With MLB taking over Minor League Baseball, and apparently hitting small towns worse than the death of American manufacturing, one small benefit is MLB’s newfound ability to experiment with new rules in the lower leagues it now controls. It gives the big leagues a lab, as it were, to test the effects of whatever Dr. Weird concoctions they can come up with before turning them loose on MLB players.
We saw this during spring training when MLB announced a host of experiments it would do throughout all levels of Minor League Baseball, but most of them are missing the mark. However, today’s announcement of changes to the independent Atlantic League’s rulebook are the kind of thing that can solve baseball’s action problem. Or at least one of those changes can.
The big one, the one to focus on, is that in the second half of the Atlantic League season, the mound will be moved back one foot, to 61 feet, 6 inches. This is the exact change that the MLB game needs.
The biggest obstacle for baseball to get the game moving again, to get things happening between the lines again, to prevent strikeouts from dwarfing the amount of hits (they already exceed hits and that gap is growing, as you feast your eyes on the fact that there have been nearly 20 percent more Ks than hits so far this year), is velocity. Pitchers simply throw harder than they ever have. Even from just 2015 now, the average fastball velocity has risen a full MPH. It’s risen four MPH since 2002. Which basically means it rises one MPH every five years or so, but we seem to have busted through a threshold.
While this will cause traditionalists to shit a chicken, and no set of people shits more live poultry more often than baseball traditionalists, this shouldn’t be viewed any differently than lowering the mound was in 1968 when pitchers had taken over the game. The response, “because this is how we’ve always done it,” should be stricken from any record in any field, or at least seriously countered by study and argument.
With the rubber currently where it is, a hitter has 0.44 seconds to react to the average fastball (93,.4 MPH this year). It’s 0.42 on a 98 MPH fastball, which we see a lot of. From a distance of 61 feet and 6 inches, a hitter’s reaction time is 0.449 seconds on an average fastball. Which doesn’t sound like much, but it turns a 93.4 MPH fastball now into a 91.8 MPH fastball. A 98 MPH fastball from 60.5 feet becomes a 96.6 MPH fastball. Still pretty weaponized, but a little more manageable.
For an idea of the effect, when the average fastball velocity was 91.8 MPH was 2014, the contact-rate for hitters that year was 79.3 percent, a full four percentage points higher than it was last year and some five higher than it is so far this year. That’s a lot more balls in play! That’s the problem! We have action, people! I want to see goggles on everyone!
Are there going to be side effects? Well of course. Everything has consequences. Might we see more arm injuries with pitchers thinking they have to throw through the extra distance? Possibly. Would pitchers that rely on location and movement and rarely break wind with their fastball now just be a chum for hitters? Maybe. Though location is location and the adjustment to aiming your pitches a little differently shouldn’t be huge for them. Would pitchers struggle to throw breaking pitches for strikes? Or have a harder time getting chases? Maybe, but those last two just lead to more contact. It’s certainly worth seeing.
It’s worth seeing because it gets to the root of the problem. The idea of banning shifts doesn’t. There are plenty of holes for hitters to dribble a grounder through now. There’s entire sides of the infield to do it! But hitters don’t, because they know with the devil magic stuff pitchers are throwing, stringing together hits is still nearly impossible. You have to score with one swing, which means power and lift. Banning the shift is only going to reward hitters for an approach that they’ve been forced into that got us into this purgatory of Ks and homers in the first place.
Another rule change the Atlantic League will try is essentially handcuffing the DH to the starting pitcher. This one’s worth a look, and is clearly meant to slowly guide National League causeheads toward a full DH by keeping their precious “strategy.” This rule would see a team lose its DH as soon as the starter is pulled. Which leads to all sorts of decisions for a manager. Do you hook a struggling starter knowing you’ll have to find pinch hitters the rest of the day? This already happens partially, but doesn’t involve losing a hitter over it. Or do you try and stretch a starter an extra inning to get your DH one more AB? It would probably also force teams to carry an extra bench player or two, instead of having a tour bus full of relievers to throw 55 pitches per week. That’s another good thing.
The Atlantic League is also the one using an automated strike zone. The Atlantic League... where the seedlings of hope are planted.