Experimenting with the game. 67 comments

The Atlantic League is an independent baseball league that has become a test lab for Major League Baseball. When MLB has ideas for rule changes, they test them in the Atlantic League, in part because a lot of former major leaguers play in the league so the results are more true to the talent level they’d be implemented in, and in part because it’s a league that is far from the limelight so the experimenting isn’t generating a lot of public scrutiny.

While both MLB and the Atlantic League have an agreement to remain silent about the sorts of things they are testing, they can only keep them a secret for so long. Eventually they have to try them out, out in the open.

Three rules they are testing will have major implications.

One, the idea of revamping extra innings. In an effort to keep games from going too long, they are trying an idea used in softball—starting an inning with a runner in scoring position. If you have no outs and a runner at second, the chances of scoring go up exponentially. The thinking is, one team will score more than the other and put an end to these long, plodding, extra-inning games.

Another idea is the electronic umpire. Former major league player Eric Byrnes is leading the charge on the robo umpire idea. As he explained to Jason Shafer of Bleacher Report, “Baseball players used to leave their gloves on the field between innings. They used to take trains across the country instead of airplanes. They used to not have lights and not play night games. It’s a simple progression.”

It’s an idea that is coming. It might take a while to wrestle tradition to the ground but it when you have umpires who say they have their own strike zones, when you have umpires who won’t call a pitch a strike that totally missed where the catcher was set up even if it crossed the strike zone, when you have catchers framing pitches and pulling them into into the zone so they can be called strikes, when you have umpires basing calls on the tenure and stature of the batter, when you have Angel Hernandez allowed to umpire, it’s time. A strike is a strike, not an opinion. The entire game hinges on the count. The outcome of an at-bat is massively different at a 2-1 count than it is a 1-2 count. It’s time to let technology improve the game.

The home plate umpire won’t lose his job. He will still make all the other calls behind the plate.

Perhaps the most radical change they are testing is moving back the mound from its present and iconic distance of sixty-feet, six-inches. It’s all due to this gradual draining of offense. They are blaming that on the year by year increase in pitchers who are at or around 100 miles per hour. The thinking is, pitchers have developed beyond the point of hitters being able to hit them. Baseball has set a new strikeout record in each of the last eleven consecutive seasons. Hitters cannot hit anymore. If it were basketball, and generations of players were gradually evolving to where there were more and more seven-foot athletes, then eight-foot athletes, maybe the rim would need to be raised. In football, kicking has evolved so much that moving back where they kicked the extra point from made sense. It’s that thinking that is behind testing moving back the mound.

Humans have evolved, baseball needs to as well.

But there are always unintended consequences. And baseball might be creating more strikeouts rather than fewer. As Shafer points out, “It seems like a ‘solution’ that may only create more problems.” That’s because in trying to mitigate the fastball, they will be making the breaking ball even more lethal.

“The mound being moved back will be way worse for hitters,” Kyle Boddy of Driveline Baseball told Baseball America. “The difference is not large from a velocity/reaction-time standpoint, but the movement difference is huge.”

He added: “Play catch with a big leaguer throwing sliders at 50 feet and then play catch at 70 feet. 70 feet is infinitely more terrifying.”

Moving the mound back will allow players to catch up with the fastball a bit easier, which will mean a few more home runs. But chances are moving the mound back will lead to less offense, not more.

This is a great game. Tweak at your own peril.