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Minor League Baseball finally returns to ballparks across the country, with Tuesday marking the first games since 2019 after all of last season was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Opening Day will feature 55 contests across four levels, though not every team that took the field two years ago will be returning to the diamond in 2021.

Major League Baseball streamlined the minor leagues, contracting 40 teams in the process. All 30 MLB teams will now have four levels of affiliates: low-A, high-A, Double-A and Triple-A — plus a rookie level team housed at each spring training complex.

The post-pandemic restart will also look quite different on the field as baseball experiments with different rule changes at every level, as well as in the independent Atlantic League, as part of an ultimate goal of finding ways to improve the sport. Strikeouts are up, contact is down, games are longer than ever and MLB is aiming to do something about it.

Former Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox front-office exec Theo Epstein has been charged with overseeing the experiments for MLB. He will be analyzing the data and watching games closely.

“There’s a whole team at MLB that is thinking through how to collect the right kind of data, how to analyze the data and dissect it in ways that will allow us to understand the impacts of the rule changes,” Epstein said recently in a phone interview. “We also want to understand how they interrelate to one another and make sure we’re avoiding unintended consequences.”

So with that in mind, and with some help from Epstein, let’s examine the major rule changes you’ll be seeing as you attend and watch Minor League Baseball in 2021.

Triple-A: Larger bases

Bases will increase from 15 square inches to 18 square inches. That also means the distance between the bases will be shortened slightly. It’s a small change but the league thinks it could have an impact in various ways: reduced injuries, more baserunners on bunts and soft contact due to a shorter distance to the bag and even more players attempting to stretch singles into doubles. And of course more stolen base attempts. In other words, just more action.

“Just putting the ball in play will make you more likely to reach the base,” Epstein said. “Infields would have to play in. More balls would get through. The value of a single rises dramatically. The trip around the bases is easier. Now there’ll be a huge premium on just getting on base and athletes who can run.

“You’re not necessarily accomplishing all that by extending the base three inches but you are around the margins. You are nudging the game in a better direction.”

Double-A: Regulating the shift

To start the season, infielders will be required to have their feet on the dirt, though they can stand anywhere on the infield.

In the second half of the Double-A season, the rules will require two infielders to be positioned on either side of second base as well as have their cleats on the dirt as the pitch is thrown.

Baseball is still figuring this one out, hence breaking up the experiment to the first and second halves of the season.

“There are some issues to going to two on each side,” Epstein explained. “There’s enforcement and player safety. You might have fielders moving with the pitch or the swing. Umpires would have to be focused on the action. A little more work to do.”

Low-A Southeast: Automated balls and strikes (ABS)

Robot umpires will be experimented with for the first time in affiliated baseball. Previously, the Atlantic League and the Arizona Fall League used electronic signaling for balls and strikes, but now select low-A games will have the home plate umpire wearing an earpiece connected to TrackMan radar systems installed in the park. The software will say ball or strike to the umpire who announce it to the players and crowd.

Epstein stressed electronic calling of balls and strikes isn’t just about umpires getting the call right.

“You’re seeing the ABS being used in the low minors this year because with that comes the potential to change the strike zone to one that is optimal for contact,” Epstein said. “Different strike zones lead to different styles of play.”

Atlantic League: Moving pitching rubber back a foot

This change, debuting in the second half of the league’s season, could be the panacea baseball is looking for without changing the aesthetics of the game. Will anyone really notice the rubber is 61 feet, six inches from home plate instead of 60 feet, six inches? The last time baseball moved the rubber back — granted it was five feet and in 1893 — strikeouts declined and batting averages went up 35 points.

“The extra foot gives the hitter an extra 1/100th of a second of reaction time, which is the equivalent of a mile-and-a half of velocity,” Epstein said. “The presumption is that it will allow hitters to make more contact against premium velocity. That’s the theory.”

More new rules

  • At high-A, pitchers must disengage the rubber prior to throwing to any base or else a balk will be called. With this change, Left-handers will no longer be able to step towards first base with their foot on the rubber. The goal is an increase in stolen base attempts.

  • At all low-A levels, pitchers will be limited to a total of two “step offs” or “pickoffs” per plate appearance while there is at least one runner on base. A pitcher may attempt a third step off or pickoff in the same plate appearance, however, if the runner safely returns to the occupied base, the result is a balk.

  • At Low-A West, a 15-second pitch clock will be implemented with on-field timers expanded to one in the outfield and two behind home plate, between the dugouts.

  • The Atlantic League will experiment with the “double-hook” designated hitter rule. Once a team’s starting pitcher is removed from the game, so is their designated hitter. The goal is to incentivize starters to go along as well as create late game strategy.

Fan polls, hours of deliberations and analyzing data have landed baseball at this moment in time: experimenting with a game that’s well into its second century of existence. Change is inevitable. But of what kind and how much? The 2021 minor league season will help determine the future of the sport.

“We have to do it in a way that isn’t too far removed from the essence of baseball,” Epstein said. “No one is looking to reinvent the wheel here. This is the greatest game in the world and we want to reserve the essence of baseball. A lot of this is restoring the game to the way it’s historically been played.”

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Dusty Baker, Houston Astros bracing for harsh reception in return to Yankee Stadium

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The Houston Astros return to Yankee Stadium on Tuesday for the first time since Major League Baseball’s investigation of their sign-stealing scandal from the 2017 season, and manager Dusty Baker is not expecting a warm welcome.

“It is going to be wild,” Baker told USA Today Sports.

The Yankees and their fans have been among the Astros’ harshest critics since MLB announced that the organization used a center-field camera, video monitor and trash can to relay opposing teams’ pitches to Houston hitters during the 2017 season. The Astros defeated the Yankees in seven games in the 2017 ALCS before beating the Dodgers in the World Series.

Manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were suspended for the entire 2020 season — both were subsequently fired by the team — and the Astros were fined $5 million and lost two draft picks as part of MLB’s historic punishment of the franchise last year.

But MLB’s decision to grant immunity to Astros players as part of the investigation drew widespread outrage around the majors, specifically from the Yankees.

“I don’t think there’s any question about how fans are gonna react to them coming into the Stadium,” Yankees catcher Kyle Higashioka said Sunday, according to the New York Post. “Whether they deserve it, I think the fans will let them know.”

Baker, who was hired last year to replace Hinch, has long maintained that the players and coaches involved in the 2017 scandal have “paid” for their mistakes and has called out fans who continue to boo current Astros players.

“There’s only four or five guys here who were even there when the whole thing happened,” Baker told reporters Sunday, according to the Houston Chronicle. “So are people booing the person? Are they booing the uniform, or are they booing the organization?

“Most guys weren’t even here, including myself. What are you going to do? You can’t control what people do. You can only control what you do and how you feel.”

Baker added to USA Today Sports: “As far as I’m concerned, it should be over with.”

Tuesday’s game (7 p.m. ET, ESPN) will mark the first time the teams have squared off since the 2019 ALCS — Houston won in six games — and news of the sign-stealing scandal broke shortly after the Astros lost the World Series to the Nationals that year.

Yankee Stadium will be restricted to 20% maximum capacity because of COVID-19 regulations Tuesday. Yankees manager Aaron Boone told reporters he’s instructed his players to “not get caught up in all that stuff,” but fans in the Bronx will relish their first opportunity to boo the Astros.

Marc Chalpin, a fan who regularly sits among Yankee Stadium’s “Bleacher Creatures,” told the Post that he plans to attend games Tuesday and Wednesday to boo the Astros, saying “we want them to know they’re a bunch of cheats and their ring means nothing.”

“Like all Yankee fans, we’re angry,” Chalpin told the Post. “That 2017 team was special, and they could have gone even further in the playoffs. I don’t know if they would have won it all, but to find out they didn’t make it because the Astros cheated makes it even worse. … Not only did they cheat, they didn’t get punished for it. They faced no consequences.”

The Astros, however, have become accustomed to vitriol from opposing teams and fans. Fans in Anaheim tossed trash cans onto the field last month during a game between the Astros and Angels in one of the latest indications that anger over the 2017 scandal still lingers.

“We’re getting booed anywhere we’re at,” catcher Martin Maldonado told reporters Sunday. “We, as a team, love it. We enjoy it. I think it gets the best out of us. We go out there, and we feel like we’re playing playoff baseball every game. I don’t see anything different if we go out there and play our game.”

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New York Mets, struggling to score, fire hitting coaches

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The New York Mets have fired their hitting coach Chili Davis and assistant hitting coach Tom Slater, the team announced late Monday night.

Hugh Quattlebaum has been named the team’s new hitting coach, with Kevin Howard becoming the new assistant hitting coach.

The Mets (11-12) have struggled to hit early this season. They are dead last in MLB in runs and home runs and are 27th in slugging percentage.

Davis was in his third season as the Mets hitting coach while Slater was in his fourth season.

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Los Angeles Dodgers’ Dustin May to undergo Tommy John surgery

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Los Angeles Dodgers starter Dustin May, one of the game’s brightest young pitchers, will undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery to repair a damaged ulnar collateral ligament, the team announced on Monday.

The surgery is scheduled for Tuesday in L.A. and will be performed by Dr. Neal ElAttrache. The recovery timetable usually falls somewhere between 12 and 16 months, a prognosis that could have May back for the stretch run of the 2022 season. May, 23, isn’t scheduled to reach free agency until after the 2026 season.

“I feel for him, most important,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “For our ballclub, it’s a big blow. But we have a lot of talented players and we just have to find a way to fill that void.”

The Dodgers began the season with an abundance of high-caliber starting pitching but are currently down to four healthy starters — Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, Trevor Bauer and Julio Urias. David Price, who was operating out of a bullpen role, is nursing a hamstring injury that will keep him out four to six weeks. And Tony Gonsolin is still on the injured list, though he has begun the process of being built back up as a starting pitcher.

Gonsolin could return before the end of May, at which point he would essentially take May’s spot. Price is expected to return as a reliever. In the meantime, the Dodgers — forced into a split doubleheader on Tuesday after Monday’s game from Wrigley Field was postponed due to inclement weather — might utilize an assortment of relievers every time a fifth starter is needed.

Another option could be to start Bauer every four days, as opposed to the traditional five. Bauer has long welcomed the opportunity to operate under that schedule, stating that his body has proved capable of remaining at an optimum level with one fewer day off between starts.

“We’ve thought about it, yeah,” said Roberts, who has also previously dismissed the possibility of utilizing top prospect Josiah Gray as a spot starter. “There’s a scenario that it could happen. I think we do a good job of entertaining certain things, and certainly Trevor has talked about that.”

May has a 2.93 ERA with 111 strikeouts and 27 walks in 113 2/3 regular-season innings over the past three years, wowing fans and evaluators with his assortment of triple-digit sinkers and devastating cutters. May won the fifth spot of the Dodgers’ rotation coming out of spring training and appeared to reach yet another level in his development in 2021, with a 2.74 ERA through five starts.

He exited his Saturday start against the Milwaukee Brewers with pain in his right arm and underwent an MRI while the team was in Chicago on Monday morning, which revealed a UCL tear significant enough to necessitate surgery.

Roberts said there were no warning signs leading up to that injury. May’s pregame warm-ups went well, as did his between-starts work days earlier. Nine pitches before exiting, May threw a fastball 99.7 mph. But his last one came in at 94.3 mph, his slowest fastball all season. May noticeably winced and motioned to the dugout.

It’ll be a long time before he throws another pitch.

Roberts spoke to May earlier on Monday and said he was “emotionally obviously down.”

“When you hear kind of the ultimate decision, outcome, as far as having to have surgery, it’s obviously very disappointing. He’s handling it like a pro, wants to figure out what’s the next step after surgery, and kind of attack it that way. But, yeah, I think disappointed, certainly.”

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