Major League Baseball’s takeover of the minor leagues has paved the way for the 2021 season to be one of experimentation on the farm, with different rules being tested at different levels in the developmental circuits.
Triple-A will have larger bases in an effort to increase player safety and maybe make stolen bases a little more enticing by giving runners extra inches. Double-A will require infielders to stay in the infield, the first step toward banning shifts. A-ball will include pitch clocks, restrictions on pickoff moves, and robot umpires for balls and strikes.
Most of this is in the name of enhancing the pace of play and adding action to the game. Fair enough. Some of it will work. Some of it won’t. They’re trying, and while we might not like some of it, none of it falls under the heading of stuff that you wouldn’t be able to get used to eventually. Nobody’s going to die on the hill of infield shifts: they’re overrated as an issue, but zero people in history have gone to the ballpark saying, “I really can’t wait to see Francisco Lindor line up on the right side of second base when Bryce Harper is batting!”
Still, MLB doesn’t have to introduce new rules to make a better game. There already is space in the existing rules of the game to make baseball better. Here’s how.
Rule 2.01: The grass lines and dimensions shown on the diagrams are those used in many fields, but they are not mandatory and each Club shall determine the size and shape of the grassed and bare areas of its playing field.
Center field is mandated to be a minimum of 400 feet from home plate. Let’s not only go back to some Polo Grounds-style dimensions, where center field is truly gigantic, but get creative with the “grassed and bare areas.” At 400 feet, the grass ends, and the concrete begins.
You think long home runs to dead center field are cool? Wait until you see someone hit a ball 410 feet, and then the ball hits the concrete, and just starts zooming toward that 500-foot center field wall. Also, it’s unclear if the “bare areas” have to be ground. Could we have an outfield moat? Quicksand pits? An unclear rule is a rule that can be exploited, and that’s our lodestar.
Rule 2.03: First, second and third bases shall be marked by white canvas or rubber-covered bags, securely attached to the ground. … The bags shall be 15 inches square, not less than three nor more than five inches thick, and filled with soft material.
Rubber is the material of choice these days for base coverings, because cleats don’t rupture it. But why not go back to canvas and play its ability to be cut to an advantage? Imagine Mike Trout sliding into third base with a triple, and he pops the bag, revealing the soft material to be Nickelodeon slime? That’s a soft material. So are McRib sandwiches. Think of how amazing it would be if Fernando Tatis Jr. popped a base, a dozen McRibs came flying out, and everyone in America won a McRib the following day.
Rule 3.04: The space between the thumb section and finger section of the [catcher’s] mitt shall not exceed six inches at the top of the mitt and four inches at the base of the thumb crotch. The web shall measure not more than seven inches across the top or more than six inches from its top to the base of the thumb crotch.
No suggestion here. Just important to note that there is no other context in the course of human life that you’ll ever read the term “thumb crotch.”
Rule 4.05: The manager of the home team shall present to the umpire-in-chief and the opposing manager any ground rules he thinks necessary covering the overflow of spectators upon the playing field, batted or thrown balls into such overflow, or any other contingencies.
This is a relic of the early days of baseball, when fans at places like Huntington Avenue Grounds in Boston were just allowed to line the deep outfield. There are lots of possibilities here, including a Grand Canyon-like glass bridge over the outfield. Baseball already has the catwalks at Tropicana Field. Get creative and put some fans on those things. Safely, of course. Add a row of seats in the middle of the Green Monster where if the ball lands, it’s an automatic double. Introduce the “Ivy Experience” at Wrigley, where fans can be lashed to the plants for a full game and see baseball as it was meant to be seen — as a vine that slowly eats away at bricks.
Rule 5.06(b)(4)(C): Each runner including the batter-runner may, without liability to be put out advance … Three bases, if a fielder deliberately throws his glove at and touches a fair ball. The ball is in play and the batter may advance to home base at his peril.
It’s Game 7 of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium. The A’s have a 2-1 lead in the ninth inning when Giancarlo Stanton comes to the plate and absolutely smokes a ball to left field. It’s going to tie the game, for sure. But as Stanton hits the ball, Matt Chapman hurls his glove into the air, and manages to knock the ball down. It’s chaos in the Bronx, and Stanton, believing he has hit a home run, starts trotting around the bases. Only, Elvis Andrus catches the deflected ball, and plays it cool. As Stanton is between third and home, Andrus applies the tag, Stanton is out, and the A’s go to the World Series for the first time since 1990. The replay review takes forever to sort out, of course, but this is a totally legal play.
Rule 5.06(c)(7) Comment: If a third strike (not a foul tip) passes the catcher and hits an umpire, the ball is in play. If such a ball rebounds and is caught by a fielder before it touches the ground, the batsman is not out on such a catch, but the ball remains in play and the batsman may be retired at first base, or touched with the ball for the out.
Could a catcher step out of the way of a third strike, let Angel Hernandez get pegged in the nuts with a 98 mph fastball, and still get an out? Yes, a catcher could.
And that’s why we can’t have robot umpires just yet.