Major League Baseball often uses the minor leagues as a testing ground for potential rule changes, and a fairly significant one will be given a trial run in 2021.
In a statement released by the league on Thursday, MLB detailed multiple rule changes that will be tested at various levels of the minors in 2021. Most significant among them is a rule requiring teams to have at least four players on the infield at all times, with both feet completely on the infield dirt. The rule will initially be used at the Double-A level.
A variety of experimental playing rules, which have been approved by the Competition Committee and the Playing Rules Committee, will be tested at various levels of the Minor Leagues during the upcoming 2021 season. pic.twitter.com/1aQMbgWHqp
— MLB Communications (@MLB_PR) March 11, 2021
Notably, MLB explicitly leaves the door open to possibly forcing teams to have two players on each side of second base, essentially banning defensive shifts. As it stands, the current rule would fundamentally alter overshifted infields against left-handed hitters, preventing teams from positioning a second baseman on the outfield grass as is typically employed.
Any proposal significantly altering defensive shifts would be hugely controversial. As teams have become increasingly savvy, shifts have been heavily deployed and have played a role in depressing batting averages for some players. The belief is that limiting shifts would lead to an increase in batting average and thus more offense. Critics would simply wonder why hitters prone to hitting directly into a shift can’t just adapt their approach.
Possible limitations on shifts have been discussed for years, and there have been times that it looked more likely than not. If the league is pleased with the results in Double-A, don’t be surprised to see something similar adopted at the MLB level within a few years.