you can’t stick the 3B in short RF. My Verdict: go for it.

High-A will see the Step Off rule implemented for pitchers. Simply put, they have to disenage with the rubber to attempt a pick off. This rule was done in the Atlantic League in 2019 and apparently succeeded in its intent to increase the running game in the sport (it led to 70% more stolen base attempts).

I think I like this rule, but for a different reason…. no more will we see lefties basically balking and picking guys off first and not getting called on it. Over and Over we see illegal lefty moves to first (see Andy Pettitte’s entire career and this slo-mo video)and rarely do we see them getting called on it; it basically has eliminated the running game for lefties just under the threat of a fake move to first. One caveat; appaerntly the step-off-quick-snap-throw for lefties is also out … which I don’t get. Isn’t that a step-off? Maybe they put this part back, because otherwise lefties seem to have almost zero way to stop the running game. My Verdict: go for it.

Low-A will see, in addition to the step-off rule, the 2 Pickoff attempt rule. You can only attempt 3 pickoffs per plate appearance; if the 3rd attempt is unsuccessful, a balk is called and the runners advance. This is the most radical rule change for me, but I understand the reasoning. Go to any game and if a pitcher throws over more than a couple times the crowd boos and gets restless. It goes towards the general goal of speeding up the game, and goes towards eliminating a rather cynical method of suppressing the running game (that by tiring out the speedy potential base stealer by making him dive in over and over). I think i’ve talked myself into it. My Verdict: go for it.

Low-A West will Adopt on-field timers … which will just codify rules already in place, so My Verdict is just enforce the rules already.

Low-A South East will adopt Robot Umpires, technically known as the Automated Ball-Strike System or ABS, to standardize the strike zone. Yes. Finally. Basically the ABS system makes a call and the home plate umpire relays it, filling in if the machine breaks down.

The challenge with an automated strike zone is defining the zone. I think all baseball fans are really, really tired of seeing obvious balls called strikes and vice versa (see Hernandez, Angel), especially when the call seems to be punitive for some other action (see this call in the 2019 World Series when umpire Lance Barkesdale clearly “took away” a strike-three call). But, what we’ve learned from automated strike zones is that the rule-book defined zone makes for some really, really hard pitches to hit (98mph heater at your chest on the corner? yeah right). But, at some point I think it has to happen. My verdict; continue the experimenting.

Wow. So i’m in favor of all the rules. Hmm. I wonder what that makes me? Oh yeah; a baseball fan who’s tired of seeing 3.5 hr games of three true outcomes.

Written by Todd Boss

March 12th, 2021 at 10:31 am

9 Responses to 'Experimental Rule change Reaction'

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  1. All lefties except Jon Lester . . . except when Zim is running . . .


    12 Mar 21 at 10:50 am

  2. The only reason I don’t like legislating shifts is that it’s entirely too easy to game the system. Even the “4 guys on dirt” rule (which would require legislating the shape of the dirt) is easy enough to accomplish by shifting the outfielders around.

    If you want more balls in play, the best way to do it, by far, is to make homers harder to hit. Imagine moving the fences back 30 feet, and make them a little higher so more balls can bounce off of them. Doubles! Baserunners! 3 track stars in the OF to go get them! (those guys hit singles and steal because of their speed rather than sitting back and hitting the ball to Omaha!)

    K’s become more harmful because you’re not trading them for HRs, and while the value of a walk will still be there, a pitcher will be more inclined to throw strikes if he knows that a guy will have to hit it just right to hit it out. So you’ll get more balls in play, and you’ll get them earlier in counts. That means your starters will go deeper into games, a) keeping your best pitchers in the game and b) limiting the time wasted in a switch.

    Two other rule changes I’d like to see:
    1) Universal DH __but for one player only__. Presumably the starting pitcher, but it’s up to you. So that means that when Scherzer comes out, so does Schwarber. It would incentivize you to keep the starting pitcher in the game, it would equalize the rules, it would mean that outstanding hitters like David Ortiz would have to play defense because you need them in the game, but still encourage you to have a deep bench.

    2) We have plenty of specialized pitchers and they have plenty of time to get warm. 2 warmup pitches to get used to the mound when they come in during an inning, not 8.

    kevin r

    12 Mar 21 at 12:19 pm

  3. I don’t necessarily disagree with you kevin, but wonder if “moving walls back” is even feasible. Look at Nat’s park: to move the outfield walls back you’d lose seats all the way from left to left center, you’d have to redo the scoreboard, you’d have to move the bullpen back. Just a non-starter.

    You can make homers harder to hit by manipulating the ball probably more easier: humidors have proven quite effective.

    I like trading K’s for balls in play; that’s the goal. Less striekouts and more action.

    Universal DH/limiting warmpups: definitely, but not in scope here. There’s a whole other vast set of discussion items about “how to improve baseball” 🙂

    Todd Boss

    12 Mar 21 at 12:41 pm

  4. Believe it or not, I’m right there with you on all of these. Technology has changed the way the game is played, not always for the better. Shifting has gotten too radical, home plate umpiring has become too imprecise, and advanced analytics have killed the running game. These changes need to be fixed.

    I’m 100% for robo-umps, but I agree work must be done to define a fair and not unreasonable strikezone. The good news is robo-umps can be programmed to call any strikezone that can be objectively defined, so this is really a human limitation and not a technological impossibility. Just requires some trial-and-error. The low minors are a perfect place for that.


    12 Mar 21 at 1:21 pm

  5. Robo umps are at least a decade overdue. Yes, the technology should be better now to better allow for adjusting to individual strike zones. But figure those details out and by all means, please fast-track this one. This isn’t just about ball/strike calls; it’s about umpire attitudes that sometimes affect the whole game.

    I’m still trying to wrap my head around potential shift rules. How much legislating is too much, vs. just hoping the game will adapt? I don’t know. And which rule would work better — four on the dirt, or requiring two on each side of second base? In a lot of non-double-play situations, many second basemen already play on the grass standardly for a lot of hitters. Are we taking that option away, too, even in non-shift situations? Anyway, I agree that we’ve reached the point that it’s worthwhile to experiment with shift limits, but I’m not sure what the best answer is that doesn’t too inhibit the nature of the game.

    I’m actually intrigued by what Kevin is proposing with the DH, perhaps with a tweak or two. A big part of my lack of fondness for the DH is that there’s nothing in the AL that forces a shift in the batting order, the whole “no strategy” thing. Pro-DH folks say that it hurts the game to have pitchers batting. Fair enough, but relief pitchers almost never bat, so it’s almost exclusively starters batting that we’re discussing anyway. If you tie the DH to the starting pitcher, then you do sort of answer the biggest complaint on each side of the debate. (It would really mess with teams that use an “opener,” though.)

    I like the step-off rule for exactly why Todd says: the abuse that has been allowed by balking lefties, for decades. I’m less sure about the two-throw-over rule. I mean, that seems extreme. Yes, empty tosses to first slow the game. And really, the intent is much more to keep the runner close than it is a real hope to pick someone off. True pick-offs will be even harder if the step-off rule is implements.

    Would stolen bases go up if they institute these rules plus enlarge the bases? Hard to say. Part of the reason stolen bases are down are simply an analytics thing — with most runners, the damage of the potential out is greater than leaving the runner on first base.

    And if you’re really concerned about pace of play, stop reviews on stolen bases and the “neighborhood play” while turning two. I mean, it seems like every game the Nats have to endure an interminable review of whether Trea’s fingers lost contact with the bag for a millisecond. If he beat the throw, he’s safe. It’s been that way in baseball for 150 years. And if you let a team challenge such a picayune thing, then damn well don’t let them whine for any extra challenges.


    13 Mar 21 at 10:16 am

  6. The NFL reviews every scoring play and every close play in the last two minutes. For MLB, that would be every play at the plate, and every close play in the 8th and 9h innings, and extra innings. If you have a replay official assigned to each game, those things wouldn’t be too difficult. They could provide quick review confirmation before teams have even gone through the silly dance of calling the clubhouse. Beyond such things, allow only ONE challenge per team per game, no exceptions. If you used it in the second inning, don’t go begging for another one in the seventh.


    13 Mar 21 at 10:23 am

  7. KW — I agree with you on the issue with steals. One option would just be to have a “neighborhood” rule that applies to both fielders and baserunners for 2nd/3rd — if it’s within a few inches of the bag, it’s close enough.

    In general I am pro or meh on these rule changes. But I don’t like the rules on shifting (moving fielders around has ALWAYS been part of the game, shifts are just a more dramatic manifestation of that). And I hate hate hate the cap on the number of throws to first. It’s always been that way and I like the game how it is.


    13 Mar 21 at 12:17 pm

  8. First cuts, and it’s mostly the guys you’d expect: Joan Adon, Yasel Antuna, Bryan Bonnell, Tim Cate, Cade Cavalli, Jacob Condra-Bogan, Matt Cronin, Tyler Dyson, Tyler Eppler, Cole Henry, Gabe Klobosits, Jefry Rodríguez, Jackson Rutledge, Jackson Cluff, Drew Mendoza, Jake Noll, Cody Wilson, Israel Pineda, Jakson Reetz, Raudy Read.

    Noll is a little bit of a surprise, but he’d clearly fallen behind in the bench competition. I’m a little disappointed we presumably won’t see (much) more of Cronin and Klobosits, whom I think could help us this season, but they weren’t really candidates for the bullpen anyway. I am surprised Todd Peterson, Blake Swihart, and Carlos Tocci weren’t among the cuts, as they don’t seem to have much of a shot at making the team, but evidently the Nats still want to see more from them.

    None of the NRIs this year have really stood out at all — well, I suppose Swihart has, but mostly for the wrong reasons — which I think probably leaves the door wide open for Gerardo Parra if he can ramp up in time for Opening Day. Or the Nats might pull a Reed Johnson and try to snag someone off waivers or an opt-out late in camp. Or…forget it, I’m done even hoping we’re going to sign Jedd Gyorko or someone like that to a major league deal before Opening Day.


    14 Mar 21 at 5:31 pm

  9. Noll continues to be “1st player to get DFA’d when they need 40-man room.”

    New posted on prospects.

    Todd Boss

    15 Mar 21 at 10:24 am

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