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.