Pitchers, catchers and batters will be able to appeal calls from human umpires to “robo umps” in the Low-A Southeast League this season, while pitch clocks, anti-shift rules and larger bases will be tried in the minors ahead of possible big league use in 2023.
MLB announced a slate of rules trials Monday, including updates to the Automated Ball-Strike System (ABS) and a ban on infield shifts, that will expand on several experiments from 2021. Some could be introduced to the majors as soon as 2023. The changes were first reported by Yahoo! Sports.
ABS will be used at Triple-A for the first time, as well as in Low-A Southeast for the second straight year. ABS will call balls and strikes in Triple-A West after May 17 and at Triple-A East games played in Charlotte throughout the season, with an aim to “approximate the strike zone called by high-level umpires.”
The Low-A Southeast challenge rule is new. In select games, human umpires will call balls and strikes, and each team will have three appeals that must be made by the pitcher, catcher or batter. Successful challenges will be retained by the team.
The pitch clock is being expanded to all levels after a trial in Low-A West and the Arizona Fall League. Pitchers will have 14 seconds with the bases empty and 19 with runners on at Triple-A, the same timing MLB negotiators mentioned to the players’ association. At lower levels, pitchers will get 18 second with men aboard.
Additionally, pitchers will only be allowed two pickoff throws or step-offs per plate appearance. A third pickoff attempt that does not lead to an out will result in automatic advancement for the runners. MLB claims the tandem use of the pitch clock and the pickoff rule shortened games by more than 20 minutes on average last season.
Larger bases are also being adopted at all levels from 15 inches square to 18, which MLB hopes will limit injuries and encourage more action on the basepaths.
The infield shift will be banned at Double-A, High-A and Low-A. Teams will be mandated to have four players on the infield, two on each side of second base.
As part of the sport’s labor contract agreed to by owners and players last week, the sides agreed to the creation of a competition committee that will consider the pitch clock, defensive positioning limits and larger bases for use as soon as 2023. The committee includes six management officials, four union representatives and one umpire, and it can with 45 days notice adopt rules changes. Previously, management was allowed to change rules with union consent or unilaterally with one year notice.