TEMPE, Ariz. — Johnny Cueto’s eyeballs were safely in their sockets, so their jumping out was only metaphorical.
He looked stunned as he was informed about the experimental rule changes that are turning the minor leagues into a laboratory. In efforts to put more action onto baseball fields, Triple-A bases will increased from 15 inches square to 18 inches square. No longer will there be exactly 90 feet between bases, which could lead to more steals.
In Double-A, defensive teams must have a minimum of four players on the infield dirt, which eliminates aggressive shifts. Depending on the preliminary results of this shift of the shift, there may be requirements of having two infielders positioned on each side of second base.
In High-A, a pitcher will have to step off the rubber before throwing to any base, another move to increase the temptation for players to steal.
There will be more experimenting in Low-A, including a robo-ump in the Southeast league. In all Low-A leagues, pitchers will be limited to two pickoff attempts per plate appearance; a third would result in a balk, which is when Cueto needed to put his eyes back.
Fortunately, he won’t have to worry about that rule.
“What I’m most interested in is the fans getting a very exciting brand of baseball,” Gabe Kapler said after the Giants’ 5-4, seven-inning loss to the Angels at Tempe Diablo Stadium on Thursday, when the rule experiments were announced.
MLB has done plenty of experimenting in the past, and in 2019 the league had a partnership with the independent Atlantic League to test innovations, including the bigger bags and an electronic balls and strikes system, in which the computer told the home-plate ump what to call.
Advancements have been made and now will be tested in higher-up development; it would be easier for Steven Duggar to steal a base at Triple-A Sacramento than with the Giants.
Kapler applauded the “trial and error concept” that is guiding the rule changes. Experiments like the ghost-runner on second in extra innings — which purists tend to hate, but which the league has adopted — originated in minor league ball.
The league wants more action, more balls in play, more steals, more athleticism, and less strikeouts and waiting for the long balls.
“What we learned last year at the major league level is when we try new things, we find that some of them are quite palatable,” Kapler said over Zoom. “I’m in favor of experimenting with ways to make the game more exciting for fans and just a better all-around product.”