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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Test rules to speed up play counter others to that lead to more action

Phillies starting pitcher Aaron Nola delivers against the

Phillies starting pitcher Aaron Nola delivers against the Mets during the first inning of an MLB game at Citi Field on Sept. 6, 2020. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

TAMPA, Fla.

On Wednesday, I watched Phillies starter Aaron Nola, one of baseball’s best at what he does, repeatedly grab the return toss from the catcher, take off his glove, walk to the back of the mound and rub the baseball with both hands.

Not a brand-new ball put in play. The same one Nola had just thrown.

This happened often enough that I made a mental note of it and the time it took — longer than you might think.

A few hours later, Major League Baseball sent out an email announcing a number of experimental rule changes that will be incorporated into the minors for the upcoming season, including larger bases, anti-shift measures, limits on a pitcher’s ability to keep runners in check and an automated strike zone.

Some are designed to promote more game-related action. Others are expected to speed things up, much like the recently introduced three-hitter limit for pitchers that became law at this time last year.

But let’s not overthink this. Going back to Nola for a second, a big part of the problem here is simply the time between pitches, or a ball put in play. And the solution to this shouldn’t be complicated.

Just like the NBA and NFL, which added shot/play clocks to squeeze more entertainment value from the sport, MLB merely has to push the same accelerated behavior in two areas: the mound and the batter’s box.

Keep the pitcher throwing pitches, as rapidly as possible. And keep the hitter in the box. Watch old video of pitcher Pedro Martinez. Watch current video of Yankees slugger Aaron Judge. It can be done successfully.

MLB has only dabbled in these particular realms because of pushback from the players. They want to do their jobs at their own pace, just as they always have. But targeting the mound and batter’s box has to be preferable to increasing the size of the bases (hence trimming the sacred 90 feet between them) and handcuffing a pitcher’s ability to defend against stolen bases.

The plan for Triple-A is to make the bases bigger, from the current 15 inches to 18, and MLB said in Wednesday’s release that in addition to addressing safety concerns, the competition committee "also expects the shorter distances between bases created by increased size to have a modest impact on the success rate of stolen base attempts and the frequency with which a batter-runner reaches base on ground balls and bunt attempts."

I’m not a hardcore traditionalist, but that line bothers me. Haven’t we always considered those 90 feet an uncannily perfect distance that’s withstood the test of time? Three inches might as well be a mile in the difference between out and safe.

"The game’s been played with 90-foot bases forever, so I don’t think they need to change that," the Yankees’ Luke Voit said. "I mean, it’s stupid, honestly."

Yankees manager Aaron Boone was a little more diplomatic than his first baseman, but he expressed a similar sentiment when asked about the slate of rule changes. The minor leagues have served as a laboratory for tinkering with the sport, so the fact that these rules are getting a test drive this year suggests they’re on the horizon for the majors as commissioner Rob Manfred seeks to make the game more entertaining, more marketable or whatever sells best in the 21st century.

"I always say careful with that," Boone said. "We’re kind of chasing that utopia of what we think is our idea of a great thing."

The anti-shift lab will be set up in Double-A, where MLB has mandated 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." Additionally, MLB might take it a step further, depending on the preliminary results of this experiment, by requiring two infielders to be positioned on each side of second base for the second half of the season.

The rationale is obvious, as MLB summarizes the change as "intended to increase the batting average on balls in play." That has nothing to do with quickening the pace. You would think just the opposite. More hits, less frequent outs, longer games.

One vocal proponent of such a move has been Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor, who never has been a fan of the shift anyway. He believes the game needs its players to showcase their athletic ability rather than just standing still and having balls drilled right at them. That’s a tough sell to the analytics-driven front offices, however, which spend millions in tech and manpower to build a better defensive mousetrap.

"I’m kind of torn on it," Yankees righthander Jameson Taillon said. "Because I think if you shift really well, and you’re better than the rest of the league at it, you should get the benefit of that. At the same time, as a fan of baseball and fan of the game, the more action we can get is probably the better for the people that are watching it at home."

Then there are lefthanded sluggers such as the Yankees’ Jay Bruce who would have voted to ban the shift a decade ago based on the hits robbed by an infielder standing in shallow right.

"The commissioner seems to have talked tirelessly about making the game more fun and creating more action," Bruce said. "And I feel like balls hit 105 miles an hour that are caught by the second baseman playing 270 feet away takes some excitement away from the game. I’ve dealt with it for a long time and I believe it’s part of the game right now. But if they do end up deciding to adopt that, I definitely would be someone that would benefit from it."

The timetable is uncertain. But with the CBA expiring in December, the game is ripe for revolution on many different fronts. Hopefully baseball as we know it doesn’t get blown up in the process.

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