Big Risk, Big Reward Move for Atlantic League
American Association Daily provides insights, features, and recaps of the action from around the American Association of Professional Baseball League, as well as player and coaching profiles and transactions. In today’s edition, Robert Pannier looks at the new rules in the Atlantic League and how they will effect the league as well as other independent leagues, including the American Association.
Two Rules to Take Effect in Atlantic League
It has been two years in the making but it looks like this will finally be the year that the Atlantic League implements a pair of rules as part of their partnership with Major League Baseball (MLB). These rules should help to solidify the league’s relationship with MLB but does come with big risks.
The Rule Changes in a Nutshell
One of these rules was supposed to be implemented during the 2019 season, but was delayed until last year. With the Atlantic League not playing in 2020, the rule change will take effect this year. That will be that the mound will move back 1 foot from 60’6” to 61’6”.
This rule change will take effect at the midpoint of the Atlantic League season, which is a surprise. The league was already taking a big risk by implementing this rule in the first place. While some may not think that adding an additional 12-inches is a big deal, consider the break on some pitcher’s curveball or slider. Some of these pitches are breaking down in the dirt just after crossing home plate, but now they will be breaking on home plate, making them less enticing for hitters to swing at.
That is going to dramatically change the repertoire of a number of pitchers. They are going to have to make some adjustments in arm angle, grip of the ball, or even velocity, which could potentially lead to some injuries. This not only creates a risk for the pitchers themselves, but for the league as a whole.
Some may not consider this a worthwhile risk. Their goal is to return to an affiliate team, and pitching from 1 foot further back is not helping them to get noticed by Major League organizations. There are going to be those who are going to assume that this would be a bad career move, but is it really?
60’6” – Coming to a Major League Park Near You
The inclination would be to believe that this news is great for other independent leagues, especially the American Association. A pitcher who has a legitimate shot of returning to an affiliate club is going to think that they have a much better chance of doing so pitching in a league where conditions are similar to that of minor league baseball, and the American Association, being the top independent league, will reap the benefits as a result.
However, that may not be the case. There is a huge wildcard in this entire process that must be considered – the collective bargaining agreement between MLB and the players union. Already, many baseball insiders are believing that this is going to be the most contentious contract negotiation between the two groups since 1994. That is the season that the players union decided to strike midway through the campaign, canceling the remaining portion of the baseball season and much of spring training the following year.
Since these two groups are already going to be battling over a number of issues related to contracts and free agency, you can bet that MLB is going to be pushing this new rule, as well as others that are already being implemented across minor league baseball.
Understand that two seasons ago the Atlantic League already began implementing new rules that MLB wanted tested. Some of those rules are now going to be implemented at the minor league level. That includes a pitcher having to face a minimum of three batters, already in effect at the major-league level, restrictions on defensive positioning, such as infield shifts, being implemented at the AA level this year, and the increase in the size of bases to 18 inches, which will be used at the AAA level this year.
While some may shake their heads at the idea of these rule changes, they are working their way through the system and will be a part of Major League Baseball, likely within the next year or two. Again, with the collective bargaining agreement being negotiated this season, you can be sure that all of these rule changes are going to become part of the fabric of the game. That includes the pitcher’s mound moving back a foot.
What may seem like a big risk for a pitcher trying to get back into affiliate ball, may be the edge that assures that they do. It is true that pitchers in the Atlantic League are going to be at a disadvantage this season, but not next year. If this rule change is implemented somewhere in the minor league system next year, those who pitched in the Atlantic League this year are going to have an edge. They will already have tracking numbers that can be rated and reviewed, and more affiliate organizations are going to be taking a closer look at them.
A Two with One Stone Rule
The goal of Major League Baseball is to create more offense. If you look at these rule changes that are being implemented, offenses is clearly the beneficiary of them.
Making bases a little bigger decreases the distance a base stealer has to reach safely, which means that some teams are going to be running more. Restricting shifts is going to benefit pull hitters, who are going to reach base more often. Moving the pitcher back an additional foot is going to decrease the velocity of the ball by the time it reaches home plate, increase the number of walks, and help those who are great at bunting to reach base more often.
Think about how many bang-bang plays there are at first base on a bunt where the hitter is trying to drag the ball to get on base. Now they have an extra split second to beat the throw, which is going to increase the number of baserunners each game. This will help to create higher scoring games.
However, the one rule change that is perplexing is what is being referred to as the “double-hook.” This rule will take effect in the Atlantic League immediately, and will mean that when the starting pitcher is removed from a game, the designated hitter will be removed as well. This rule makes very little sense.
If the goal of the game is to increase offense, removing the DH does not seem to make sense. This is a player that is in the lineup solely to hit. Taking them out and forcing the pitcher to hit reduces offense. One can say that a team could simply pinch-hit each time but, with many teams carrying 12 or 13 pitchers, there are only three or four pinch hitters on the bench at most. At some point, you are going to wind up having pitchers hitting just because there is no one else left available.
In addition, you can guarantee that none of those pinch hitters are better than the designated hitter who started the game. If they were, they would have been the DH for that night.
Forcing a Pitcher to Remain in the Game Longer
On its surface, this rule seems absurd. However, there may be a method to the madness here. If you are a baseball traditionalist, one of the things that may be disturbing to you is the ever-increasing use of the bullpen. It is surprising to see a starting pitcher get into the sixth inning these days. Most starters are five inning guys, sometimes even four inning, and there are a growing number of teams that are going with the “bullpen day,” where they do not have a starting pitcher available and will decide to use five or six relievers for the contest. Those days may be over with this new DH rule.
What this rule will likely mean is that starters are going to be forced to go into the sixth, maybe even into the seventh. That could be both good and bad.
Consider this scenario for a moment. The Rays are facing the Royals. Rich Hill is going for Tampa Bay and his team is leading 6-3 in the top of the fifth inning. Hill begins to struggle, loading the bases with just one out and the Royals having their top hitter at the plate. The sensible decision would be to remove Hill and turn to a reliever to get out of the jam. However, Tampa Bay has their designated hitter batting third in the next inning.
Now is where all the strategy comes in the play. Does Kevin Cash leave Hill in hoping he can get out of the inning because he wants to keep his DH in the game to bat in the next half-inning, or does he turned to his bullpen to try to get out of the jam so that he can hold the three-run lead knowing he loses his DH?
This rule is going to have a profound impact in one of two directions. Either a large number of managers are going to stick with their starting pitcher, who is going to be roughed up a lot of the time and a lot of runs are going to be scored, or they are going to opt to give up the DH, turning to the bullpen, and run production is going to diminish.
There is one thing you can be sure about this rule, however. That is that there is going to become a new sabermetrics philosophy surrounding it. What I mean by this is that a bunch of stat nerds are going to start developing formulas for when you pull your starter to turn to a reliever and when you don’t.
It will be very much like going for the two-point conversion in the NFL. You have all these coaches who have formulas now of exactly what is the right situation to go for two. Baseball will develop a formula in this exact way.
For purists of the game, this is likely going to make their heads explode. There are already far too many number crunchers who are impacting baseball these days, and this is going to be another example of that. You will see that by the time the Atlantic League reaches the midway point of their season, that managers are going to have a formula to determine when they are going to pull their starting pitcher. It is going to be inevitable.
This will not make baseball more enjoyable. Sorry to say, but when computers and math formulas are the determining factor of how games should be called, the sport is not as much fun. This rule is going to hurt the game more than it is going to help it.
However, be aware, this is going to be part of MLB. Like it or not, these rules are being tested because Major League Baseball fully intends to implement them. That they are pushing these rules right before the collective bargaining agreement is a clear indicator that they are going to become a part of the fabric of the game.
By Robert Pannier