Experimental rules to be tested during 2022 Minor League season

March 14th, 2022

Further increasing pace of play and improving player safety are at the heart of several rule changes coming in 2022 to Minor League Baseball, which will continue to provide a testing ground for a variety of on-field experiments aimed at achieving those goals. Limits on defensive shifts and the use of both “robot umps” and pitch clocks are among the initiatives being expanded this season, Major League Baseball announced Monday, after limited trials produced encouraging results over the past few years.

“Given the positive results of recent years, we are continuing to prioritize the kinds of experimental rules that many baseball fans routinely discuss and want to learn more about,” said Michael Hill, MLB’s senior vice president for on-field operations. “The testing throughout the Minors will provide us with more valuable feedback and data that can be taken into consideration.”

Here is a rundown of the changes, and the leagues they will apply to, in 2022:

1. Expanded pitch clock (all full-season leagues)
2. Larger bases (all full-season leagues)
3. Defensive position requirement (Double-A and both Class A levels)
4. Expanded automatic ball-strike system with challenge (Triple-A and Low-A Southeast)

2022: All full-season leagues
Previously: Low-A West

Pitch clocks have been in effect in the Minors in various forms since 2015, but now they will become ubiquitous. Batters will be required to be ready and pitchers will be required to deliver within 14 seconds at all full-season levels, with additional time allotted (19 seconds at Triple-A, 18 seconds at all other levels) for pitches with runners on base. At all levels, the hitter must be in the batter’s box and attentive to the pitcher with nine seconds left on the timer.

Additionally, pitchers will be limited to two pickoff attempts or step-offs per plate appearance; any more will effectively function as a balk, resulting in automatic baserunner advancement.

The pickoff rules were auditioned in all Low-A West divisions in 2021, while Low-A West and the Arizona Fall League operated with a 15-second clock (17 seconds with runners on), with the batter required to be ready by the eight-second mark. Those leagues saw a reduction in average game time of more than 20 minutes as a result, per MLB.

“Many people in our game are just like our fans in that they want to see more athleticism and action,” MLB senior vice president for on-field operations Raúl Ibañez said. “This next round of experiments will aim to emphasize the tremendous physical talent of our players and create an environment that lends itself to an accelerated pace of play.”

2022: All full-season levels
Previously: Triple-A, Arizona Fall League

In 2021, the size of first, second and third base was increased from 15 to 18 inches at Triple-A and in the Arizona Fall League, resulting in “a decrease in the severity of base-related injuries,” MLB said. All full-season levels will play with 18-inch bases this season (home plate, again, will remain the same size).

The subtle increase should provide more room for players to operate around the bases, while modestly shrinking the distance between bases themselves, increasing the rate of stolen base attempts. Rate of action could also be affected positively by an increase in bunt attempts. Additionally, the larger bases will be composed of material that is expected to perform better in wet conditions, providing runners with a easier-to-grip surface, which should increase player safety.

2022: Double-A, High-A and Low-A
Previously: Double-A (limited)

In much of the Minors, hitters will no longer need to fear the shift.

The 2021 rule requiring Double-A infielders to set up within the infield limits is being expanded to include two more levels and factor in lateral positioning in ’22. This year, teams in Double-A and both Class A levels must have a minimum of four defensive players on the infield when their pitcher delivers, with at least two infielders on either side of second base. The penalty for violation is an automatic ball, but if the hitter swings and gets a better outcome, the offensive team can take that.

The goal here is to increase batting average on balls in play, and to restore more traditional aesthetics and outcomes on batted balls. It is a regulation MLB experimented with in the independent Atlantic League in 2019 but had not fully implemented in the Minors until now. Note there will be no defensive restrictions at Triple-A or in the Majors this season.

2022: Triple-A, Low-A Southeast
Previously: Low-A Southeast (different form)

MLB’s experiment with an automated balls-and-strikes system at Low-A Southeast will continue in 2022 with a new wrinkle, with the system also expanding to Triple-A. The goal is to use technology to improve accuracy and reduce controversy, while coming at those issues in two distinct ways.

By and large, the ABS system will operate at Triple-A in ’22 much like it did at Low-A in ’21, with a home-plate umpire relaying ball or strike calls generated by Hawk-Eye tracking technology, which recalibrates the top and bottom of the strike zone based on each hitter’s height. Automated calling begins May 17 in the Triple-A West division; it will be used throughout the season in all Triple-A East games played in Charlotte.

At Low-A Southeast, MLB is exploring an alternative application of ABS technology.

There, a “Challenge” system will be in effect in select games, in which umpires call balls and strikes and the pitcher, catcher and batter have the ability to appeal the umpire’s call to the ABS system. Each team will receive three appeals in Challenge Games, with successful appeals retained for future use.

This constitutes a novel approach to automated call technology, which had been tested previously in the Atlantic League and the Arizona Fall League. Under the challenge format, home-plate umpires still call balls and strikes and get to manage the game the way an automated system cannot. This could alleviate potential concerns about over-automation and mitigate the potential negative consequences of the inelasticity of a full-time ABS strike zone in certain game situations, such as blowouts.

“This year’s set of experimental rules was informed -- and we believe improved -- by the feedback of players, staff, umpires and fans, as well as by analysis of the impacts of last year’s tests,” said Theo Epstein, MLB consultant and former Red Sox and Cubs executive. “We are excited to roll out the improved rule experiments to a bigger population of Minor League players in an effort to ensure that any potential new regulations fulfill their objectives of creating more action, athleticism and a better style of play.”