I’m bored because nothing major is really happening in terms of baseball transactions, Cubs or otherwise, and spring training is still a few weeks away, so I thought I’d explore the coming rules changes again.
Last time, we discussed mostly the pitch clock and how either side could try to game the system to gain whatever advantages they can within the 20 or so seconds they have to play with. The pitch clock, along with the larger bases, should make it easier to swipe a bag, and with the Cubs being among the leaders in stolen base attempts and TOOTBLANs last season, at least reducing the TOOTBLAN rate could be a win, along with acquiring a few folks who have better than average speed on the basepaths. This would include Nico Hoerner and new additions Cody Bellinger and Dansby Swanson, but probably not Trey Mancini, who apparently almost never tries to steal because he’s a good boy or something. We covered that part pretty thoroughly, so this one will mostly be about the defensive shift restrictions. Here’s what the MLB.com release says:
DEFENSIVE SHIFT LIMITS
The defensive team must have a minimum of four players on the infield, with at least two infielders completely on either side of second base.From MLB.com
- The four infielders must be within the outer boundary of the infield when the pitcher is on the rubber.
- Infielders may not switch sides. In other words, a team cannot reposition its best defender on the side of the infield the batter is more likely to hit the ball.
- If the infielders are not aligned properly at the time of the pitch, the offense can choose an automatic ball or the result of the play.
- This rule does not preclude a team from positioning an outfielder in the infield or in the shallow outfield grass in certain situations. But it does prohibit four-outfielder alignments.
In addition, here is a clarification on the “not switch sides” part:
- Lateral Positioning: Two infielders must be positioned on each side of second base when the pitch is released.
- Depth: All four infielders must have both feet within the outer boundary of the infield when the pitcher is on the rubber.
- No Switching Sides: Infielders may not switch sides unless there is a substitution.
So obviously that means Dansby Swanson and Nico Hoerner cannot be on the same side of second base, and also that Dansby can’t switch spots with Nico unless they sub out one of them and the other switches from 2B to SS or vice versa. This prevents the thing that Lou Piniella once did where Alfonso Soriano and Jeff Baker ran back and forth across the diamond to finish out a game. As you can see, there is no restriction on five-man infields, but you can no longer have a four-man outfield, and certainly not a Nico Hoerner planted in the outfield grass on the right side.
Let’s take a look at the diamond with this new imaginary line (or maybe they just paint it in so the umpires remember they’re supposed to call it):
And here’s the straight-up defensive alignment:
The pitcher and catcher, by rule, stay where they’re at in the picture before the delivery of the pitch. The catcher is the only defensive player allowed to be stationed outside of fair territory, also by rule (it’s 4.03 if you wanna read it, oh wait here’s the 2021 rules, updates in the comments), and it doesn’t really make sense to have any of your fielders already in foul territory anyway, although it does prevent the type of situation where you have a player back up the catcher because the pitcher is nasty and keeps spiking pitches into the dirt, as a team in the KBO once tried to do. I mention that not because it’s super relevant, but because I thought it was hilarious at the time and I’d like to share it. Per the picture above, the outfielders can be anywhere in fair territory, even serving as an additional infielder, but the four standard infielders are now locked into the infield and we’ll start by showing this:
Subsequently, I won’t show the outfielders or the battery because the battery again is stuck where they are by rule, and the outfielders can be anywhere they want and there are probably myriad alignments that could be done with the extra infielder. For my convenience because Paint is annoying and I didn’t feel like busting out Photoshop, here are the color codes (which you probably could have guessed):
- Red = third baseman
- Blue = shortstop
- Green = second baseman
- Yellow = first baseman
The rule also brings to mind the situation that Joe Maddon and the Cubs used to set up with Anthony Rizzo switching to a second baseman’s glove so the actual second baseman can now be at first base, but note that the shift rules don’t care about this so long as the first baseman and the second baseman are on that side of second base, and again I only share because this was weird and also Clint Hurdle sucks. This theoretically shouldn’t prevent the defense from having the second baseman do the Rizzo-crash on a bunt while the first baseman remains at his normal position. Anyway, with two on each side of the bag, here’s what the new limit on an overshift looks like against a right handed batter:
And then here’s the extreme shift against a left-handed batter:
The line demarcating second base is probably not completely straight and aligned up the middle but it serves as a reference, and I guess if you had a guy who always shoots one right up the middle, you can always have the SS and 2B standing next to each other. The rule doesn’t say the infielders can’t just stand right next to the pitcher (on their side of the black line), or they can even stand 10 feet in front of the plate and risk getting their face broken by a line drive. But I’m racking my brain and can’t see a situation where, absent a speedy Gold Glove second baseman (oh right, hi Nico Hoerner, even though you didn’t win), a lot more of those hard hits by lefties will get through now, especially since that defender can no longer stand in the grass and get extra time to field the ball cleanly or even get to it. I imagine it’ll be the same for right-handed batters firing through the left side though possibly to a lesser extent. The limit at the infield/outfield dirt line might be an opportunity for some home field shenanigans by a resourceful groundskeeper, but even that has its limits:
So here is how MLB is about to start dealing with that dirty little secret:
• Let’s start with the rule itself. It says the outer edge of the infield dirt is supposed to extend no more than 95 feet from the center of the pitcher’s mound. OK, good to know.
• So MLB now does plan to enforce that rule, beginning next season. That makes sense.
• But it does not plan to enforce the rule literally, according to sources. It will allow up to a foot of leeway in either direction, to account for what one source described as groundskeeping “error.” So it’s still possible the back edge of the dirt in various parks could extend anywhere from 94 to 96 feet from the center of the mound.From The Athletic
The rule only says that these are the legal “start” positions for the fielders, but it doesn’t prevent them from running like hell to their spot in short right field once the pitch is released, and as Stark and his sources say, there’s no reason why the groundskeeper won’t choose to go 96 feet with the dirt boundary to give the fielders extra space to work with, legally of course. I do wonder if we will see anything quite like that, and how often a team with a corner outfielder with a strong arm will try to “cheat” and crash in to get a rare 9-3 (or even a 7-3 or 8-3, ha) putout if the runner is slow or just assumes it’s a hit. However, with the anticipated increase in stolen base attempts, that may force the infielders to stay closer to their assigned base, which could open up opportunities for batted balls to sneak through as well. So it will be intriguing to see how the game of baseball rebalances itself as each side adjusts to the new rules.
I am hopeful that we will see some video clips in Cactus League play that show some “adjusted shifts” in action. I imagine there will be plenty of grousing at umpires regarding interpretations of whether a fielder was positioned legally, and league mandates every week or so to redefine the umpires’ enforcement of the rules, or even additional clarifications. For now, we can continue to ponder how front offices and field managers conspire to take advantage of any edge they can even if it seems they have been greatly restricted here.